Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Service, Summer, Sex, and Shoestrings

I heard a comment this week that gave me pause.  In a meeting to set up a new committee to help direct a campuswide function, we were going over a proposed membership list.  Someone asked why there weren’t any faculty on the initial list; the answer wasn’t conspiratorial.  It was that the committee needs to be active twelve months of the year, and faculty on the whole aren’t around over the summer.

The particular committee isn’t really the point, but the logic behind the response was sort of jarring.  

Colleges are year-round organizations.  That’s more true than it used to be, at least anecdotally, and I expect the trend to intensify.  We no longer have the luxury of failing to monetize facilities in July.  And outside constituencies don’t typically observe the boundaries of the semester.  To the extent that we’re working with external partners, we need to be responsive when they need us to be.  Some things can’t wait until October to be decided.

Institutionally, that creates a clash of goods.  On the one side, there’s a recognized value in shared governance and inclusive input.  On the other, there’s increasingly an imperative for timeliness.  

During the academic year, the conflict is usually manageable.  But in the summer, well, decisions are made by those who show up.

I don’t intend that as a critique of faculty.  They’re fulfilling the rules of their role.  I intend it as a recognition that we’re at cross-purposes structurally.  

As it happened, IHE this week had a piece asking why so many male faculty abstain from college service.  It was written as a counterweight to the many pieces asking why women do so much college service relative to their numbers.  It was written by someone at a research university, so it didn’t transfer cleanly to a community college context; here, research decidedly does not come first.  But the basic argument carried over.  If service above a contractual minimum doesn’t appear to be valued, and can be kind of a pain in the neck, then we shouldn’t be surprised that many faculty make the rational calculation to do only enough to stay out of trouble.  The trouble isn’t that some cynics have boiled down a mission-driven enterprise to a transaction; the trouble is that they get effectively rewarded for doing so.

When institutional incentives and individual incentives conflict, sometimes culture - a devotion to mission, say - can fill in the gap.  But over time, as that culture is asked to do progressively more work, it can fray.  And when it does, it’s hard to fix, especially if the underlying causes tearing at it are still there.

The summer service issue is chronic and annoying, but not catastrophic.  Some decisions can be put off until fall; those that can’t, can’t.  If the issues are urgent but relatively uncontroversial, delegation is probably the way to go.  If they’re urgent and controversial, well, people have a choice to make.  (In a perfect world, we could offer stipends, but that level of budgetary discretion vanished some time ago.)  

The gendered service issue is tougher, because it goes beyond timing.  It goes to the motivations behind what we do.  More strongly incentivizing service, all else remaining equal, means diverting resources from other places.  It also sets in motion a set of precedents that leads to a culture of the first question always being “what’s this task worth to you?”  I’ve lived that, and it’s an awful way to live.  But shifting a culture isn’t like flipping a switch.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or developed a reasonably successful, affordable, sustainable way to reward college service on a shoestring?