Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Just Say No?

Tenured Radical has a wonderful post up about saying 'no' to excessive service requests. It's a thoughtful piece, and it raises the caliber of discussion of the topic well beyond the usual "I'm just a girl who can't say no" lamentations. Check it out.

Correctly, in my estimation, TR locates the root of wildly different service burdens in structural, rather than personal, causes. The money quote:

Well first of all, 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 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, rise up and rend their garments.

Exactly so. And this is why I find her "new ethic" solution far less compelling than her description of the problem.

A 'new ethic' would be voluntary, and would therefore fall prey to exactly the same 'free rider' problem that the current system does. The folks with highly-developed senses of duty would respond the most strongly, but they're the ones already doing the most work. The folks who spend the least time and energy on service now would be the least likely to respond to calls for a new ethic. Workshops for new faculty on how the college works are worthwhile, but to assume that most non-participation is the result of ignorance strikes me as unduly optimistic. This stuff isn't rocket science. Most non-participation, in my observation, is the result of conscious choice.

To the extent that necessary work is unevenly distributed, it's mostly because the penalties for shirking are near zero. (In fact, one could often make a pretty compelling argument that the real penalty befalls she who does not shirk.) If the goodies accrue to those who publish, then choosing to spend time on service rather than publishing is self-defeating. Reward self-centeredness, and self-centeredness ye shall have.

As several commenters noted, and as I see at my own college, there's typically a gendered skew to service work. Bluntly, more of it falls to women. That can become self-reinforcing over time, since most people get better at it with practice. Those who do the most, get the best at it, and become the 'go-to' people.

The observation is correct, but the root cause is misplaced. It's not really about gender, and it's not really about service. Read the key sentence again:

Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people 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.

It's really about tenure. Service is just one manifestation.

As long as people are immune to the consequences of shirking, service (and other obligations) will fall primarily on the good sports. Over time, they'll pay a price in their own careers for helping their employer. As TR correctly notes, this is an absurd situation. The least public-spirited are rewarded, and the most are punished. Play that out over time, and I'd be shocked if it didn't get absurd.

If we're serious about distributing the work equitably, then let's stop enabling some to drop it all on their colleagues. Yes, it's easy to blame The Administration for allowing imbalances to happen, but not allowing them to happen requires actually having some tools. If I tried to sanction -- let alone dismiss -- a tenured professor for shirking college service, I wouldn't even make it out of HR. So I don't. And that's why some people 'enable' (perfect word!) others to shirk.

The tenure system is based on the sole breadwinner with a stay-at-home wife. Tinkering around the edges -- "post-tenure review," stopping the clock, mentoring -- falls fatally short of addressing a fundamentally flawed structure. If we want the workload spread evenly, in the name of fairness, we need to be able to hold everybody accountable for their work. Until then, the good sports will suffer, and the narcissistic jerks will just keep on prospering.

Interesting remarks on tenured faculty members shirking their service duties. I have a somewhat different perspective--in my previous job as an assistant professor in an institute of technology in the Midwest, untenured faculty were not permitted to participate in any sort of service. There may have been two reasons for this. The first being the possibility that untenured faculty members were regarded as being lower forms of life by the administration, unworthy of the responsibility of shared governance. The awarding of tenure was regarded as the gateway to full citizenship in the institute, in which you were allowed to participate in the governance. Another possibility might be that it was regarded as being too dangerous for assistant professors without tenure to participate in shared governance, where they could just make enemies which could hurt them when they came up for tenure.

Art Math Prof

Your points about the pitfalls and problems of the system are, as always, well-taken. And, as somebody who's now a tenured beneficiary of the system, I would still agree with you that its structure is archaic and its potential for abuse by lazy senior faculty substantial.

However, leaving aside (what I believe to be) the unlikelihood of fundamentally dismantling the system, I'd put forth that it is possible to bring some pressure to bear on the non-performing seniors. In the current system, however, that pressure does not, as you've said, result from the implicit or explicit threat of termination.

On the contrary, the pressure can from administration come via the withholding of indulgences, resources, or enablements. I have observed expert administrators finding ways to reward those who, like TR, carry more than their equal share of the service burden: travel money, the go-ahead on pet initiatives, attention from and the ear of the boss; while tacitly withholding (or, let's say, "declining to commit the resources") to those who aren't pulling their weight.

