I spent a lot of time at meetings this week being frustrated by poor chairing.
Now, the stuff we were doing was important, and the people are all good folks, so it isn't that. It's that the chairs weren't efficient or smooth. And that, naturally, got me to thinking about what it takes to do a good job chairing an academic meeting.
The bad thing is, of course, that none of us gets a whole lot of education in how to run a meeting (we get little enough in how to run a class, sometimes), and academic meetings aren't like the meetings I went to as a lowly worker bee in a corporation, where I was expected to listen and act on what I was told. Usually, in academic meetings, we're supposed to meet as more or less equals and make decisions about stuff that's more or less important.
At both of the meetings I was at this weekend, the chair had provided an agenda. And at both of them, the chair went way off the agenda or into different orders. Now it's fine for the chair to say that someone has recently requested that we consider X problem that's come up, and is urgent, and to introduce that. There should be some metacommentary, not a lot, just enough to say, hey, we're going to suspend the agenda for a bit to deal with this urgent problem. Here goes...
Chairs in at least some cases have a lot of power in setting the agenda. They need to be aware of that. And that may mean they need to not talk a lot in the meeting itself. And certainly, they need to not complain about how hard it is to chair. (A single comment about being overwhelmed is fine, and perfectly understandable, but don't spend 5 minutes of the committee hour complaining.)
Sometimes, as in the case of an urgent problem that needs to be addressed, the chair will need to explain some context. But that either has to be fairly short (as in not super complex), or there's got to be time for the committee members to get up to speed on the question before making a decision. If the chair's the only person who has time to think about the issue well ahead, then the chair's likely to have more influence on the question than is quite right. And the sneaky stuff where the chair's prepared several people, and not informed others at all, that's probably more sneaky than should happen at a healthy institution. (I think it happens a lot, though. I just don't think it should.)
Speaking of the agenda. It's there for a reason. As chair, you get to set it, so set it thoughtfully, and only move from it with really good reason. Don't vary because you forgot about X or Y.
If there are decisions to be made (and usually there are), try to keep everyone focused on gathering the information to make a good decision, sharing and discussing that so that the committee really understands the issue, and then making the decision. Some decisions really do take some time. Some don't take as much. But if the committee is going to need some information, the chair needs to provide the information to start (or ask someone else to do so). Stopping half way to run to your office to make copies because you didn't think about it reveals poor planning. (Yes, it happens, but it shouldn't be habit.)
I really like when meetings start promptly and end on time. I try to do the same with classes. Yes, I understand that sometimes people will be late, and I can deal with that, especially when they're coming from class or across campus in the snow. But I've found that when the chair of a committee sets a standard of starting on time, most people manage to get there on time. (Now someone who knows me in meatspace is probably going to laugh at me for this. Oh well.)
Now it's your turn. What would you like from a committee chair? What makes a chair effective? What drives you nuts from a chair?