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Service: The Un-loved Third Rail

Service: The Un-loved Third Rail

June 15, 2007

Conventional wisdom among tenure track faculty members is that nobody was ever denied tenure for being a bad committee member or not getting elected to the strategic planning committee. Service -- by which we mean service to the college through participation in faculty governance and on institutional committees -- before tenure is often seen as subtracting time and energy from the teaching and research that gets an instructor promoted and recognized by peers off campus.

But this is wrongheaded and unrealistic. It not only undervalues service, it denies the realities of the typical college’s needs. Service can be rewarding and, more importantly, it is the way faculty can most effectively shape teaching and learning.

Yet this is the area that is least discussed in graduate school, for which no training is typically provided, and that the interview process rarely brings up. Furthermore, while tenure and promotion evaluations pay homage to the trinity of "Teaching, Scholarship and Service," service surely gets the least amount of attention. It is very rarely rewarded either monetarily or in terms of prestige. In fact, the view of some faculty is that service is to be given grudgingly, if it all.

In liberal arts colleges, advising, club sponsorships, determination of academic policy and the execution of that policy require deep commitments of time from faculty. Many tasks, such as organizing pre-law advising or guiding students through graduate applications -- assignments many large universities fill with a staff member -- are elements of service for faculty at smaller colleges. Organizational realities may encourage this on the one hand, but on the other, there may also be better student outcomes in having a teacher-scholar actively engaged in these roles.

Many faculty feel pulled in multiple directions by trying to balance teaching and scholarship, but most recognize that both elements of the academic life offer unique rewards. Too often, the rewards for service are overlooked. In service roles a faculty member can utilize and continue to hone valuable skills such as organization, leadership, policy development, writing, critical thinking and analytical ability. Many, if not all, of these skills are used in the classroom and in research, but the results are often different when they are applied in service. An excellent writer who has labored through years of graduate school may well be appreciated by her students and by peers in her scholarly field, but her carefully crafted prose may also serve all her faculty colleagues, as well as current and future students, when she drafts important policies while serving on the Academic Planning Committee.

How important is institutional service, and does service truly improve educational outcomes? It is possible to imagine a college where faculty have no service role. Issues such as college governance, curriculum development, determining degree requirements, participating in resource allocation decisions, playing a role in admissions, participating in tenure and promotion decisions could be left to professional academic administrators while the faculty role would simply be to teach and do research.

We believe, however, that active faculty participation in institutional governance is not only the historic right of the faculty, but also improves educational outcomes. Such faculty involvement is critical even when it’s painful. And some do find it punishing, such as a senior faculty member who bargained: “if you promise that I would never have to serve on a committee again I will gladly teach an additional course every year.”

It would surely be less time consuming for the faculty if they could shed their committee work, but the quality of education would surely suffer without the insight of the faculty who are in daily contact with students. How many times have faculty heard an administrator or trustee say something like, “Why doesn’t the faculty just do ____?” Fill in the blank with any one of the many impossible things people who do not teach think it is possible for faculty to “just do.” (To be fair, faculty in some fields could make the same criticism of their colleagues in other departments: “Why don’t the English faculty just teach those students how to write [in one semester]?” is our personal favorite.)

Though many colleges and faculty members might not see it this way, institutional service can be viewed as a way to improve education and keep professors involved and connected to their colleges. Albert Hirschman’s classic work Exit, Voice and Loyalty offers an interesting insight on the topic of how different kinds of social mechanisms promote quality outcomes. Hirschman points out that economists have historically focused on “exit” as a corrective instrument. Exit is the logic of competition. If a college doesn’t produce good outcomes, students will leave. The pressure to keep students from leaving will force the college to pay attention to the desired student outcomes. (This is the argument for school vouchers in K-12 education.)

Hirschman identifies “voice” as an alternative corrective mechanism. There may be circumstances in which desired outcomes will be restored faster and better if customers or employees of organizations have the opportunity to speak openly or complain about the ways in which the firm or organization fails to produce quality outcomes, instead of just taking their business or services elsewhere. Simply put, a college or university will produce better educational outcomes for students if it provides its faculty with the opportunity to express their views and participate in decision making on matters of curriculum, enrollment management, promotion and tenure, etc.

Service is not misuse of faculty energy. The system of higher education depends on it. Each faculty member has already been the beneficiary of the service given by faculty at their own alma maters. Every professor in the world owes a huge debt to faculty unknown to them who helped create and sustain conferences, journals, professional associations, and who acted as peer reviewers and received precious little credit for it.

Liberal arts colleges need to see service for the vital element it is and credit faculty accordingly for using their time and talent in this area. Faculty participation in college and university governance contributes significantly to the quality of higher education in the United States. The evolution of a system of higher education that does not accord significant voice to faculty will surely erode educational quality.

And the importance of service to individuals, to institutions and the academy at large, makes it imperative that colleges and universities create a climate that encourages faculty to serve committees great and small.

Bio

Jim Lakso is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., where Jim Tuten is assistant professor of history and recently completed a five-year term as assistant provost.

 

 

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