This usually means that the administrator has to put up with a lot of self-entitled whining from the non-performing seniors: such folks seem to be remarkably unselfconscious about complaining when something is withheld, even if they are remarkably unresponsive to appeals to their work ethic. But if the administrator is willing to be a bit thick-skinned about sitting through the whining, s/he can still send the (mandatorily unstated) message "if you don't perform, you don't get the resources/indulgences/initiatives".

My observation and experience as an over-performing research/teaching/service contributor suggests that people like me are often willing to carry the extra weight, if we receive the extra resources/indulgences/initiatives. In fact, some of us figure out that, in the context of an academic administration in which there will inevitably be under-performing members, a little bit of extra work can grant extra power within the organization, even if you're junior to the non-performers.

As you say: you'd never even get out of HR if you tried to fire the non-performers. But you can isolate their infectiously bad attitudes, you can reward those who work harder, and you can actually bring a good deal of peer pressure to bear. In some jobs I've had, I've observed some (by no means all) under-performers, when they look around and observe a harder-working junior being rewarded, up their productivity, because not all bad or lazy behavior is ineradicable.

And, in the worst-case scenario, if the under-performers refuse to change, by rewarding the harder workers with resources/indulgences/initiatives, you as administrator are sending the clear, but legal implicit message, "hard workers get rewarded; under-performers become isolated."

That can't be a bad thing--even if it's not the ideal solution.


Dr Coyote
Tenured faculty are not the problem. Tenure is about academic freedom and having the ability to be innovative without fear of punishment.

Unclear expectations of faculty responsibilities and administrators not holding faculty members to task for those that are clear are the problem.

If there is a clear contract and someone is breaking it by skipping responsibilities, then deal with it. If there isn't a clear contract, there should be and COULD be.

Admins prefer to let the martyrs do the extra and complain about the shirkers with them.

If the martyrs just stopped, then the admin would have to change.
In our case, the students are the prime ones to suffer if we "martyrs" don't do some of what is necessary in the unrewarded service arena - ie to retain national accreditation, etc.

It does take administrators willing to "un"evenly share resources between those who pull the load and those who don't.

And I understand Art Math Prof's concerns about being "kept out" but it's often more benevolent - not making enemies before tenure and the first promotion - sometimes by making "graduate school mistakes" that are clearer after a few years after being at an institution.

Well said, Dean Dad.
Considering I have seen untenured faculty members behave in a similar manner towards service, I would say it is not tenure itself. They are focussed on getting grants as are the tenured faculty. Why? Overhead of 65.5% on the grants. Students show up regardless of whether faculty are teaching well or doing service work. The university rewards those who bring in $$$. Those that don't are punished (less space, less desireable location on campus). Sometimes that punishment is more service and teaching. When service and teaching are viewed as a punishments creates a certain mindset. Has nothing to do with tenure.
It is not about tenure, it is about a Dean not doing his or her job.

Did those shirkers cross some minimal bar for tenure because a warm body might have been better than what might be on the market?

Did the Dean give unsatisfactory performance ratings over several years and push the problem up to the Provost and President?

Only then can the Dean complain.
Thank you for mentioning gender and the fact that tenure (and work in general) is geared towards one breadwinner, one person at home doing everything else. This is often overlooked, but it should be front and centre in any discussion of how to change the status quo.
It's not tenure. I see the same dynamic going on at institutions that don't have tenure. Some people are able to avoid service and don't get called on the carpet for it.

Why? Because we don't respect service. Because these duties appear easy and trivial to those who haven't shouldered them. Because those who have tried and don't want to do them again console themselves with the thought that service isn't really important or it's just for those who aren't really researchers or good teachers or however they, themselves, self-identify.

Until workloads truly and seriously recognize and reward service, don't be surprised that a lot of faculty avoid it as much as possible.
I agree with PonderingFool, Janice, and others that tenure is not the problem here. It's just that service typically isn't valued. Other things are viewed as more central and rewarded, either teaching or research depending on the institution. So many view time spent on service as time "wasted", and this isn't unreasonable as that's what there university is telling them, both implicitly and explicitly.

