Rules of the Order of Robert was first published in 1876. And today it continues to influence many organizations that use the book, including colleges, universities, and academic organizations. Princeton University Press has just published the original book along with an essay by Christopher P. Loss, associate professor of education and history at Vanderbilt University, under a new title, Robert’s Rules of Procedure and Why It Matters for Colleges and Universities Today.
Loss responded to questions about the book via email.
Q: How did this book come about? How did you get interested in Robert’s rules?
A: My first exposure to Robert’s rules was in the speech and debate in high school. I have met it over and over again since then, especially while working in higher education, where it is frequently, if not always effectively, used. I have written on the history of higher education and democratic citizenship and done some work on the history of culture and learning in print, but a study on Henry Martyn Robert and his rules does not It occurred to me when Peter Dougherty of Princeton University Press pitched the idea to me. After digging, finding Robert and his family, and figuring out how I could connect Robert’s rules to our current crisis of democracy, including the challenges that American higher education now faces, I have agreed to take it on. I’m glad I did. The book combines my essay on the history of the rules and its place in American life with a copy of the original rules, published in February 1876. Only 4000 copies of the first edition of Robert’s rules have been printed. After all these years, it’s wonderful to find the original text printed and available to readers. It is a fascinating work of real historical importance.
Q: How Robert’s rules reflect the history of American higher education, particularly in terms of organization?
A: At the time Robert’s rules was published in 1876, American democracy was in trouble. The presidential election that year ended in a mess. The reconstruction was drawing to a close. Class conflicts and stratification increased. Fierce struggles for the rights of immigrants, women and African Americans were waged. And many Americans have questioned whether political, economic and social justice is still possible. It was, in other words, a time similar to ours.
Major Henry Martyn Robert of the Army Corps of Engineers wrote his book in an attempt to save democracy. He was not so much interested in formal political institutions, which seemed hopelessly corrupt, as in helping what he called “ordinary societies” – and the ordinary people who participated in them – to familiarize themselves with democratic deliberation. Today we know these companies as the voluntary sector or the voluntary sector, and Robert’s target audience were the hundreds of thousands of Americans who joined the voluntary sector in the late 19th century. Women’s clubs, fraternal organizations, church bodies, veterans groups, professional associations, and most importantly, colleges and universities are just a few of the organizations that have turned to Robert’s Rules. While there are other guides to choose from, his offered the best roadmap to small-scale democracy: majority rule, minority must be heard and respected, cooperation and decency must prevail, and the interests of the whole must prevail over those of any individual.
Q: You notice that Robert’s rules was adopted by American higher education at a time when “white male privilege” dominated the lives of students and faculty. Why shouldn’t he Robert’s rules disappear with the privilege of white men?
A: American higher education in the late 19th century reflected in many ways the intellectual and social interests and sensitivities of white men like Henry Martyn Robert, West Point class in 1857. Some would argue that it still is. At the same time, the higher education sector was much more institutionally diverse than is often recognized and included liberal arts colleges and a mix of public and private institutions for blacks, colleges for women and teacher training colleges which also used Robert’s Rules. For example, Howard University was one of the first to adopt, and women’s organizations were and have remained among the Robert’s most devoted followers. American higher education, like our nation, had to work hard to realize its democratic potential in the 20th century, and it turns out that Robert’s rules played a key, albeit surprising, role in this still unfinished process.
Q: American higher education has changed dramatically in the years since. Why use Robert’s rules today?
A: There are times when a structured deliberation of the type Robert’s rules provides is not only useful but, I would say, necessary. Governing boards, faculty senates, department meetings, student government, clubs, and organizations, for example, work best when basic deliberative procedures are followed. I understand that some people find Robert’s rules picky and too formalistic. But this is only true when the rules are awkwardly or sporadically deployed. A seasoned parliamentarian can stimulate participation and improve decision-making in legislative assemblies by ensuring that everyone is heard. If you don’t believe me, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think about the last faculty meeting you attended. Enough said.
Q: Many associate American campuses with an uncivil debate. Could Robert’s rules change that?
A: The uncivil debate has always been part of campus life. There is no way around this: passions ignite; shouting matches sometimes occur. Most of the time, the disagreements are minor and the exchanges healthy – a good sign that our colleges and universities are really doing their job. But, in recent times, and again this is nothing new, some of these rowdy protests and vetoes have become so hostile that they completely silence speech and thus jeopardize the exercise of freedom of movement. thought that is at the heart of academic endeavor. All ideas should be welcome, even unorthodox ones, and tested in informed deliberation, based on facts and with mutual respect. Given the fragile ground of our democratic institutions and the current challenges for scientific authority, I believe that higher education has an obligation to be much more intentional in modeling civil discourse and respecting democratic norms and practices. daily. In the aftermath of January 6 and the lingering challenges of the pandemic, this has never been more important.
That said, Robert’s rules can neither cure our polarized policies nor guarantee that common decency and mutual respect will always prevail on our campuses. It will take much more than reading Robert’s rules. It will take a renewed commitment to the democratic principles of our nation – and to each other – to resolve all of the problems we currently face.