Ad-Hoc Committees and Task Forces

Incubators of controversy, innovation, and governance

Bobbi Patterson

Professor of Pedagogy in Religion

As the sun streamed through the windows on a blustery fall afternoon, individuals streamed to microphones in Glenn Memorial Church for over two hours. They expressed outrage over on-campus rapes, ineffective policies, campus lighting, and more. President Laney responded to each one and a few days later announced the creation of the Task Force for Security and Responsibility, composed of 20 faculty, staff, and student representatives from across Emory. Their recommendations, filed in Spring 1990, yielded the Women’s Center and the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services. Three years later, an Ad Hoc University Committee, galvanized by a demonstration led by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Office, leveraged Emory’s late 1980’s non-discrimination clause into full partner benefits. 

As these two examples show, ad hoc structures for university change and governance often begin, well, badly.

The “ad hoc committee” and “task force” idioms in higher education translate slower governance processes into accelerated collaborations for change. Their work, in semi-governed and temporary structures, incubates innovations needed now. But how do they work, and more importantly, why do they work? 

None of these temporary structures, to my knowledge, flies totally beyond the radar of some university official or governance body. They are not anti-governance. Rather, they press the usually deliberately glacial pace of higher education decision-making, especially in times of wariness or resistance. Consider their crucial roles in early traction for Emory’s Creativity and the Arts Initiative, African-American Studies, the Transforming Community Project, and the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Urged to life by different constituencies of students, staff, and faculty, these defined task groups contribute valuable energy and innovation in our life. 

For example, a small, grassroots faculty group in Emory College started a study group on experiential pedagogies and community engagement, which generated a series of workshops that became the Theory Practice Learning (TPL) Initiative. The energy spread, shaping Oxford College’s Theory Practice Service Learning program and other community-engaged initiatives across the university. Emory’s initial policies related to sustainability arose from a similar group that is now integrated through a spring semester Academic Learning Community, Climate@Emory, sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. The consistency with which higher education turns to these collaborating collectives suggests we take a second, serious look at their usefulness and effectiveness, especially as demanding economic, political, technological, and cultural tides rush toward our shores.

Adaptive, semi-governed structures 

A simple taxonomy of these groups further clarifies their adaptive potential for engaged change in the academy and in relation to existent governance procedures and processes. 

University-initiated: receives general access to school-wide communication, space, and data. Their reports are high profile. The Committee on Class and Labor, appointed in response to relatively recent demonstrations against Sodexho, studied university contracts and interviewed workers and supervisors across the campus. After public communications and presentations to the University Senate and others, their 50-recommendation report is now being implemented with oversight by the University Senate.

Focused on a specific research, service, or teaching agenda: begins with less public notoriety and often less structural support. The Center for Community Partnerships (CFCP) grew, relatively quietly, through several iterations from early TPL roots. Not quite twenty years after TPL began, a university-wide task force proposed that community-engaged scholarship, research, and teaching across all schools be better coordinated and supported through what we today call the CFCP. Regenerating and innovating forms of research, teaching, or service alliances, this type can work with relatively little public communication until a formed program is rolled out.

Responds to terrain shifts in the broader world of higher education: Think initial stages of groups supporting minority, ethnic, and/or differently abled students, staff, and faculty. These incubators include first thoughts toward our current Commission on the Liberal Arts, digital initiatives, and pedagogies attuned to internationalization. Students often lead these, just as Wendy Rosenberg and Debbie Genzer started Volunteer Emory in the early 1980’s. Emory medical students have successfully organized and lobbied state governments through this third type of group, accomplishing major goals for increased medical access for children and immigrants. The current China-Tibet student group encourages a dialogue-based approach to campus life, which may impact curriculum development.

Could any single governance structure hold these groups accountable? How might their purposes find even richer exposure and engagement? Let me begin the conversation.

At issue is clarity and stability, the structuring glues of governance, which these groups creatively smudge and weaken because they work in-between. They embody multiple constituencies willing to come together to stretch, resist, and complement existent policies, procedures, and functions, including those of traditional governance. Because they work on different levels, with different resources and intentions, they energize agency for change through a constellation of players and structures, often crossing multiple campus governance arenas. The first stage of the Dissent, Protest, and Community Task Force began with a small university-wide group created in response to the April 2011 student arrests. When the University Senate approved their statement of Emory’s fundamental commitments to dissent, protest, and community, the work then shifted to an implementation group within regular governing and administrative bodies. 

In-between: problems and possibilities

Problems can arise when these groups grow averse to conversations with governing bodies. Often unfamiliar with administrative policies and procedures, these borderland groups get frustrated when a governance body or leader bristles over a sudden “ask” for last-minute funding or complex data. From a different angle, many of us have opened the Emory Report or Emory Wheel and muttered, “How come I never heard they were meeting?” or, “Who made these recommendations?” Were we and our representatives intentionally left out? From a last perspective, rarely does an individual or small group successfully lobby to become a group of the third type above, just to serve their own interests. In my thirty-plus years at Emory and around a number of these committees and task forces, such groups may initially flash, but without broader faculty, staff, and student support, they fizzle. 

Where are the possibilities? I suggest legitimized cooperation and leveraged complementarity would finally and best turn the usefulness wheels of these groups. They can be positive partners of innovative and integrative change in research, teaching, and service. Often drawing more diverse constituencies together, energized by common cause, all three types include voices not usually drawn to the consistent and demanding duties of governance. I suggest that these quasi-structural spaces offer a unique place to introduce these voices and ideas into regularized governance. Providing multiple pathways for engaging in university life, they serve as core sites for thickened and broadened community-building and communication. Their work depends more on listening than talking, especially when initial energies surge and disrupt. If done well, that listening bolsters strategies for agency that shapes real change. Alliances develop where none existed before through testing, adjustment, and improvement. Could Ad Hoc Committees and Task Forces become a training ground for future generations of policy-makers and contributors to school and university governance?

To foster that development, we might create a small, strategic layer or bridge of communication between them and traditional governance structures—not to strangle but to increase information sharing and diminish blind-siding. These bridge builders could listen, assist, and highlight what these groups do without interfering. Yes, tricky work, but possible and crucial if these in-between spaces can become more effective sites for stirring the waters of change, doing the work, and cultivating new leaders for governance.