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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an academic in search of tenure or advancement will not achieve it through service. Service -- committee work, advising students and student organizations, program coordination, and the like -- is the most undervalued part of an academic’s portfolio. A robust roster of research accomplishments -- such as publications and grants -- and/or a strong teaching record will always win the day in decisions regarding promotion and rewards more generally within higher education.

We have high expectations for what service provides to our institutions, and yet more often than not hope that someone else will do it. Further complicating matters is the well-documented fact that “someone else” often turns out to be women and people of color who do a disproportionate amount of this service -- often at a distinct sacrifice to the advancement of their research and teaching agendas.

But we are not simply asking these people to go to more meetings. We are expecting them to do the work of ensuring that we have certain things that we insist upon having in the academy -- things like shared governance and faculty oversight of curriculum. But when we rely on them to do this work, they wind up performing a significant amount of emotional and mental labor. The individuals who perform this service are also doing a disproportionate amount of caring for and managing their institutions.

And yet some people will continue to insist, “What’s the big deal? So Professor X does a bit more committee work than I do.”

Let’s unpack for a moment what this work looks like and what it facilitates if for example, Professor X steps up to chair an important committee. First, the logistics: typically, unless it is a really big committee (e.g., the Faculty Senate), the individual chairing the committee doesn’t receive a lot of staff support. So Professor X has to manage the scheduling of meetings, finding a time when everyone can meet, finding a room for the meeting, distributing any necessary materials in advance of the meeting and so on. And then Professor X has to run the meeting. Then, following the first meeting, Professor X has to schedule the next meeting (rinse and repeat of steps above) in addition to making sure that all the things that need to get done between meeting No. 1 and meeting No. 2 have happened. And all of these steps will keep occurring over and over until the committee has achieved its tasks and goals.

In short, the planning, managing and following through on the work of this committee will occupy not just a considerable amount of Professor X’s time, but will also take up a lot of mental space. (Did I remember to reserve the room? Did I email Professor Y to make sure they bring that report with them to the next meeting? The list goes on.) Presumably, Professor X is also invested in the success of this committee and wants to do a good job. The management of these details, as well as the broader aims of the group, stand to advance an important project or initiative. And much of the success of this committee depends upon Professor X’s labors: intellectual, mental and emotional. In short, to answer the question of the unnamed non-service-providing colleague above, it is a big deal.

As a recent study so aptly put it, these individuals care for the “academic family.” We might contend that the academic workplace mimics the modern domestic household. And in the household, women grapple with what some feminists have called the “mental load” (for a fantastic explanation of this concept, see this graphic) of always having to remember and handle the details of household management. Similarly, the mental load of academic service -- like the committee chairing scenario described above -- is disproportionately shouldered by only some in the academy, and yet we all require it for our institutions to survive and prosper.

But actually, it is around the analogy of the family that the problem for higher ed becomes apparent. In higher education, we don’t really see ourselves as a family, and this, I think, explains why we don’t value service more highly. As I have argued elsewhere, part of what plagues academe is our privileging of the autonomous behavior of the faculty. At the level of individual faculty member, we perpetuate a model of autonomy -- “my” lab, “my” courses, etc. At a broader level, departments and colleges are typically siloed, fighting one another for resources. Rare is the institution where collaboration or cooperation among units is not simply promoted (given lip service) but also rewarded (through, for example, joint hires or shared grants). In short, academe, while dependent upon the contributions of everyone in all areas -- research, teaching, service -- does not imagine itself as a household or much less a family.

The graphic referenced above suggests that until men “feel that the home is also their responsibility,” nothing will change. And so, too, within the academy. Until all members of the faculty regard their institutions as their responsibility, nothing will change. And I don’t mean this in a kumbaya, holding hands and getting along sense (though that wouldn’t be the worst thing). I mean that there are serious consequences for our individual academic careers, our institutions and higher education in general if we fail to recognize our common enterprise and transcend our inclination toward autonomy.

Until we resolve this dilemma, the message we are sending (and trust me, the administration is listening and would only be too happy to strip faculty of their responsibilities within the shared governance model) is that we do not care about the academic family.

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