How to Run a Meeting

We all have experienced interminable meetings: the hour-long meeting to accomplish 10 minutes' worth of work, or the meeting that seems to have no purpose. Whether on the department level or the larger institutional level, inefficiently run meetings consume inordinate amounts of our time and energy.

That is worrisome, given how much of our academic lives we spend in committee work. The key difference between an efficiently run meeting and one that wastes time is whether we conceive of the committee as a structure to accomplish something concrete or as an occasion to fill time.

I know a department chair, for example, who was notorious for running meetings simply to fill time. He never provided a printed agenda, either prior to the meeting or even when we arrived at the meeting itself. We typically would all assemble at the appointed hour, but rather than begin, he would spend ten or more minutes chatting with everyone about mundane subjects.

Upon finally calling the meeting to order, he would amble through the subject matter with no apparent objective. The meeting would eventually devolve into a free-form discussion, devoid of structure or direction. By the time we actually got to the real work that needed to be done, most of an hour had elapsed, and we would then rush hastily through the actual work that we should have spent the entire hour focusing on. Because our decisions were made in haste, their quality was always questionable.

That same pattern would be repeated with every meeting that this chair moderated. It would be easy to blame the inefficiency purely on an incompetent chair, or one who was just bad at conducting a meeting. But what puzzled me is that several (but not all) of our colleagues tolerated -- or even embraced -- this practice. They seemed to enjoy the collegiality and the relaxed social nature of the meetings. It was as if they had no other work to do, or no other opportunities to socialize with their colleagues -- neither of which was true.

A senior professor at a Midwestern university complained to me about how the graduate-program director in her department conducts his meetings. He apparently spends considerable time flirting with female committee members who happen to be junior faculty members or graduate students. "The constant pseudo-sexual banter is offensive enough," she said to me, "but so is the fact that he wastes my time with his nonsense, time I could be devoting to my research." She eventually asked to be removed from the committee.

Some committee chairs will insist on meeting even when there is no business to conduct. That often happens when a committee has a standing meeting time. I have even known chairs who began meetings by announcing, "We really don't have anything to do today, but let's touch base with one another." Obviously, such a practice shows a real lack of respect for people's time.

Other people convene a meeting and then fail to manage it. Rather than begin with clear goals, those committee chairs permit a kind of collective stream of consciousness to take over.

Still other chairs fail to control the behavior of committee members. In one department with which I am familiar, one professor would consistently seize control of departmental meetings and attempt to assert his own agenda. The meeting would rapidly spin out of control, but the department chair would do little to steer the group back to the task at hand. In a few instances, the sessions degenerated into shouting matches.

And, of course, sometimes committee chairs will run meetings poorly on purpose. For example, occasionally a chair will deliberately take a leisurely or even tedious pace through a meeting, hoping to wear down the committee members so that when they finally do arrive at an issue of substance, they will hastily approve the proposal just to end the meeting. That is a time-honored strategy for steering a controversial measure through the approval process, but it, too, does a disservice to busy colleagues, not to mention being dishonest.

Clearly, meetings in a professional setting are not opportunities to socialize or to fill time aimlessly; they are instruments for conducting business. Academics are busy people, and it is not only a disservice but even a form of disrespect to squander our time. That's why conducting committee work in as efficient a way as possible is a mark of collegiality and respect. Here are some best practices for running meetings efficiently:

  • Cancel a meeting if you have a light agenda. Better to have a fuller agenda at the next regularly scheduled session than to ask colleagues to meet with little to do. Remember: It takes time to prepare for and arrive at a meeting, and that, too, is valuable time.

  • Hand out an agenda in advance of the meeting. A published agenda helps everyone stay on track.
  • Always limit the length of a meeting and monitor the time so that it doesn't go on too long. For example, don't schedule an hour meeting if the tasks at hand can reasonably be accomplished in a half-hour.
  • When appropriate, pass out supporting documents in advance so that people can arrive prepared. The better prepared that committee members are, the more likely they are to work efficiently.
  • Begin every meeting on time, not ten minutes late. That practice is a sign of respect for committee members' time, and it cuts down on the likelihood of rushing through part of the agenda later. (And once members know that you will always begin punctually, they will be more likely to show up on time.)
  • Immediately after calling a meeting to order, make clear the purpose and objectives of the session: "We need to make three key decisions this morning." The best committee chair is goal oriented and guides the group from task to task.
  • Establish guidelines for members' participation and behavior. For example: "Members will be expected to limit their contributions to a discussion to no longer than two minutes at a time; no one member will be allowed to filibuster or monopolize." Or, "Members will be expected to adhere to the topic at hand and not lead the discussion off to other subjects."
  • Use email to conduct minor committee work so as to save face-to-face time for more important tasks.
  • Conduct your meeting not only efficiently but fairly. Steamrolling through the decision-making process without providing adequate time for discussion and deliberation does not equate to efficiency.
  • Another form of inefficiency is when a department or college creates two or three committees when a single panel could easily handle the workload. Some departments have established an astounding number of committees. It is always in a department's best interest, whenever possible, to consolidate the workload into fewer committees so as not to overburden its faculty and staff members.

    Many colleges, for example, have established a committee on tenure and promotion, another on budget recommendations, a third on personnel matters, such as hiring priorities, and a fourth on allocation of laboratory and classroom space. Increasingly, colleges are consolidating the work of all four into one panel, often called an "executive committee," and providing some form of compensation for committee members (usually release time from teaching) because they are taking on a high workload.

    The advantage of the supercommittee system is easy to see. The workload of four committees might have been spread among 20 or 25 faculty members, some doing double duty on more than one committee. But with a single panel, six or seven faculty members can carry the load, freeing their colleagues' time for research and teaching.

    Whether it is because of inefficiently run committee meetings or because a department or college has been injudicious in how it has established its committee structure, we all risk wasting too much time in committee work. Like it or not, such service constitutes a substantial part of every academic's workload. Doing it as effectively and efficiently as possible is a true act of collegiality.