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Dean's Blog

March 5, 2010

Academic Service: Mug's Game or Rewarding Work?

To serve or not to serve? How much service is enough? How much is too much? And what do we do about those who do too little?

These and other faculty workload matters are among the most vexing questions in academia. And as such, they have no easy answers. If I could solve them, I'd be a shoe-in for the Nobel Prize in academic administration.

It is generally understood that a faculty member's responsibilities include the holy trinity: research, teaching and service. Though seldom inscribed in policy, it is often presumed that the appropriate breakdown among these three activities is 40-40-20. That is, a faculty member should be spending approximately one-fifth of her overall workload on service and outreach activities while the remaining portion of workload is split equally between scholarship and instruction-related activity.

What constitutes service, however, is not always clear. There is no one definition that satisfactorily covers the diversity of interpretations of service among the various academic disciplines and among the different sorts of institutions of higher learning. Still, a handy typology can be found in Ernest Lynton's Making the Case for Professional Service (1995). He distinguishes between four types of service:

  1. University/institutional service, including committee work, curriculum development, program building, and other administrative work;
  2. Disciplinary service, including journal editing, manuscript reviewing, and contributions to disciplinary associations;
  3. Community service, including civic contributions in the form of speeches, board or committee membership, or volunteer work with nonprofit organizations; and
  4. Professional service, including policy analysis, program evaluation, development activity, and other instances where faculty use their professional expertise to assist communities in responding to real-world problems.

For a variety of reasons, it is the first of these types of service -- especially service on university committees -- that raises the most concerns among faculty members and causes the most pain and anxiety. In fact, faculty members are often glad to perform disciplinary service, which they see as largely beneficial to their careers, or even community service, which they see as a meaningful way to advance their favourite societal causes. Professional service can be attractive for its career benefits as well as for the monetary remuneration that is sometimes involved. But faculty members often balk at taking on service within the university, for fear that this work will not advance their careers nor constitute a meaningful personal experience.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the resistance to university service can be especially strong in the sciences, where anything that takes you away from the lab can be a source of frustration. Hence, committee service is particularly reviled. This message comes across clearly in a special issue of ScienceCareers, The Other Parts of Your Academic Job:

Why is committee work so unpopular? Although there are some important committees, much work on committees seems like busywork, the participants seeking consensus on ill-defined issues about which few of the committee members actually care. For scientists who approach their work with passion and precision, it can be most unpleasant. Besides, everyone knows your committee work will count very little in your tenure decision. For that reason, some senior researchers encourage protégés to avoid committee work at all costs.
Of course, this attitude is hardly restricted to faculty in the sciences. The belief that committee work should be avoided like the plague can be found in all corners of the university.

As a dean, I face this problem all the time. I am usually the one doing the asking for service on this or that committee. Hence, I am that person whom many of our wiser, older brethren will advise their younger colleagues to answer with an emphatic "no" when I come to call. (And of course many of these senior colleagues have long ago stopped saying "yes" or, more cleverly, engaged in behaviour that appears designed to ensure that they will never be asked to perform any such duties again.)

Service, these folks will say, is a mug's game. It brings no tangible rewards; it only saps the time and energy that should be devoted to an academic's "real" work -- research (and perhaps teaching, for those so inclined).

This all-too-common advice to faculty members -- that they need to learn to "just say no" to committee work -- is usually well-intentioned. But as the blogger Tenured Radical points out in a very thoughtful piece, Just Say No (But Not To Me), this advice is generally unhelpful and often downright patronizing. (Subtext: "No wonder you haven't finished that book yet -- don't blame the rest of us if you haven't learned time management skills, and if you choose to waste your energies on everything but your scholarship!") What's more, it tends to come with the unspoken rider that "you should say no to everyone but the colleague in your presence who will probably ask you to do something in a week or so."

Tenured Radical is correct to point out that the issue of whether to take on specific service responsibilities -- and even whether to take on more than your fair share of service -- is not always a simple matter of saying "yes" or "no". As Katie Hogan puts it in an article on Managing Service Duties, service itself is a complex category and activity:

For all its supposed one-dimensional transparency, what service is and who’s doing it are very hard to pin down. Some academic workers see performing service as an honorable endeavor that creates goodwill and community; for others, service labor is a CV-building necessity; for others, it’s a form of activist rebellion or workplace transformation; for still others, service work is exploitative and rooted in entrenched structural hierarchies. For most of us, service is all of these things.
Clearly, there are solid justifications for institutional service. Many see committee work as a necessary evil -- as part of one's obligation as a citizen of the academic community. Others find a great deal of satisfaction in their participation in collegial processes within the university, savouring the fact that the privilege of self-governance by academic staff is something that differentiates universities from many other workplaces where employees don't enjoy as much control over their working conditions as do professors. As well, there is the Platonic reason to serve -- i.e., the penalty for refusing to participate in governance is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

No matter how you cut it, some academics must perform service duties in any university setting. For faculty who need it, there is good advice to be had on how to manage your service duties, balancing them with your primary responsibilities as a university teacher and a scholar. For instance:

  • Christine Overall, writing in a recent edition of University Affairs in a piece on the Intangible Rewards of committee service, offers the following advice: accept a committee assignment only if you are satisfied that (1) the committee makes a difference and (2) you will make a difference to the committee. She has found that using this strategy herself has reduced the number of committee assignments she accepts but increased the likelihood of serving on a committee that really contributes to the well-being of the university.
  • I would also encourage you to read Katie Hogan's recent piece on Managing Service Duties, which provides a level-headed perspective on service and its rewards.
  • And "Female Science Professor" just wrote an informative and helpful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education -- At Your Service -- which provides useful advice to faculty members on how to approach institutional service, professional service and outreach.
What makes the matter of service responsibilities at universities a vexing one, however, is the problem of inequity. As Dr. Overall points out: "We all know people who do more – the conscientious good citizens who contribute above and beyond the call of duty. We also know those who do less, sometimes much less." And as many commentators have observed, the service "burden" tends to fall disproportionately on women and members of underrepresented groups.

Yet there is more to the problem than gender and racial/ethnic inequality. Simply put, not everyone is pulling their own weight when it comes to service. The work is important and must be done. Not everyone is willing to serve, nor is everyone suited to do this work. Hence, some faculty overwork in the service area, while others are "free riders". Yet it is important to understand, as Tenured Radical correctly suggests, that the problem is structural and institutional in nature, and not just a matter of individual inclination. She is blunt about it:

I have to tell a brutal truth that administrators and faculty colleagues know but cannot, for a variety of reasons, publicly acknowledge: those of us who overwork are covering up for and enabling those who under perform. Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people [to] teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned. Certainly they have no mechanism that is not going to make the entire faculty, especially those who are already overworked and fear the loss of the choices they do not yet exercise, from rising up and rending their garments.
As one of the enablers of this situation, who constantly asks certain people to take on more service obligations while allowing others to coast, I feel a certain responsibility to -- at the very least -- explore this topic further. So the following entry will examine this dilemma more fully and consider what, if anything, might be done to move us towards a more equitable regime with regards to the service component of faculty workload.


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Dr. Richard Sigurdson

Dean, Faculty of Arts
310 Fletcher Argue Building
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Canada R3T 5V5
Phone: (204) 474-9271
Fax: (204) 474-7590