So the subplot in Numb3rs Season 3 episode “Waste Not” is Charlie and Amita’s conflict with their pushy new Head of Department, Millie Finch. Millie Charlie and Amita’s relationship gets a good deal more friendly in later episodes, but in this episode in specific, its pretty hostile. Central to the conflict, Millie demands that Amita serve on the curriculum committee and Charlie serve on the graduate admissions committee.
This sounds like an annoying bureaucratic request, and it is. But its worth talking through the way that committees work in universities, because it’s a bigger part of Charlie’s character arc than you might think.
I work in academia as a graduate student right now, but I also have family members who work in academia, so I’ve grown up around people working in the system the Charlie, Amita, Larry and Millie do. One of the things that I love about Numb3rs is how real the academics seem. Numb3rs is one of the only show I can think of where the professors act like the people I work with and grew up around.
University professors have three components to their jobs: research (which includes publishing and applying for funding), teaching, and “service”. Service is an annoying weasel-word for administration work for the university, including chairing faculties and departments, and serving on committees. So the position of “division chair” that Millie holds is something she does in addition to running a lab, publishing papers and teaching students. But at a high-level research institution like Cal-Sci scientists are hired for their research ability, and their promotion, tenure status and often continued employment is based primarily on their research output.
This puts researchers in a tricky position. All their teaching and administration work cuts into the time they have for the work they actually get paid for. And while many researchers enjoy teaching, and good teachers are often celebrated for it, no one likes administrative work, and its not something they’ll get a lot of credit or thanks for. So everyone has sympathy for Charlie’s desire to not run the Cal-Sci graduate admissions committee. But its worth looking at it from Millie’s position; spreading out the “service” work fairly is one of her responsibilities of a faculty or division chair.
Someone has to run the admissions committee, and if Charlie (a professor with a well regarded and secure career) is slacking off on his administrative duties, then they’re falling unfairly onto his colleagues, potentially to the detriment to their careers. Having a responsive department or division chair who doesn’t let people get away with shenanigans, can make a professor’s life much easier and a department a much nicer place to work.
Millie a woman played by an actress of Lebanese descent, might well be more sensitive to that because in an effort to keep committee’s diverse (a good thing), women and minority faculty members often get overburdened with administrative work requests, since they’re still under-represented among tenured and tenure track faculty (although in a lot of fields, its gradually improving).
One of the biggest parts of Charlie’s character arc over the series, is learning to be less self-absorbed and to think more about how he impacts other people, and fits into his immediate community. Including being a better part of his university. Millie is initially presented as a minor antagonist, but she’s really driver of a lot of positive character change and a great mentor character to Charlie and Amita. She deserves more credit for it.