If anything, I'm more willing to do service now that I have tenure, since I have the freedom to do what I think is right, not what's rewarded. On the tenure track, I was pretty ruthless in cutting out anything that didn't get me "points". (Which in my case, was research, but that's not really the point.)
I agree with Janice,

Having worked outside the ivory tower I can say that this dynamic plays out in workplaces without tenure all the time - anywhere you have a strong union that makes getting fired difficult, the risk is that senior folk will take advantage of those less senior. One of the cruel ways this sometimes plays out is with the vacation and holiday schedule at hospitals - where senior folks take all the "good days" off (Christmas and Thanksgiving, weeks of vacation in August) and junior people get the dregs (vacation in February anyone?)

Administrators with the ability to manipulate process, offer incentives and isolate the grumps fare the best in this environment. You run into problems with folks who have made themselves impervious to influence, by wanting nothing. Those, you just hope retire - or you trick some other unsuspecting manager into taking them on and "promote" them away.
I agree to some extent with the idea that tenure is not the root problem (nor are unions, unless you believe that upper-level managers are paragons of community service). The problem is what counts for what purpose, and who decides what counts. In other words, I agree that the bigger problem is structural and not individual--any decent organization can afford a few free riders--but I do not think that job security is the fundamental issue.

There are departments who hand undergraduate gateway courses to untrained grad students and undergraduate advising to whichever hapless new hire has the least seniority. This is enabled by tenure, but it is caused by undervaluing undergraduate education. The question is why do they undervalue undergraduate education? Is it publish-and-perish (few people manage an "or" in there anymore)? Is it hazing of those people (undergrads, grad students, new hires) who haven't fully joined the fraternity? Is it habitus resulting from some long-forgotten but bitter dispute between faculty, or between faculty and administration?

I think we need to invoke the Anna Karenina factor here. In some cases of service vampirism, generalized solutions (an institutional commitment to undergraduate education, abolishment of tenure) may work, and it may address multiple issues to boot. But if the underlying problem is quasi-familial dysfunction, a blanket solution will only increase resentment and malingering. For example, I can see an institutional commitment to undergraduate education working at an R1 that has allowed itself to be swamped by research and publication, but a heavy-teaching-load institution might get better results by investing more in their faculty.

You know, sometimes people volunteer more when they feel they have a stake in the community....
"If I tried to sanction -- let alone dismiss -- a tenured professor for shirking college service, I wouldn't even make it out of HR."

Why does that stop you from reporting the problem? Or lead you to blame the faculty for what is actually a management problem. What you are describing is a management problem. And don't blame a contract that you signed. You signed it. That makes it a management problem.

Are you seriously telling me that you cannot remove a person who does not show up for class? (If you are, you have a problem not unlike what I read about the NYC public schools in The New Yorker, but it is a problem of your own making.) If you can, then why can't you act when they fail to perform some other assigned duty? The only answer is that management does not value that activity.

And if management does not value it the same as other jobs, a rational person should put their effort where it will be rewarded, which is not into service to the college.
This isn't an "academic" problem and it isn't tenure--I saw the exact same thing working for the US government. People who work, work; people who don't work, don't work. I couldn't see any punishments meted out to those who don't work (I suppose they didn't get promoted to top offices--I hope). That uncaring attitude is actually one reason I got out--and now I'm hearing the same thing in my academic career. :(
Here I am, me-tooing again. But, DD, your other commenters are right. This dynamic happens everywhere, and if shirking carries no penalty, there will be people who shirk. In the absence of good management, the folks who are more responsible or dutiful or easily guilt-tripped will be expected to take up the slack, which will eventually cause a lot of resentment. Nobody likes being played for a sucker.

It sounds like the first thing you need to do is distinguish between stuff that's actually in the employment contract, and stuff that is just part of being a good faculty citizen. If it's in the contract, you can actually force the slackers to work. If it isn't, you still have the carrots that Christopher and some of the others mention. If good citizens get extra resources while the slackers get the statutory minimum, it will at least send the message that service is appreciated and valued.

