You may be tempted to skim over this blog as it looks BORING because it is about committees. This is in many ways a fair and expected reaction, but I think there is more to it than that!
Dislike of committees is a popular opinion atm: Elon Musk (the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX*) recently advised his employees: “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value.” I will not claim never to have complained about committees, and I probably spend too much time in them.
So, what can actually be done through committees, or are they obstacles to change?
Boring as they may often be, committees are too important to ignore. Cambridge sees itself (note I am not saying it actually is) as a hugely democratic institution, where theoretically no decision can be made without being discussed by EVERYone involved. There are some very niche committees at this Uni (see: the Ionising and Non-Ionising Radiation Sub-committee (safety gap)), and not all of them feel that important. Yet, one of the first things I was asked when coming into office was to try not to miss committees – representing the student voice on these committees is definitely the core of the role of a CUSU sabbatical officer.
My most important committee is probably the University Council – the highest decision-making body of the University, and it can serve as an example of the opportunities committees present. A lot of the time, the things we discuss at Uni Council do seem very distant from the experiences of students. Most committees, from the Colleges Committee (very important) to the Nominations Committee (not as important), feed into University Council, and one of the problems can be the feeling that decisions have been made LONG before they make it to the Council. Meanhwile, some of the important discussions we have had have been about the gender pay gap and staff conditions at Cambridge (including one of the most exciting things that has happened this year: the University accredit to the Living Wage Foundation!)
As a student on Committees like council, I have felt very much a young, fresh, girl. Most of the members of these committees are old white men, and often have a lot of power (as Heads of Colleges or titans of their field), and an argument I face fairly often – notably on the issue of student experiences of Prevent – is that my perspective is insufficiently evidence-based, not a rebuff I hear very often aimed at other old white men. When discussing pensions and arguing that the University should commit to support its staff even where it had not that much power (as the decision was being made by UUK), I was accused multiple times of suggesting that we “spin” the situation. Needless to say, when, 5 minutes later, another old white man present said “I think Daisy has a point”, all talk of “spinning” was out of the window. Being interrupted is not uncommon and at first, I did definitely feel like I had to have a really good point if I was going to open my mouth. However, having built up a thicker skin, I have now learnt to speak my mind (albeit in a certain polite-committee-way) and it is at this point that we can start making progress.
One of the problems with committees is the unspoken necessity of speaking in a certain way. People who speak with too much emotion, or without using the right words, are not paid as much heed as those who are fluent in talking the talk. Of course this is the language of so-called “professionalism”, deeply coded and stripped of personality. In some ways, committees become a dance in which people skirt around the issue at hand, dressing it up in long words to make it acceptable. Discussions can be shut down by referring to the person who is supposed to work on the issue, a bureacratic knowledge that can be used to avoid the problem. So, in this sense, committees can be obstacles that keep discussions within certain bounds, bounds that do not allow for much change*.
An interesting example of the role of committees has been in the Divestment issue at Council. As a trustee of the University, I strongly believe that we will be placing ourselves on the wrong side of history both ethically and financially if we do not fully divest. Yet, it is no secret that my perspective is not shared by everyone on council. Students and staff have showed that they care a huge amount about the question, dedicated time and energy to evidencing the case for divestment, but the people who make the decision ultimately seem to be the people sitting within the four walls of the council chamber, and therefore I need to somehow channel all of that outside energy and try and make it have an impact in that room. All credit goes to the students of Zero Carbon who have really understood the necessity of engaging with the committee, and have sent council members information packs and met with them to talk through the issues. Despite all this, my voice is mostly drowned-out by the weight of other council members and the University Administration. Being a democratic committee, the majority rules and in Council last Monday, the Council was unable to come to a decision (particularly given there were a number of other weighty items on the agenda). I do think we have been skirting around the issue for too long, and in an email to members last month made this clear – are we the Council who is going to take this decision out of the hands of a Democratic Grace of Regent House? We shall see.
Yet, we can use committees for students. This year, Darshana and I are introducing the CUSU-GU Report to Council which is intended to bring student issues to the heart of the University. Our hope is that now, every year, the University Council will be forced to talk about one element of the University Mission (which they are supposed to uphold) that seems very rarely to be the focus of attention – the experience of students. Hopefully, then, the committee will be repurposed away from bureacratic niceties and encouraged to think about how the decisions they make impact all of you.
Getting involved with the bureacratic dance is as interesting as it is necessary, even if long stretches of the committees themselves are, in fact, VERY DULL.
* For any anthropology students out there, I’ve always thought that Maurice Bloch’s earlier work on tradition and religion can very well refer to Cambridge committees.