All those in favour

It’s beginning to annoy me that every time I enter a committee room, I see the same faces, just as they see me.

Two things about this bother me.  First, as as proportion of the total workforce, there’s a really small number of academics who are willing to do this sort of backstage work. This is work that’s vital for a university to tick along, and in principle academics like the idea of sharing the governance, just to make sure our interests are represented.  But it’s quite a step from principle to practice, it seems.

And this is where the second thing comes in.  These are not the same faces on the university website, lauding our stellar reputation for this and that. We don’t applaud their breakthroughs, their excellence, their impact, their innovation, or even their tireless commitment to quality. Given our love of heroics generally, we seem pretty indifferent to the year round work they do to ensure we stay in step with our legislation, our budget, the goals we set for ourselves, and the whole blither of our strategic vision.

Here’s how this uneven bargain works out: for someone to enjoy the bling of a teaching award, presented at an occasion that has a string quartet, potted plants, waiters serving canapes, and the Vice Chancellor’s firm handshake, there has to be a teaching award committee. These people have to be sufficiently experienced, competent, credible and open-minded to judge teaching quality across the whole fruitbasket of the disciplines. But above all, each of them has to have made the decision that it’s meaningful and important in the context of their own careers that they contribute this time away from their research to develop and maintain good process for these awards. They’ll spend the year reflecting on feedback, making changes, updating policy, so that next year’s champions can make their sprint for the line in a timely fashion.  At which point it will be down to these unsung domestiques again, to find time to read, rank, and re-read the whole pile of applications.

Likewise human research ethics committees, without which a ton of research just wouldn’t happen.  Not to mention hiring committees, without which none of us would have jobs in the first place, or at least, we’d go back to hiring practices that look more like buying a round of drinks for your mates in the pub.

And while we’re at it, what about the committees that read and rank internal research grants that help new projects start up?  Or the student grievance committee?  Or the committee that confirms the award of higher degrees, without which there would be no PhDs crossing the stage on graduation day?  Or the committee whose job it is to keep track of the government’s whirling cloud of new ideas for sector-wide quality management? Or the committee that sits deep in the engine room ensuring that new courses conform to course rules in exactly the right way?  Or the committee who worries about trailing wires in the classroom? Or the committee who keeps the policy paintwork perpetually refreshed, which is up there with maintaining the paintwork on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for repetitive, unfinishable commitment to detail?

All of this work has the good effect of supporting individual academics either to progress in their careers or at least to avoid coming to grief.  So you might not know who your committee colleagues are, but here’s what I’ve observed about the ones where I work.  (Hint: they’re the ones trudging across the campus shouldering agenda papers the thickness of phone books.)

They’re practical, well-organised, and sympathetic. They’re very effective at raising critical issues, and keeping these on the agenda until some measurable action occurs. They’re talented researchers, and they produce careful, evidence-based arguments. They understand how the matter under consideration is framed by the other policy stuff because they looked it up before the meeting, so they don’t waste your time. They know the difference between targets, objectives, strategies, and goals.  They’re not strangers to Foucault’s critique of governmentality, but they can still get on with governance. They can amend a resolution and pass it in its amended form. They write beautifully. They’re funny, in a sort of dry, trench-humorous way.  They’re naturally curious, and they like working across the disciplines.  They know people outside the Faculty where they work. And they don’t roll their eyes at the mention of administration.

But above all, and this is the revolutionary bit in the current higher education context, they don’t do any of this because they think it looks good for them. Almost all of them have at some point been told that this is not how the career game is played, and they’ve kept doing it anyway.

So, two practical suggestions for adjusting the simple unfairness of the bargain.  First, we need to watch our language. Liz Bare at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, at the University of Melbourne suggests that when we describe all tasks necessary to the survival of universities except research in the language of drudgery (in other words, when we talk about teaching “load” and administrative “burden”), we make it hard to develop an appreciation of why these opportunities might attract stellar thinkers.  Committee service needs some really simple PR, and university marketing departments—who love something new to spruik—need to get on the case.

Second, universities need to take committee work very seriously as a form of real, measurable and meaningful productivity at the enterprise level, and they need to take practical action  to reward and retain those who specialise in it.

Startling change of this nature needs broad consensus, for which there needs to be an enterprise-level incentive.  So how about this one?  Liz Bare thinks that sorting this out might have the additional benefit of addressing one of our other institutional problems, which is the weird one that the general public seem to think that universities are staffed by sad dreamers unreasonably shielded from the rigours of professional life.  Fixing this couldn’t be more urgent. Here’s her closing resolution:

Perhaps the time has come for a better articulation of what it means to be a professional academic, recognising that nowadays academic staff are required to do more than teach, research and undertake public service. … This may allow academic staff and the broader community to see their jobs as a totality, rather than a series of burdens that must be endured.

All those in favour?  Aye.

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