Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Secret Life of Committees

There really should be a required graduate course like Introduction to Committees. I can remember actually being disappointed (!) the first time the ballots went around and I was not elected to any faculty senate committees. My friend Dave, who came the same year I did, was elected the following cycle to serve on the Earthquake Prevention Committee, and I nursed the envy for months. I'd see him and five other faculty members stepping into private rooms, yellow pads in hand, and mutter cryptically when they thought I couldn't hear. Something about fault lines being created by the athletics program. This state of affairs continued until the following year when I was finally chosen by the collective to serve on the Exotic Plumbing Committee. Then I got my own introduction into the arcane art of committee work.

I see resumes from time to time where the applicant actually lists the academic committees they've been on. I suppose this is something like military officers and their service ribbons. I remember from my National Guard days that the Infantry Combat Badge (picture below) is one of the most prestigious ones. It means you've served under fire.
There should be something like this for academic committees, I think. I don't really mean to draw the comparison between what our servicemen endure in the line of duty and what academic committees do, but what's wrong with a visual representation of the mental scars endured by those who've seen the worst that can be offered up by the political bureaucracy? Here are a few suggestions. These ribbons would adorn faculty gowns on formal occasions.
My own interest began to wane about 2002 after a third term on the Y2K Preparation Committee, which had become a zombie: a wakeful dead committee with no purpose left but to terrorize the living. About that time I read about a species of snail that had accidentally been introduced in New Zealand, to the detriment of the fauna there. The new creatures would wander around until they found the trail of a native snail, and then track it relentlessly until they found and ate it. I decided we needed something like that: a committee to destroy committees. It would have to be innocuously named of course, and the members carefully chosen. Thus was the Transcendental Transition Committee born. It was not a great success, itself spawning at least 12 sub-committees before it thankfully self-destructed in a parlimentary accident. That was the last straw.

I began to avoid committees altogether. I developed a sophisticated system of "committee tag" whereby I had a list of names and a script taped to the wall next to the phone. If a colleague called to invite me to be on a committee, I'd simply read my script and pull a suitable name from the list: "I'm sorry Dr. Chairlice, but my rampant myopia would prevent me from reading the files at good speed. Might I recommend Professor Goodchoice as a superior candidate? She always shows up on time, and will do most of the work." I decided that the optimum committee size was one.

So it was with some interest yesterday when I opened the latest New Scientist to find an article entitled "The Curse of the Committee." It sounds like a sequel to The Mummy franchise, with perhaps Brandon Frazier as the independent chair who defies the president, but it's actually a fascinating history of the theory of committees. The notion--called Parkinson's Law after C. Northcode Parkinson--that work expands to fill alloted time, comes from this body of work. According the research cited, there seems to be a lifecycle of committees or other political bureacracies, whereby they grow and expand in a bubble, until it collapses. This is rather like Ibn Kaldun's notion that
when a society becomes a great civilization (and, presumably, the dominant culture in its region), its high point is followed by a period of decay. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers the diminished civilization is, by comparison, a group of barbarians. Once the barbarians solidify their control over the conquered society, however, they become attracted to its more refined aspects, such as literacy and arts, and either assimilate into or appropriate such cultural practices. Then, eventually, the former barbarians will be conquered by a new set of barbarians, who will repeat the process. [source: wikipedia]
In the case of committees, the transformation is simply one of size and effectiveness. They expand, become less effective, and then collapse into a smaller size again. To investigate this, researchers Peter Klimek and colleagues at the Medical University of Vienna used the following method.
[R]esearchers constructed a simple network model of a committee. They grouped the nodes of the network - the committee members- in tightly knit clusters with a few further links between clusters tying the overall network together, reflecting the clumping tendencies of like-minded people known to exist in human interactions. To start off, each person in the network had one of two opposing opinions, represented as a 0 or a 1. At each time step in the model, each member would adopt the opinion held by the majority of their immediate neighbours. (page 39 from the print edition)
Their conclusions? No committee should number more than twenty, a number reached by Parkinson's original heuristic approach. More surprisingly, odd combinatorical things happen when the committee size is eight, making it more likely to have deadlocks according to the research. Quoting again from the article:
[O]nce again, Parkinson had anticipated it, noting in 1955 that no nation had a cabinet of eight members. Intriguingly, the same is true today, and other committees charged with making momentous decisions tend to fall either side of the bedevilled number: the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, for example, has nine; the US National Security Council has six.
Just to be safe, you might want to consider committee sizes less than two.

[Update: this New York Times article from 1/15/2009 claims that as college costs have risen, disproportionately more money has gone to pay for administration. This is perhaps the same bureaucratic spread that is described above, in a wider context. A contraction is probably not far behind.]

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