PonderingFool is also entirely correct about the primacy of grant money at many institutions. If grants matter most, the smartest move is to do as little work as possible that isn't directly related to getting grants. If service cuts no ice at tenure or promotion time, don't expect to get much.
Another factor might be the fact that if you were duly diligent in fulfilling your service duties and were seen to be good at them, the Dean and the department chair would try to get you to do even more service. People who pull their weight in doing service need to develop the ability to say no and reject excessive administrative demands for service, lest it cut into research, grant writing, publishing, and teaching, which are perceived as being far more important in the internal faculty reward system, both for tenured and untenured faculty members alike.

It is sort of like getting a reputation of being a good teacher at an R1 university--all you get is more classes, more students, more advising, all of which will eat up your time and keep you from doing much more important things like writing grant proposals and publishing papers. At my previous school, if you hoped to get tenure, the worst thing that could happen to you is to get the reputation of being a good teacher. It was the kiss of death.
This kind of post makes me break out into some kind of hard-ass mode. I actually do wonder about why we cannot fire these people? I am not talking about the big-time research types who bring in big money and then don't do service. I actually don't mind picking up some slack for them, if they will help fund the doc students and provide support for our department needs.

I am talking about the people that just aren't pulling their weight anywhere--no big money, not teaching well, not doing service as asked. Those folks should be given a plan to improve and then, if they don't, summarily fired. Tenure or no tenure, if you don't do what is expected, you are out. Why can't we do that in academe?
I'm going to say up front that I am largely ignorant of the back end of the faculty employment system, so if this is a hare-brained idea, so be it:

Along the carrots-and-sticks line, why can't you punish and reward tenured faculty by granting or withholding classes based on adequate service? For example, the faculty member who shirks all service ends up with multiple sections of Intro to Whatever 101, while the person who takes on a decent service load gets to teach that small upper-division class on their pet topic. I know that this isn't as easy as it sounds, since there's the pesky issue of who is best qualified to teach what content (plus possibly contractual issues, both union and non-union), but given what I do know about senior, tenured faculty and their, *ahem*, lack of desire to teach Intro-level classes, it seems like that could be a workable, though partial, carrot-and-stick solution.

Or am I crazy?
Dennis, I think the problem with your theory is that thinking of teaching as punishment probably isn't ideal if one purports to be an educator. An added problem would be that like service, teaching is also part of the job. You can't reward work with work (or at least that's not an incentive structure that I'd be interested in).

I agree with others that the ideal would involve institutions putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to service and equitable workload. The bottom line is that exemplary service should be rewarded with raises - just like exemplary research is.
Dr. Crazy,

Good point! I guess I'm approaching this less from a position of "with a clean slate, what would I do?" and more from a "given the nasty realities and existing incentive systems of higher education, what would be effective?"

I actually dislike the idea of sticks at all, but without changing much larger pieces of the puzzle, I'm not sure what else I think would work.
Oddly enough, we have a system of post-tenure review. In this system, tenured faculty whose performance is unsatisfactory can be subjected to an additional level or performance review, and, if their performance does not improve, they can (are supposed to) be subject to revocation of tenure.

Unfortunately, the whole thing seems only to be applied to research/creative activity...not even to teaching, let alone service.
Yes, I too agree that the problem is that teaching and service are low-status tasks, and this causes many other problems, too! It starts very early in one's indoctrination into the field. I just started a graduate program where some students are awarded fellowships so that they only have to TA one semester out of two; some students have to TA both fall and spring; and a tiny minority do not have to TA at all for the first 2-3 years.

What message does it send when you say to the best and brightest of your students, the ones you value most, "We're going to give you less teaching than the others"? I mean, it kind of implies a whole lot of things: that you don't care if undergraduates get taught well, since you're assigning the 'less awesome' grad students to the job; that you don't care if the 'less awesome' grad students succeed, since you're giving them less time to spend on schoolwork than the 'more awesome' students; and that you don't think the 'more awesome' students should have to be troubled with teaching.

I think my program is really fortunate that this doesn't create a lot of resentment. Most everyone is paid the same, which helps, and we don't have any major jerks who'd rub it in, which also helps. But it's darned lucky people aren't grumbly about it, for sure.
Dennis, like Dr. Crazy said, plus another issue: In many cases a department's majors come through that 101 class. If your worst, least motivated teachers are there, your future majors will go elsewhere. Good teaching might turn an engineering major into a physics major, bad teaching might go the other way.

