Monday, July 28, 2008
Thoughts on Service
According to IHE, there's been another study documenting what many of us have suspected for some time; 'college service' gets badly under-rewarded relative to the other things that faculty do, so the people who often embrace service – usually women – suffer negative career consequences.
I've regularly complained that many faculty attacks on administration are either exaggerated or misplaced, and I still believe that. But this one is spot-on, and shame on us for not getting this right.
Part of the job of management is to structure the incentives to align employee behavior with organizational goals. (That's part of why I'm so fascinated with behavioral economics, since the recent turn towards deliberate monkeying with incentives.) If organizational goals include things like “taking outcomes assessment seriously,” then the folks who do the heavy lifting to make that happen should be rewarded for doing so.
Instead, most colleges seem to have fallen into the trap of valuing some things rhetorically and others economically. The savvier career-minded folks figure out pretty quickly which is which, and either go with the economic or make a conscious choice not to, accepting the consequences. The less-savvy ones take the rhetoric at face value, do what amounts to unpaid labor, and then realize years later that they've been had. To the extent that 'helping the college' becomes identified as 'career suicide,' we shouldn't be surprised to see widespread faculty indifference, and even hostility, to calls for service.
I can imagine any of several responses to this study:
1.“Yeah, but what are you gonna do?” This has the distinct advantage of not asking anybody to change their behavior. It has the distinct disadvantage of acceding to a bad-and-worsening situation. I consider it unacceptable, though I also consider it likely to be widespread.
2.Ratcheted-up service requirements. In the absence of actual incentives, we can file this under “doomed to fail.” The likelier version of this is ratcheting-up the requirements on the untenured, with the tacit realization that you can't make tenured people do anything. Inter-generational unfairness is much easier than cross-generational fairness.
3.An actual shift of rewards to service. Of course, to do that, you'd have to shift those rewards from something else, and good luck with that. Should we tenure mediocre teachers if they're conscientious about committees? If we do, I'd expect the caliber of teaching (or research) to decline over the years. If we don't, we're vulnerable to the 'hollow gesture' critique.
4.A long, hard look at service itself. This would be my preference. Is committee work really the best use of tenured faculty? Would it make more sense to offload some of that onto professional administrators, leaving faculty free to focus on their actual areas of expertise? This would invite attacks along the line of “that's a power grab by administration,” but the annoying truth is that running stuff takes time. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you shouldn't get to run stuff. If you're aware of the concept of a “division of labor,” this approach has a lot to recommend it.
Honestly, I think the rhetorical (as opposed to economic) status of service reflects a mealy-mouthed pragmatic compromise. Nobody really wants to value committee work over research and/or teaching, since those are the reasons that the public supports the existence of higher education in the first place. (I've never seen a college guide say “send your kid to East Nowhere State – they have a spectacular curriculum committee!”) But saying so out loud would invite unwinnable political conflicts, so the path of least resistance is lip service to service, with a tacit understanding that we don't really mean it. That way, we can get around accusations of power grabs without losing focus on teaching and research. If you were naïve enough to take the lip service about service seriously, well, whose fault is that?
I know that unsatisfying compromises are sometimes the best that can be done, and this may be one of those times. But it really cuts against my sense of fairness to say one thing and do another, especially when careers are at stake.
Although I'm almost afraid to go there, I'll have to throw this one open to my wise and worldly readers. I've outlined four options. Is there a good fifth option? Maybe even a good sixth one? This is one of those times when I actually hope that I'm wrong.
Tenure and promotion, on the other hand, gives teaching the highest priority, then scholarship, then service.
Finally, our current academic dean values teaching first, then service , and scholarship last. This is not the public position, but is in fact the case. Service can be excessive, eating even into time for teaching.
I'd personally be in favor of my administration following one set of guidelines instead of three. I understand that tenure and promotion is a faculty issue, but this seems a bit of a dodge for the academic dean to me. The dean is my boss, not the chair of T&P.
What would be really interesting is to examine which service tasks colleagues undertake to ensure a larger power base on and/or off campus with those who pursue service tasks that they think are in the best interests of students and/or their institutions but do not necessary correlate with a power base - ie guarding a small sometimes unknown segment of the ivory tower while others are casting a broader net.
I've seen horribly-run committees and efficiently-run committees, and the difference is almost always the skill of the chair in running meetings and logistics. The well-run committees inevitably come up with much better judgments than administrators/staff would independently, and good administrators/staff need the confirmation that faculty back decision X or Y.
Since many institutions spend some time training search-committee chairs, why not help faculty become better committee chairs in general? You're tagged as a chair, and you then get a (paid, short) seminar in how to run meetings. That also helps develop administrative talent, since I'm sure you're stuck in plenty of meetings where your administrative colleagues are... uh... less than effective at running a meeting.
So I don't know where that puts us in your four choices, but I think it's more in the takes service seriously and tries to reward it seriously category.
I think this is fair - it also means that there is a cadre of people at my school who have a fair amount of experience "running stuff" and they have the potential to be great administrators. It also gives a nod to the notion that gifts differ and we have to allow for different types of people, not just outstanding teachers, in our faculty ranks.
At first I thought this was crap, but as I began to see the difference between well-run and badly-run meetings, I've become a true believer. :)
Anyway, what I see from my (admittedly limited) experience at the CC is these committee meetings are meandering, moseying, and undirected, and as a consequence, relatively useless and the faculty resent them. (It took them six months to settle on a topic for a faculty lunch discussion. I honestly don't know how.) There are no policies, no procedures, no clear goals or objectives ... I don't blame people for resenting "service," and I'm not surprised it takes ungodly amounts of time.
Part of the "service" problem could be solved simply by approaching service professionally so that it's not a monstrous time-suck with little genuine output. I know this isn't the case in all places, but it certainly is in mine!
Just off the top of my head, if I were training faculty to run meetings, one of the first things I'd emphasize is, "This is not your classroom. You do not get to talk uninterrupted for 40 minutes. You need to think less like a lecturer and more like a businessperson." (Only I probably wouldn't say businessperson, at least not in my department.) There's a lot of resistance to telling the 60-year-old bloviating tenured guys who are not even remotely on topic to STFU so everyone else can eventually get to lunch.
I'd also emphasize putting people in roles that fit their skills. Someone LOVE to research? Great, you get to do all the committee's research on this topic. Someone a control freak and perfectionist? You're in charge of coallating everyone's findings and submissions. Great relationship with students, weak on follow-through? You and Joe (okay with students, strong follow-through) get to run some roundtables to get student input. Too many committees are chaired by the most senior person on it, regardless of skill, and jobs are handed out by who is the last person to lay a finger aside their nose and cry, "not it!" (Okay, it's not that bad. But sometimes it almost is!)
As for your concrete suggestion that some service be off-loaded to administrators - I think it depends on the king of service. At my institution, faculty have been asked to do all sorts of things that should indeed be left to administrators. But other kinds - such as curriculum development - should remain the purview of the faculty. I like the suggestion that service be professionalized - if certain faculty members were trained to do certain kinds of service, service (such as committee work) would cease to be such a pain. Moreover, if an institution were willing to lay out some money, that would signify that service does indeed matter - and would probably raise its profile. Finally, the person who suggested that service is the primary way to train future administrators is dead right. Personally, I hate the trend of administration forming its own career track - and would like to reinforce all methods for turning faculty members in administrators and vice versa.