Transparency, Tyranny, and the Democratic Department

Many of my colleagues want fewer meetings and less committee work but also want more transparency and more, well, democracy. How to juggle this? How to even talk about this?—Professor Always

Dear Professor Always:

Transparency isn’t the same as democracy or vice versa. After all, plenty of authoritarian chairs are perfectly transparent about their tyrannical ways. Democratic processes, especially those that function within a system of elected representatives, can be pretty opaque. And more meetings don’t necessarily lead to more democracy, as much as excessive caffeine consumption and shorter fuses.

To a certain extent you’ve already defined the problem. Your colleagues want something but they don’t actually know what that thing is that they want. Is there consensus on what “transparency” or “democracy” means in the context of your department? Until you define the operative terms you can’t implement them.

This may sound the opposite of progressive and democratic, but I’d recommend that the first thing you do is consult your department’s bylaws. To paraphrase Clifford Geertz, bylaws are the story a department tells about itself. It’s possible that your bylaws were drafted decades ago, and you want to rework them. This is a great place for your conversation about decision-making processes to start. Within the boundaries of what your institution permits (you might have a union contract or university bylaws within which you have to work), what do you want your department to look like?

You could spend a chunk of a department meeting on this. Take real-world examples, like curriculum revision or hiring new faculty, and in groups talk about what the ideal process would look like. Then come back together as a department and see how much you agree or differ on what you all want. Where are the areas of disagreement? I’d encourage you to keep in mind a definition of compromise I particularly like: a good compromise is one in which no one gets exactly what they wanted, no one feels screwed over, and everyone walks away respecting the process.

If your colleagues are serious about building more democratic and transparent systems, you need to set aside some time to discuss what that means and what you actually want. I’m a great proponent of focused departmental retreats that are organized around a central problem that you need to solve together. If you want to go this route, you and a small committee (sorry!) of colleagues should take suggestions from the rest of the department and put together a structured agenda for a morning, afternoon, or whole day (see if you can get some money from the Dean’s office to pay for food, plenty of coffee, and a little bit of wine and cheese at the end). Have a couple of colleagues present on your department’s bylaws so everyone knows the context from which you’re working. Then organize sessions around specific issues on which you need to come to some kind of consensus: what do we mean when we say “transparency”? How should democracy look in our department? How can we involve as many different voices within the constraints of institutional decision-making structures?

I think these conversations will get you a long way towards ending up with the department you want. Once you know what it is you think you’re missing, it’s a lot easier to get it.

The Chair

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