Wednesday, January 06, 2010

My Favorite Motions

Faculty meetings may have their charms, but efficiency does not rank among them. Many a time I have looked around a room full of my colleagues, long minutes into a winding discussion of what was supposed to take only a few moments to resolve, considered the full agenda still stretching before us, and bemoaned the deadweight social costs of law school governance. Allow me, then, to share a couple of partial cures—one an old favorite and the other a new find—from Robert's Rules of Order.

I've long been a fan of "calling the question," as we casually style the motion at my school. Full-on Robert's geeks know it as the "Previous Question" motion. Call it what you like, you have to love its effect: It takes precedence over every debatable question and, if the motion carries, forces a vote on the issue under debate.

Suppose, for instance, that a handful of faculty members have been arguing back and forth about some relatively inconsequential motion for 20 minutes or so, as everyone else's attention wanders and more important business goes untended. You get the Chair to recognize you and simply say, "I move to call the question." Once the motion carries—and often with sighs of relief—you and your colleagues can vote on the trifling motion and move on to other topics. (Section 20 of the Rules offers caveats and details, but most law school faculties seem to manage, surprisingly enough, with less than the full panoply of formalities.) Try calling a question the next time a faculty meeting starts spinning its wheels. You—and most your colleagues—will enjoy the ride.

Calling the question does not cure all the inefficiencies that afflict faculty meetings, however. Because we law profs so love to hear ourselves speak, for instance, we sometimes run on (and on and on) a bit. Polite coughs, finger drumming, and the like usually suffices to keep our monopolizing tendencies in control, happily. In fact, it was only very recently that I found myself wondering what a fellow could do when those informal measures failed. Here, too, Robert's Rules offers a remedy: a Question of Order pertaining to decorum.

Roberts Rule's provides, in § 34, that "no member shall speak more than twice to the same question . . . nor longer than ten minutes at one time, without leave of the assembly, and the question upon granting the leave shall be decided by a two-thirds vote [§ 39] without debate." Upon encountering an infraction of that rule, you have the right to interrupt the speaker. As section 14 says, one who so objects "shall rise from his seat, and say, 'Mr. Chairman, I rise to a point of order.'" The Chair must then decide the issue immediately, without debate. If the Chair finds the challenged speaker out of order, and if anyone objects to the speaker continuing, he or she must cede the floor unless the assembly votes to grant leave.

That sounds like strong medicine, granted, and would doubtless ruffle some feathers. But faculty meetings pose a classic tragedy of the commons, one where just a few overly-talkative people risk consuming far more than their fair share of everyone else's time and attention. Raising a Question of Order can help you save you—and thus your school—from the perils of a grossly inefficient faculty meeting.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, MoneyLaw.]

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Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

Roberts' Rules make perfect sense and are usually the formal rules of meetings. Have you actually tried using them, though? I would be afraid of social scorn and charges of unfairness for reminding people of the rules and for daring to "bell the cat" and stop bores from talking. Sure, 90% of people would like the result, but they'd also think worse of me-- rather like the whistleblower who catches a nice guy embezzling.

1/06/2010 3:34 PM  
Blogger Tom W. Bell said...

I share your concern--hence my comment about ruffling feathers--but my experience with calling the question has convinced me that there is a silent majority eager to get matters resolved efficiently. Sure, the folks deprived of a captive audience will grumble. Rest assured, though, that you provide a public good in making sure they don't waste everybody's time and violate established rules of procedure.

1/07/2010 11:02 AM  
Anonymous dave hoffman said...

It's not clear that the benefit (relieving the annoyance of the majority) outweighs the benefit of really angering the few. But so tempting.

1/12/2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I keep looking for the rule that says when someone drones on it is appropriate to use one of those dart guns that induce sleep for 8 hours. Maybe it is in the Appendix.

More in connection with these comments, I usually think worse of the person who knows the rules and does not apply them for fear of what others think. Does the same apply to tenure and hiring decisions when we are spending the money of others in order to be liked? Unfortunately, based on what I have observed, it does.

1/18/2010 9:02 AM  

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