Faculty Annual Reports and the Need to Make Service Visible

Communicating all of a faculty member's contributions can advance not only that individual but the entire institution, positively impacting student recruiting and fundraising, argues Martin S. Edwards.

May 21, 2020

With the end of a challenging semester, faculty members will turn to one of the last tasks of the academic year: preparing materials for their annual reports. This chronicling of accomplishments is often met with the same degree of excitement as learning that one needs a root canal.

In the current context of the pandemic, these reports are routine chronologies of accomplishments. There is something rather discordant about listing one’s outputs in this extraordinary time. But treating these reports as routine misses an important opportunity for universities to tell their story better to external constituencies.

Our modern academic surveillance culture prides itself on gathering information that quantifies the outputs of a faculty member’s time: course enrollments, student evaluations, citation counts, grant applications and book and journal impact factors. But this surveillance culture fails on multiple fronts in quantifying service, with the consequence that service is an afterthought. This omission is a particular problem for institutions that aren’t major research universities, as it is precisely at those institutions where this work, which often remains undocumented, matters the most. And it is a serious shortcoming as we prepare for the uncertain autumn of 2020. Right now, with universities facing unprecedented enrollment and financial challenges, they need to tell their stories more clearly -- to current and prospective students, to parents, to prospective donors, and to state legislators.

On a fundamental level, colleges and universities often lack narratives about how their faculty members make a difference. Understanding all the contributions that a faculty member makes not only helps advance that individual but the entire institution -- it can have a significant impact on student recruiting and fundraising, as I’ll explain later in this essay. The inability of this process of faculty monitoring to render these invisible service accomplishments visible means that we somehow lack the raw material to create these narratives.

As with tenure and promotion applications, annual reports have three elements: documentation of research, documentation of teaching and documentation of service. Colleges and universities, of course, vary on the relative weight of all three of these, which is fully appropriate given differences in institutional missions.

Our academic surveillance culture is good at some things but woefully bad at others. We know how to document research: it is the scholarship that one has produced. This is not merely a Homeric chronicling of one’s output, but evaluations of that output through book awards and reviews, impact factors, journal rankings, and altmetrics. We also know how to document teaching as well, either in the form of student or peer evaluations.

But we struggle with measuring service, and herein lies the problem. This culture of monitoring conveys a simple lesson: focus on what is measurable, and that which is measurable matters the most. A simple and sensible lesson, to be sure, but that is where the culture of monitoring diverges from the broader needs of the university.

One is frequently asked to outline the service contributions in the past year to the department or college, university, profession, and community. But it can be difficult to figure out not only what counts as service but also how to talk about it in a way that is helpful. While research and teaching often have quite concrete outputs -- "I published this and this, and taught X courses with Y students" -- outputs are less clear and harder to explain when it comes to service. Recounting that you advised a student organization, served on a university committee or led an effort in campus outreach does not make clear the substance of your contributions as an individual faculty member, nor does it clarify how the service work made the institution a better place. Our guidelines for reporting do not ask for this level of information -- or do not package this information in a usable form that can meet the needs of other university offices. Left at this point, the service section of our reports is essentially a list of bullet points devoid of substantive content.

Consider the following case in point. Earlier last year, I wrote my 600th letter of recommendation for a student in my program. As detailed in the marvelous book Dear Committee Members, letters of recommendation can indeed be the subject of satire. Being deluged with large numbers of students who need letters of recommendation can make writing them seem like a part-time job. But, for good or ill, they are essential to students for internships, scholarships, graduate and professional school applications, and jobs, and so faculty members will be asked to write them long into the future.

And here’s why that matters and why it is even more important for the coming fall. My university competes against many others for students. Each of them in their recruiting materials makes a pitch about faculty engagement. But it is one thing to be told something about mentoring faculty with reference to a student-faculty ratio, and it’s quite another to be told something with reference to this number of letters, especially when coupled with numerous examples of where these students have ultimately ended up.

It is this second narrative that is more compelling than the first. The student-faculty ratio is a sterile number that says nothing about the quality of the experience, whereas the second vignette is much more informative. But the limitations of the current process, namely the extent to which this is framed as a reporting exercise rather than a learning exercise, prevent this more compelling narrative from being written. And not valuing service means that faculty will not report this information in the first place.

My university also needs to engage donors, and as a result, it needs compelling narratives about why its faculty members are worthy of their financial support. For many of these folks who might not understand academic life, being told “Scholar Z has published three articles in the past year” might not have any resonance. Yet a narrative based around Scholar Z’s work in and out of the classroom, by personalizing the investment as being in support of a scholar advancing the university’s mission, might make supporting the research of greater interest. Again, however, without a better understanding of specifically how faculty members serve the university, this message might not get sent.

It is worth noting that developing and communicating such narratives about service provide added benefits. Moving this silent work out of our reporting and into our messaging underscores that it actually is valued. Making faculty service more visible makes it more important, and it opens the door to other conversations about faculty service that can be leveraged. The surest way to get people to do more of a thing is to call attention to that very thing.

Even the more mundane aspects of university service can be reframed differently. While committee work is often the bane of many in the academy, thinking differently about that work might foster some useful avenues. Learning that a faculty member served on a committee that approves new programs might help to line up potential donors to those programs. Armed with the subject matter, advancement officers can start earlier conversations with donors interested in those subjects.

Again, a better understanding of faculty service can strengthen the university as a whole, providing nonacademic departments of the university, like those focusing on fundraising and student recruitment, with more compelling raw material to use in their efforts.

But how do we fix this problem? On one level, faculty need to be more mindful of the potential value of their service work so that they initiate communications with development and marketing offices when they’ve done something attentionworthy. This is often customary practice with scholarly accomplishments ("Hey, I published a book!"), so this is not overly burdensome.

Colleges and universities should consider how best to share information from the reporting process with relevant offices. Items from tenure and promotion packets should certainly be handled judiciously given the nature of the process, but items from annual reports can and should be shared more easily. In this manner, we turn a mundane reporting requirement into something that potentially generates larger returns for the institution.

None of this should be construed as a call for faculty to “do more” in, say, marketing or fundraising -- offices of public relations, marketing and advancement exist for a reason and are staffed with professionals. We can all agree that the nature of academic writing, with its odd norms and even odder lingo, does not lend itself terribly well to writing ad copy for prospective undergraduate students or donors. It should fall to professionals in these offices to coordinate follow-ups with faculty on this information and decide the best avenue going forward. That is a sensible division of labor that does not put any additional reporting onus on a faculty member’s plate.

For many faculty members, our institutions are looking into the future with cause for concern. Shrinking sources of external funding, increasing peer competition and potential long-term demographic changes all are on the horizon. The pandemic has created a perfect storm of shrinking external funding and enrollment challenges at a time when many universities are already facing long-term demographic constraints. With these storm clouds approaching, we need to desilo our institutions a bit and put our academic and nonacademic elements more in conversation and collaboration with one another. Moving faculty service from the invisible to the visible is one small step toward that higher goal, which will be increasingly important in the coming years.

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Martin S. Edwards is an associate professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, where he has just finished his first year as department chair.


Martin S. Edwards

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