Monday, July 28, 2008

Thoughts on Service

It's a measure of just how far behind I've been lately that I didn't get around to this story until now.

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 na├»ve 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.