serveAlmost every one of us in academe has served on some type of committee or committee-like group. Whenever a department chair asks a couple of colleagues to sit down, consider an issue or problem, and devise some solutions, a committee is at work. I spent nearly 40 years on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley's sociology department. During that time, I sometimes felt as though I had served on every possible type of committee in and around academe. I served on committees of my department; of the campus academic senate, campus administration, multicampus academic senate, and multicampus university administration; as well as of other universities, professional associations, foundations, boards of trustees, and the U.S. government.

My first committee assignment filled me with dread. I served on the Committee on Economic Growth of the Social Science Research Council. Everyone on the committee was much my senior. At my first meeting, the committee simply continued its work without taking particular note of my presence beyond introducing me. The other members assumed that I would hit the ground running, whereas in reality I was nervously feeling my way. Furthermore, I received no feedback other than the one-sentence remark of the colleague who sponsored my membership that the committee chair thought I was "all right."

I don't think my experience was all that unusual. Faculty members learn how to serve on committees almost entirely by doing, and are seldom given feedback on their performance. Much of this learning is unconscious and is rarely articulated. Even experienced committee members believe that they are simply "being themselves" on a committee and do not think very much in terms of strategies and tactics.
That being said, here are some guidelines, culled from my years of experience and reflection, that seem to foster effectiveness and influence in committee work.

  1. Understand Your Assignment Before You Commit
    You can usually get this information from either the person who invited you to join the committee or others who have served on it or similar committees. This vital information should help you decide whether to accept the committee appointment. I have made at least three mistakes along these lines in my committee life. The first two stemmed from my failure to discover how boring the work was on the Committee on Educational Policy and the Committee on Committees of Berkeley's Academic Senate. I accepted the chair of the first while I was abroad, and I accepted the invitation to put my name on the ballot for the second (it was an elected committee) after some friends convinced me how politically important it was for me to be on that committee. My third mistake was accepting an appointment to the nominations committee of the International Sociological Association at its IX World Congress, believing that I could thereby impact the association's officers nominations. As it turned out, almost every decision on that score had already been made. There was nothing to do but accept the inevitable or resign from the committee. The latter did not seem very productive because it would have done little good for me or anybody else.
  2. Recognize When You Are Being Co-opted
    At times you may be asked to join a politically meaningful committee because you represent a certain constituency or point of view. If so, you must decide whether to 1) not join to avoid compromising your point of view; 2) join with an eye to representing your point of view, but accepting the need to compromise; or 3) join in order to fight for your position, but risk marginalization on the committee by doing so. None of these three alternatives is necessarily the "right" one, but you should understand what you are getting yourself in for.
  3. Know How to Represent Your Constituencies
    Once you join a committee, you must determine how much you want to represent your constituency or interests and how much you want to become a part of a cooperative "committee culture." This does not always involve a conscious, deliberate decision, but calls for some balancing. On any committee, you always represent some constituency, whether you wish to or not. For example, at an interdisciplinary social science conference, I cannot deny that I am a sociologist. In the context of the International Sociological Association, I cannot disclaim that I am an American sociologist. In a university-wide committee meeting, I cannot deny that I am from the Berkeley campus nor that I am a senior rather than a junior faculty member. And when I serve on a committee dealing with campus matters, I cannot deny that I have a liberal rather than a radical view of university politics.

    The principal question, then, is not whether you represent constituencies but how you represent them. I have generally found that to represent your own constituency militantly or even explicitly is ineffective, for two reasons. First and foremost, you lose credibility because your colleagues are likely to interpret your statements as expressions of personal interest.

    For example, I once served on the Committee on Basic Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, which had representatives from about eight disciplines. At one stage, we were planning a report on leading-edge research in the relevant disciplines. One committee member, a physiological psychologist, insisted early, hotly, and repeatedly that research in his subdiscipline was so vital and important that we should dedicate at least one-third of the report to it. The rest of us branded him a self-interested hog, and he lost a good deal of effectiveness and influence. Similarly, during university systemwide committee meetings, I have observed that when my Berkeley colleagues announce that Berkeley cannot tolerate a certain policy or practice, it mainly excites and consolidates anti-Berkeley sentiments.

    Second, insistent representation of your own constituency and its views tends to decrease a group's productivity because it disrupts the development of the committee culture–a group's sense of collective identity and specialness to which members show some loyalty.
    The best strategy, then, is to represent your constituency's interests in nonthreatening and general terms that are couched in language as void of self-interest as possible. I say this with no cynical intent and with no intent to encourage dishonesty or dissimulation, but in the spirit of maximizing your effectiveness and influence while implicitly acknowledging committee dynamics.
  4. Time Your Interventions
    I have witnessed countless occasions when a committee member introduces a proposal very early in the proceedings only to see it later derailed or defeated. To illustrate, when the Committee on Basic Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences was exploring, rather leisurely, up-and-coming areas of social-scientific research, one member—a very eminent and respected social scientist—leaped in and energetically argued that the subject of "social scientists as expert witnesses" was such an area. Subsequent discussion evoked one critical remark after another that picked away at this suggestion, but the proposer never relented. When the committee finally rejected the idea, the proposer withdrew from participation in something of a huff. I think he could have improved his chances for success if he had only bided his time and introduced his suggestion more quietly at a later time. Doing so would have allowed him to couch his proposal in terms that avoided the types of criticisms leveled at other, earlier proposals.

