The “Let’s Totally Screw Things Up” Committee

The “Let’s Totally Screw Things Up” Committee September 13, 2023

I learned many things from my good friend Marsue, who was the rector of the Episcopal church that I attend. She was a great storyteller; in the midst of one of her entertaining and inspiring sermons she brought us into the world of the Quakers. Apparently when a couple is thinking of marriage, or a person believes she or he is called to ministry, they come before a committee of fellow-Quakers charged with the task of helping the persons in question discern in which direction the divine wind is blowing. This committee is called the “Clarity of Thought Committee.” The WHAT???? I thought to myself as I sought to keep from busting out laughing in the middle of church. That’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. In my experience, committees are many things—but never centers of clear thinking.

Committees abound on my campus, as they do just about anywhere human beings congregate for any purpose whatsoever. Many of these committees go by acronyms. There’s CART (Committee for Advancement in Rank and Tenure), the CCC (Core Curriculum Committee), CCAT (pronounced “see-cat”), the Core Curriculum Administrative Implementation Team), and many others. These are powerful and influential committees, designed to invade and mess up the lives of unsuspecting faculty when they least expect it. But all of these pale in comparison to the most powerful committee of all, the LTSTUC–the Let’s Totally Screw Things Up Committee.

No one is sure of the origins of the LTSTUC; but I’m convinced its origins precede every human  institution. Lots of LTSTUC origin myths are out there; my favorite is contained in Books One and Two of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan and the rebellious angels have fought a valiant war against God and the obedient angels, and upon losing the war have been cast into hell. Everyone is laying around on the ground more or less stunned, wondering “WTF just happened?” and “Where the hell am I?” as they begin to stir. As soon as everyone gets their bearings, Satan starts a conversation that is strangely reminiscent of an academic department meeting.

The topic under consideration is “Now what do we do?” Moloch makes an impassioned “we may have lost the battle, but we can still win the war” speech, urging an immediate reengagement of God’s forces in combat. Belial advises otherwise, arguing that it’s clear that they are not strong enough to prevail, and anyways this new spot—“hell,” you call it?—isn’t so bad. A bit of paint, a few throw pillows, we can make this place more than okay. Finally Chairperson Satan speaks, offering a third possibility. “I’ve heard that God has a new project,” he says, “a project that includes creating some neat new creatures that God seems really obsessed with. I say we send someone to check it out and do whatever they can to totally screw God’s new plan up. I even volunteer to be the one to go.” And thus the LTSTUC was created. I have heard it said that when Satan fell from heaven he fell into a church choir. I can see that, but according to Milton, he created the LTSTUC.

The LTSTUC is alive and kicking anywhere human beings make plans and try to make stuff work. It is alive and kicking on my campus. I’ve been a member of the LTSTUC before, although I don’t ever remember having volunteered or even being assigned to be on the committee. There I am, one of a group of usually 6-10 equally sincere and hardworking people with an assigned task. Sometimes it works, but sometimes despite our best intentions and efforts we turn into the LTSTUC, turning every purse we can find into a pig’s ear and bars of gold into hunks of lead. I was a member of committee XYZ for a couple of years, the hardest working and most regularly productive committee I’ve ever been involved with. The year after I left the committee, XYZ all of a sudden started cranking out decisions that, in light of their usual product, seemed random and mean-spirited. There was lots of discussion on campus about what was up with XYZ—the most plausible was that, at least for a semester or so, XYZ had turned into the LTSTUC.

My home department is large and conducts national searches for new tenure track colleagues on a regular basis. Here’s how it usually goes: We discuss and vote on the area in which we are searching—we decide that we will search for someone specializing in the philosophy of X, subject to administrative approval. My department is sharply divided ideologically on almost every important issue; in this case, there is disagreement about what exactly we are looking for. There were several options:

  1. Hire the best philosopher of X we can find.
  2. Hire the best philosopher of X who happens to be a Catholic.
  3. Hire a Catholic who appears to know something about the philosophy of X.
  4. Hire a Catholic; whether he or she knows anything about philosophy of X is irrelevant.

The search committee is formed and in short order turns into a subcommittee of the LTSTUC. The non-search committee members of the department assume we are looking for 1, at worst 2, while the majority of the search committee members decide we were looking for 4 but would settle (maybe) for 3. All hell breaks loose (remember the origins of the LTSTUC); once a few years ago it produced a six-hour long department meeting. Really—this has become legendary on campus, along with the ensuing virtual bloodletting and nastiness that has yet to heal. The LTSTUC did its job, and the philosophy department moved into first place in the contest for “Most Dysfunctional Department on Campus.”

Just when one might think that the LTSTUC has disbanded, it reconvenes on a different topic, as they did at the college a few years ago. A speaker was scheduled to give a talk on campus on same-sex marriage, a topic more controversial on a Catholic campus than many other places. A problem with the format arose, the problem was apparently solved, then the LTSTUC convened. I wasn’t at the meeting, but my guess is that it went something like this:

Chair: Here is our charge: Cancel this event in such a way as to totally screw things up. Any suggestions?

Committee Member 1: Let’s be sure to alienate all of the students by not letting them know that the event is being cancelled or why.

Member 2: Let’s make sure that the communication of the cancellation to the faculty and staff is filled with both confusion and obfuscation.

Member 3: Let’s make sure that we specifically and seriously insult and belittle several members of our own faculty.

Member 4: Let’s make sure that the whole story goes viral to national news outlets, starting with the NY Times, the Huffington Post, and the Atlantic Monthly online. Let’s also see if we can get Lawrence O’Donnell to make it a lead story on his MSNBC show.

Member 5: When we receive pushback from various constituencies, let’s make sure that we double down on the obfuscation and confusion even more, adding some half-truths and outright falsehoods.

Member 6: Let’s make sure that we do this for a couple of days after the Pope says that Catholics should lighten up on the obsession with abortion and homosexuality, so we can let everyone know that we are literally more Catholic than the Pope.

Member 7: And let’s be sure to piss off hundreds, if not thousands, of alums.

Chair: Our work is done here. You all have your marching orders—go for it!

And they did—mission accomplished on all goals, and the LTSTUC’s work is done until reconvened at an unknown date and location in the near future. As their motto says: “SNAFU.” Situation normal, all f–ked up.

On the evening when the cancelled lecture would have taken place, a student-organized meeting in response to the cancellation took place instead. As I watched the 200+ students, along with a number of faculty, express both their anger and disappointment with the college they love in ways both respectful and constructive, I thought “maybe this time the LTSTUC isn’t going to have the last word.” Sometimes phoenixes rise from ashes and order emerges from chaos, despite the best LTSTUC efforts. This committee shares something in common with vampires—they don’t operate well in the light. But that’s where open discussion and honest disagreement thrive.

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