What goes on in faculty meetings?

This morning I went to the first faculty meeting of the Biology Department at my new university. I was late. Apparently the convention that everything starts at 7 minutes after the hour does not apply to faculty meetings. And I had just learned the convention and was trying to follow it.

This meeting went more or less the way they are supposed to go. There was an agenda and we stuck to it. Not very many additional topics were brought up, so we finished in not much more than an hour. We discussed the kinds of things that are probably being discussed all across the country in universities and colleges at about this time of year: the curriculum and the coffeepot, with the former getting far more time than the latter.

This meeting was for an overview of the course offerings. The details had been decided in the curriculum committee. The courses were nicely laid out on the board, with new ones starred. Upcoming issues were pointed out, but not dealt with. It gave me a good feel for how things are done, what is taught, what future needs might be. I also got a sense for who talks in faculty meetings and what their issues are. No doubt I’ll get much more exposure to this as time goes on.

But aren’t faculty meetings secret? Am I allowed to blog about them? Who knows? I’m not planning on revealing any secrets of substance, only process. Some departments include a graduate student representative to the faculty meeting, but this one apparently does not.

When I first became an assistant professor many years ago, I looked forward to helping with department governance and participating in important decisions. But I was dismayed to find that apparently all the decisions were made at another venue, one that did not include me. The faculty meetings then only served to inform the faculty. It didn’t take me long to figure out the process there. It was the daily coffee taken at the student center by about three powerful, old, male faculty members that was the key event. That eventually changed after about a decade. Fortunately the meeting here did not have that feel at all. Still, people do not like to be surprised, and discussion before faculty meetings can be important – hence the importance of the coffee pot, here open to all.

I suppose a faculty meeting is nothing like a business meeting, particularly in departments that have chairs, not heads. We don’t have a clear product, or a graph of annual sales, though we do have expenses. Many of us have tenure and cannot be fired. Therefore discussions are more egalitarian, with the youngest, newest professor with a good idea listened to more than the older professor with a lesser idea. But it also makes it hard to get things done.

Since we are more egalitarian, it is also harder to insist that people do the many extra tasks that keep a department running, the students happy, and well-educated. Those people willing to take on these things get our respect and a certain amount of extra power to influence outcomes.

There is a difference between a chair and a head of department, but these differences are probably minor compared to the difference between academics and industry.

It will take me awhile to find my place here, to decide how I can best contribute in teaching, service, and the extra things. It will be a fun learning process in this very collegial, smart, happy group. This functionality may also mean there won’t be much worth blogging about in faculty meetings. Maybe the female science professor has a more exciting take on faculty meetings.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Social interactions. Bookmark the permalink.

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