But there is certainly no reason why an increased load in one area should not make up for the lack of effort in another. I know places that regularly trade (buy out, whatever) teaching for research or vice versa to serve the overall needs of the department or college. No longer doing research? Put that experience to work in the classroom so the young hotshot has time for research. Someday the shoe will be on the other foot.
CCPhysicist - I really have to take exception to your suggestion that if the dean just sacked up, all would be well. That's simply not how the real world works. And that kind of smug naivete short-circuits discussions that could actually lead to solutions.

In the real world, contracts consist of two parts: the written part and "past practice." Enforcing the written part for the first time, when there's a history of non-enforcement, will bring (often successful!) challenges based on "past practice." At that point, the 'discovery' phase alone is comically insane.

More to the point, though, is the issue of incentives. Tenure can be defined pretty cleanly as immunity to incentives. That's why the comments about resources/indulgences/initiatives are so staggeringly irrelevant. Those only exist where there's both significant budgetary fat (long gone) and significant managerial discretion (HA!).

I rarely write about tenure anymore, because I keep hearing the same off-point arguments. Judging by the objections raised the chorus of me-too's, I should probably revert to that policy and let history and economics do the job for me.
I have noticed two things recently (and some of this comes from reviewing promotion packages!). First, it seems to be some of the younger faculty who are "shirking" because of the service doesn't count mentality. That is understandable, but when they claim credit for service accomplishments they haven't done, it creates a real problem for the committee. And it is an even bigger problem for senior faculty picking up the slack who feel that much of this service is important to both the educational process for the students--and are accused of being "deadwood" because they are doing service!
DD: More to the point, though, is the issue of incentives. Tenure can be defined pretty cleanly as immunity to incentives. That's why the comments about resources/indulgences/initiatives are so staggeringly irrelevant. Those only exist where there's both significant budgetary fat (long gone) and significant managerial discretion (HA!).

Hmm. DD, I am having trouble mapping this comment onto my own experiences...but I am in a different field, and spend my life in a different part of the academic ecosystem.

I am an experimental scientist, and people in my field need more infrastructure than many others do. Take away my lab (which is a common punishment for badly underperforming faculty, tenured or not), and you've probably effectively ended my career as a scientist. The loss of face among colleagues is also horrific. That alone would be sufficient threat for many people.

In other fields, faculty members could be refused the right to take on students, not be assigned TA support, etc. I have seen deadwood faculty given tiny offices deep underground, and stuck with every piece of scutwork that their supervisors could find. Yep, it requires determination and several years of constant pressure, but it can be done.

I also wonder if it might be useful to pick an area where you can get significant administration support, and throw down with the faculty over it, past practice be damned. Yes, precedent matters, but it is not a straitjacket. If you are enforcing something that's already on the books, and is eminently reasonable, it seems like it would be possible to get it as long as you can put up with the screaming for a while. I've seen it done.
I am talking about the people that just aren't pulling their weight anywhere--no big money, not teaching well, not doing service as asked. Those folks should be given a plan to improve and then, if they don't, summarily fired. Tenure or no tenure, if you don't do what is expected, you are out. Why can't we do that in academe?

I suspect no dean wants to get a rep for firing tenured faculty, even deadwood. Word would get around in the field, and that dean would have a hard time moving to a new institution or whatever. It's just easier for everyone, including the dean, to let it slide.

I don't know if this applies at a CC, but I work at a place where people are plugged in to the field and have networks all over the country.
Sorry, Dean Dad, but it isn't naive. Been there, seen that. It can and has been done. Usually quietly, in my experience, but if you were in the right place you knew about it. (As another poster noted, it is the rare person who publicly brags about being lazy.) And the Deans involved certainly didn't suffer career suicide like one poster suspected. Quite the opposite.

But thanks for making it clear that the problems you complain about originated in the past practices of management. Maybe not your personal actions as a manager, but management of your college nonetheless. You might notice that I considered the possibility that your contract itself might be as nonsensical as what I read about the Rubber Room in the NYC PS via The New Yorker. If it isn't, maybe your college needs a better lawyer.

But if your service assignments aren't Top Secret, why not see if posting them will have a peer pressure effect on the lazy ones.
This is an intresting blog that you have posted, you shares a lot of things about Service Management System, Business Service Management and Servicenow Problem Management. Which are very informative for us. Thanks
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?