Committee Equities and Inequities

New data challenge conventional wisdom (at least in part) on which groups of professors perform the most service work.
April 10, 2006

Committee work is a double-edged sword for professors. It is one way of fulfilling the "service" requirement in the teaching/research/service triptych used to evaluate professors for tenure, promotion and raises. And committee work provides a chance to influence the direction of institutions.

But committee work also takes time -- time away from the research and teaching that are likely to be more important to advancement and to reflect a professor's calling. After all, how many graduate students say they want to finish their dissertations so they can attend faculty committee meetings?

As colleges have tried -- with mixed success -- to diversify their faculties, expectations about committee work have come under scrutiny. Many female and minority professors report that they are stuck with disproportionate committee work as administrations want to avoid having too many panels dominated by white men. Such assignments, these professors say, eat into the time they need to do the things that will win them tenure.

A study presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, however, suggested that this perception isn't true and that in many respects, committee participation isn't significantly different based on race or gender. Stephen R. Porter, an associate professor of research and evaluation at Iowa State University, said in his paper that he wanted to use nationwide data to examine the issue because much discussion of these topics has been based on qualitative research or data from just one campus. Porter based his findings on in-depth information provided by professors for the 1999 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty.

In summing up his findings, Porter said that most gender and racial differences were small.

Porter's findings:

  • Typical faculty members report participating in 3.7 to 3.9 committees, with participation rates higher at research universities.
  • The gender gap is very small, except at research universities, where women report serving on an average of one-half more committees than do men.
  • In evaluating committee participation by race, the analysis found no differences for black and white faculty members, across institutions types. White and Latino faculty members were also identical at research universities and liberal arts institutions.
  • At research universities and to a lesser extent in other sectors, Latino faculty members are less likely than their white counterparts to serve on curriculum and governance committees.
  • Across sectors and types of committees, Asian faculty members are less likely to participate on committees than are white faculty members.
  • The primary characteristic that predicts committee participation is faculty rank and experience. This is because many colleges try (at least in theory) to minimize participation for junior faculty members, and because many colleges explicitly bar non-tenured faculty members from participating in certain kinds of committees (especially those that are personnel related).

In his paper, Porter noted that committee membership is just one service area and that other areas are also cited by female and minority faculty members as imposing particular burdens on them. Many professors who aren't white males report, for example, that they do more informal mentoring work and formal advising.

Generally, Porter wrote that his findings represented "good news" in that "while females and faculty of color may share a disproportionate burden in terms of institutional service, it appears that this is not taking place in departmental and university committee memberships." He added that there was not evidence that minority faculty members are being kept off of key faculty panels.

At the same time, Porter said that the gaps that he did find warranted more study and possible attention, depending on the reasons found for those disparities.


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