Robert’s Rules vs. Campus Democracy

Ashley Carey

Let’s talk sandwiches. Turkey sandwiches, more specifically. For the sake of this analogy, let’s say you really, really like turkey sandwiches. Our vegetarian readers will have to bear with me on this one.

Now, let’s pretend that a fictional superhero named SandwichMan is offering you a turkey sandwich, free of charge. You accept without a second thought, and wait expectantly for your sandwich.

SandwichMan returns, and hands you a mess of thick bread slices, overflowing with lettuce and mayo. You look confused.

”The turkey is inside,” SandwichMan says reassuringly. ”It IS a turkey sandwich.”

You wonder if you should take a bite, but SandwichMan has never wronged a hungry stomach before. Cautiously, you do, and sure enough, a small, albeit delicious, piece of turkey reveals itself.

”But SandwichMan, why are there so many accoutrements on my turkey sandwich? There’s hardly any room for the turkey!”

A reasonable question, but SandwichMan insists that those ingredients are necessary to make a perfect turkey sandwich. But why, then, is this turkey sandwich, equipped with all necessary accessories, so far from perfect?

In any situation, sandwich-construction included, balance is key. Too much of one thing can overshadow another, perhaps even more important element.

I might have used a taco analogy instead, if Casa Ortega were still around. But I won’t be so cruel as to tantalize your taste buds with the idea of a dish which we can no longer afford to serve in our downstairs cafeteria.

The closing of Casa Ortega devastated me. If ever I was roaming the campus with an empty stomach and a nearly empty wallet, there was no better place to go. Especially on Tuesdays. You know what I’m talking about, fellow two-taco Tuesday patrons.

”Can I have a chicken taco, but instead of salsa, can I have extra sour cream?”

My order never changed, nor did the begrudging look of the kind taco lady with the thick accent. But one day, her response was different.

”Okay. Last time.”

”Last time? I can’t get sour cream anymore?”

”No. Last time you order here. Tomorrow, we close.”

My heart sank.


”Yes. Forever.”

So who took our tacos away? Who is responsible for robbing my alternative to the $8 pita bread special, effectively raising the price of my lunch by 500 percent? Well, after vigorous research, I found our guy.

His name is Henry M. Robert III. He’s not on the Board of Trustees, he doesn’t work for the state, and he’s dead. But in 1876, presumably during his lifetime, he authored a manual. He called it, of course, Robert’s Rules of Order. Much like the instruction booklet to a complicated board game, this thick volume outlined his very particular ideas on the execution of parliamentary procedure. I can tell you’re eager to hear more, so here’s an excerpt:

BEING SEATED DURING AN INTERRUPTION BY THE CHAIR. If at any time the presiding officer rises to make a ruling, give information, or otherwise speak within his privilege, any member who is speaking should be seated (or should step back slightly if he is standing at a microphone some distance from his seat).

I’m not entirely sure what happens if a member fails to step back far enough, or perhaps too much, but I wouldn’t risk a haunting from a guy with enough ardor to write a manual four inches thick about how to have a meeting. At the very least, Mr. Robert seems a force to be reckoned with. He also graduated fourth in his class at West Point, to give you an idea of what a riot he was at parties. You should read his manual on drinking games.

So why does this manual matter? Well, as it turns out, most meetings on our campus strictly adhere to Robert’s Rules.

Having never attended a parliament-style meeting before, my first visit to a faculty guild meeting was culture-shocking. Parts of the meeting almost seemed like a parody of uptight procedural regulations. At times, even the head honchos had trouble remembering what step came next, and with good reason. Anyone who could memorize a manual that long would likely have a reality show, not a guild.

After the first meeting, I attended others. Board meetings. Student meetings. Not just as a journalist, but as a spectator.

When it comes to games, I understand rules. I have a deck of Magic the Gathering cards the size of my forearm sitting next to my Settlers of Catan board game right now. Games are fun, the rules are fun, and winning is especially fun. But in the political realm, who can win a meeting? The very idea of ”winning” an official meeting conjures thoughts of corruption. But that’s just it — nobody is winning these meetings, thankfully, but everyone must still follow the rules.

One may argue that the very act of accomplishing democracy is a victory in itself. And considering the many speed-bumps democratic law might encounter, I agree. Democracy is a worthy goal, the very foundation of our nation, deserving of the utmost effort we can put forth.

But breathe easy, because here’s where the turkey sandwich comes into play. That turkey is democracy. The kind of democracy that listens to the people, and then gets things done as fast as it knows how.

You can thank Henry Robert for all the lettuce. And surely, lettuce plays a vital role in delivering both the essential crunch and the essential vitamins to your sandwich. Rules are important, and with the right amount, they can actually speed up the democratic process, thereby making it more effective.

Rules like this one make a lot of sense.

REFRAINING FROM DISTURBING THE ASSEMBLY. During debate, during remarks by the presiding officer to the assembly, and during voting, no member should be permitted to disturb the assembly by whispering, walking across the floor, or in any other way.

The parliament of England may want a refresher on this chapter, but the standard remains. When you’re in a meeting trying to do the people’s will, shutting up until it’s your turn would really help the process.

But during rational discourse, even in the meeting room, we often do a better job speaking when given the license to speak normally. More than once in one meeting, following a casually spoken remark, I heard the question, ”Is that a motion?” And according to Robert’s rule, it was. And motions call for votes. Ayes, nays, the whole nine yards.

The meeting went on for nearly two hours, cluttered with similar interruptions and procedural roadblocks. Simply put, if my ADHD was left untreated that day, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in that room. And I didn’t even belong there! My heart felt genuine sympathy for those victims of Robert the Rulemaker. They really looked like they could have used a visit from SandwichMan, if I hadn’t made him up just now.

When procedure takes precedence over action, luxuries like campus tacos can become the victims of emergency spending cuts. Call me naive, but maybe, just maybe, Casa Ortega could have been spared, had the administration been given more time to organize and prioritize.

To those who appreciate each of Robert’s rules and will defend proper procedure ’til death, I mean no disrespect. The members, and especially the leaders of these committees ensure that there is turkey in every turkey sandwich. Campus democracy could not exist without you, and you do your job well.

I just can’t help but wonder how much more we could all do if we left Robert in 1923, or even in 1990 when he revisited our realm to revise the newest edition. Perhaps if this rulebook came with a free pair of knickerbockers and a three-cornered hat, my point would be more easily made. But there you have it.

I believe that a sandwich with more lettuce than turkey ought to be called a lettuce sandwich, and I would hate for our campus organizational meetings to ever have to change their name to something less delectable than democratic goodness in action. That is, with slightly more action than regulation.

Disagree? Don’t disagree? Want to play Settlers of Catan with me? (I saw the gleam in your eye). Send me a note at [email protected] But please be kind. People who make sandwich analogies tend to have sensitive egos, or so I’ve read.