    Along the same lines, I have found that it is much more self-defeating to talk too much than to talk too little in committees. Of course, to say nothing leaves you completely without influence, unless you bend your efforts to influencing other committee members outside meeting times. But giving long-winded speeches or lectures is a sure way to create disgruntlement and set yourself up as a scapegoat. It generates murmurs during coffee breaks about people who like to hear themselves talk and not-so-subtle suggestions to the chair to "do something about so-and-so." This is a curious point to make because most academics like to talk. Perhaps for that very reason they do not like to hear others talk at length, no matter how intelligent the others might be.
  5. Keep Your Comments in Context
    A well-timed comment that synthesizes earlier remarks and suggestions is likely to impact the proceedings most. For one thing, this type of comment incorporates others' points either directly or indirectly, offering a way to gain support. For another, fellow committee members won't view the comment as coming "out of  left field" and hence won't regard it as either irresponsible or out of keeping with the committee's progress. The only risk involved in issuing synthetic proposals is that if you offer several of them, you might infringe on the chair's authority; an implicit code of committee conduct states that the chair should seek articulation and consensus.
  6. Follow Through on Your Contributions
    Once you have made a point or stated a position that seems to gain favor or consensus, make sure it's not forgotten. The best way to do this is to unobtrusively volunteer to draft a written summary that might prove "helpful" in further discussions.

    You can also use this "drafter" tactic to introduce new ideas. During one committee meeting, after a long discussion on the nature of the different social science disciplines, I mentioned that I had been doing some independent thinking about the matter and would be willing to write down my thoughts for the committee's consideration. My draft subsequently became the basis for a chapter in the final report.

    As the drafter, you assume one of the committee's most important and powerful positions. By volunteering for this role you again run the risk of infringing on the chair's authority. But if you volunteer modestly, after consulting the chair, and in a spirit of helpfulness, the risk is small.
  7.  Attack Other Committee Members
    There are differences of opinion on this point, but usually it is wise to avoid direct expressions of hostility during committee work. Occasionally the act of "blowing up" can break a logjam or move the committee to act. In general, however, hostility does more to create problems than to promote committee effectiveness. For one thing, hostility invites revenge—if not immediately, then somewhere down the line. It also encourages other committee members to rally around the person who has been attacked. But most of all, an angry attack usually affronts the expectations of civility that are part of committee culture.
  8.  Rely on Humor
    I cannot emphasize enough the advantages of the timely use of humor. By interjecting humor, one shows a certain distance from the proceedings that implies one has neither a defensive nor aggrandizing intent. Humor also offers a way of attacking an idea without being openly discrediting.

    I recall one systemwide academic senate committee meeting in which we were discussing, somewhat wearily, the subject of  "mandatory matriculation," an arcane aspect of transferring from community colleges to the University of California. Almost nobody understood the subject, and nobody seemed to know what we were supposed to do about it. At a given moment I observed that "mandatory matriculation" sounded like an obscure form of sexual dysfunction. The remark evoked loud laughter and effectively killed the discussion—which, I might add, was well on its way to dying a natural death anyway.

    Humor offers a way of simultaneously expressing hostility, releasing tension, and, oddly, gaining the members' esteem. I don't understand the dynamics of this, but I have often found myself, and seen others, drawn to the committee wag who knows how and when to joke in good taste, how to attack without seeming to attack, and how to expose without revealing an intention to expose.
  9. Avoid Extremes
    Avoid all types of extremes in committee work. The effective committee member must be vocal but not verbose, humorous but not biting, serious but not funereal, conscientious but not compulsive, knowledgeable but not arrogant, prepared to defend what he or she has said but not defensive, cooperative but not submissive, and civically responsible but not overly conformist. If a committee member must attack another's views, he or she should do so in a measured, respectful way.
    Moderation and tact are two of the most valuable assets in the committee setting for a couple of reasons. First, the committee code of civility tends to highly value these characteristics. Second, if a committee member moves toward any extreme, he or she invites being typecast and even scapegoated. (Though actually, even the tactful, moderate committee member might get branded Mr. or Ms. Moderate.) Once typecast or scapegoated, a committee member risks losing flexibility and influence because his or her conduct is discounted as predictable.
  10. Be Your Own Person
    A final bit of qualifying advice: Do not follow these rules to the point of becoming a phony. Your personal style is your own and difficult to alter. Moreover, if you consciously attempt to alter it too much, you are likely to be seen for what you are: inauthentic. And inauthenticity is certainly not an asset in the committee setting.

Neil J. Smelser is director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science in Stanford, California. This article is excerpted from his book Effective Committee Service (Survival Skills for Scholars, Volume 7), pp. 60–69, copyright ©1993 by Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc.

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