UC Berkeley News


The joys of Academic Senate service . . .
or how I came to love the Committee on Committees

| 26 January 2006

The Committee on Committees. Does it sound like a parody set on a large, bureaucratic college campus? It's not quite that - at least, it's not a parody. I happen to have served on that very entity - an Academic Senate group that determines the makeup of the campus Senate's 32 standing committees - and found it to be a gratifying and important experience.

Larry Hyman (Deborah Stalford photo)

Why? Because the faculty plays a crucial role, through the Senate, in the shared governance of our campus. Its committees advise the administration on virtually every aspect of life at Berkeley - from academic freedom and faculty welfare to budget, computing, admissions, the library, and student affairs - and our group recommends who should sit on all the others to do that important work.

My acquaintance with the Committee on Committees (a.k.a. COMS) began in December 2004, when I received a phone call from Lorraine Midanik, professor of social welfare. She was chair of COMS, she said, and there was an opening on it that she urgently needed to fill. Would I be willing to step in, on a temporary basis, for spring semester? She needed me to start in January.

My first thought was, "Oh, no - they've finally caught up with me!" I had long escaped Academic Senate committee service, by virtue of chairing the linguistics department for 11 years. Now a mere professor again, I was apparently fair game.

Being a linguist by profession, I figured out that COMS had something to do with persuading adequate numbers of good people to serve on the Senate's standing committees. A challenging task - though Lorraine said my knowledge of the campus and the faculty would make me a good addition, and members of the committee reportedly agreed.

Attn: Senate faculty
For your chance to serve on COMS, submit a nominating petition by Wednesday, Feb. 8. To review the complete list of Academic Senate committees and indicate your interests and willingness to serve, see the Opportunity to Serve form online.

Not to be swept away by flattery, however, I did a fast mental scan through the corridors of Dwinelle Hall (where I live), of Barrows Hall (where I once had a research office), of Campbell Hall (where meetings of the Social Sciences department chairs take place), of places of past retreats and social events on campus - in search of colleagues well-suited to serving a higher cause, and possibly willing to do so. And I came to the quick conclusion that, yes, I had met a lot of faculty during my 17 years at Berkeley, and that persuading some of them to serve seemed doable. So I said yes.

I have to admit that it felt good accepting this appointment. Not that I had so much extra time, but rather because the assignment seemed important - and might even prove interesting.

Lorraine scheduled a meeting "to briefly orient you to the committee." Even before we met, I was contacted by a Senate analyst assigned to support COMS members; it was her job, she said, to help organize and keep track of everything (which, as it turned out, she did with remarkable skill). In her e-mail she told me that I had been "entrusted to take responsibility for very important assignments and asked to serve because of your campus experience and knowledge." She also included materials for my review "as a springboard for questions when you meet with Chair Midanik. I attach," she went on, "the spring schedule, the COMS ground rules and guidelines, the annual cycle of COMS, and your assignments." (By assignments she meant that each COMS member is given primary responsibility for the staffing of specific committees.) "Each of your assignments will be in a binder with worksheets," she informed me.

Guidelines! Ground rules! Annual cycles!? No one had ever used the words "entrusted" or "responsibility" to define my duties as chair of linguistics! What had I gotten myself into?

Spring is hustle time

It was not until COMS's first January meeting that I began to see exactly what I had gotten myself into, and why Lorraine had deemed my assistance urgent. Spring semester is hustle time for COMS, the season when it meets weekly to review nominations and staff all the Senate committees for the following year. (In fall, by comparison, we met twice a month, mostly to patch up holes and handle administrative business.)

I learned that many factors go into staffing a Senate committee - first and foremost a candidate's willingness to serve. But there are many other considerations as well: Does the committee have gender balance? Do its members represent a broad spectrum of disciplines? Does a volunteer have an upcoming sabbatical? A conflict with the committee's meeting time?

Luckily, we had much help with the footwork: Our staff support person kept track of which faculty members had expressed interest in which committees, and provided us with that information, along with recommendations from deans and chairs. (As a former departmental chair who had often been called upon to write recommendations, it was nice to see that these were taken seriously during the appointment process.)

Sometimes more than one COMS member had the same person's name on their lists of nominees, so we had to use a database to coordinate our efforts. Hearing of this database at our first meeting, I envisioned a major competition. I'd better figure out, right away, the lineup for my five committees, I thought. The first one to the finish is the winner, right?

Nothing could have been further from the truth. At each meeting we reported, in turn, on the progress we had each made over the past week. We helped each other. We discussed each committee's makeup and gathered important information. Although I had been chosen for my knowledge and experience, I quickly discovered that I knew only a fraction of the faculty who work at Berkeley. Serving on COMS, however, I had the pleasure of meeting new colleagues and getting to know others much better.

We worked hard on COMS and took our assignments seriously, but we also had a lot of fun together. Occasionally we laughed about unusual reactions, as when a faculty member, when approached about serving on a Senate committee, told the COMS member: "You have to understand, my research is very important; I'm a leader in my field. Serving on campus committees should be for those who are not doing important research." Our COMS colleague appropriately responded: "Would you like to see my CV?" Luckily, the responses to our phone calls and e-mails were typically of a different sort: thoughtful and positive. It always felt great when a colleague said, "Sure!" or "I'd love to serve."

I shall very much miss my Wednesday brown-bag lunch and stimulating work with wonderful colleagues on COMS, making decisions that make a difference to the campus. When the obvious question is asked - "Would you serve on an Academic Senate committee again?" - my answer is: "I will." The viability of the Senate, I believe, depends on everyone, at some point in their career, devoting a portion of their time to our campus ideal of shared governance. Look at the composition of the Academic Senate committees and you'll see a distinguished and dedicated group of faculty who care about the present and future well-being of UC Berkeley and who make it the special institution that it is.