As the dean of a college whose faculty includes many assistant professors, I am frequently asked for advice on how much service they should undertake. The twin horns of their dilemma? They know that service counts for less than teaching or research in annual and promotion evaluations … but they also know that demonstrating leadership potential through community engagement is important.
The tines on the horns? Time itself is an issue: theirs is limited and service is notorious for temporal rapacity.
The kinds of service that junior faculty members cite as essential for proving their mettle as future leaders tend to fall into two categories. Some feel compelled to join high-profile (which often means high-workload) committees to make their dedication visible. Others believe they must hold titled positions, such as committee chair, to document their capabilities.
I agree with the goal but not the methods. Early-career faculty can demonstrate initiative, responsibility, and engagement in myriad ways, few of which require devoting long hours to committee work or vying for titled roles. For a pre-tenure faculty member, establishing yourself as an effective teacher and scholar is paramount. Demonstrating the kinds of leadership skills that will translate, post-tenure, into significant service to the department, university, and profession can and should be undertaken through efforts that also contribute to your teaching and scholarship.
What constitutes leadership?
What does it mean to act as a leader in an academic setting? It entails translating a relevant vision into action. In other words: identifying a goal that the community needs to meet, gathering consensus about how to proceed, and ensuring that the consensus is acted upon. Each of these pieces is essential. The goal must truly improve the functioning of the community (not just meet the needs of the individual); the methods must be seen as valid by those affected; the community must deem the individual appropriate to take the necessary actions; and the individual must follow through effectively.
When considering whether a junior faculty member is demonstrating leadership, I do not just enumerate the committees they have joined or titles they have held. Instead, I scan to see what that committee accomplished and what parts of that success are attributed to the individual. I look to see whether the faculty member has sought to work with colleagues on a new course, grant proposal, or paper. I look for evidence that they took the time to act as a peer mentor to an even newer faculty member. In other words, I look for evidence of initiative and impact.
I also look to see whether they are creating or reinvigorating anything in our college that advances our academic mission: a course, a lunch series, a student group, a journal club, a research collaboration. Initiating something that others value (as shown by their participation) is evidence of the capacity for leadership.
How to act as a leader?
To act as a leader, first identify a goal that you wish to champion within your unit. As a pre-tenure faculty member, pick something that will assist you with your primary mission of becoming an effective and efficient scholar and teacher. At the same time, it should have similar impact on your colleagues so that it benefits the larger community. Ideally, it will be consistent with broader departmental aims such as promoting undergraduate research, fostering interdisciplinary work or conserving energy.
An immediate corollary is establishing why the goal has not already been achieved. Is it something the community has deliberately chosen not to do? Are you the first to spot this as an opportunity for improvement? Has no one had the time or skills to make it happen? Conversations starting with open-ended questions like “Has the department ever thought about…?” or “Do you think anyone would be interested in…?” can elicit crucial insights as to where this idea may fit into the cultural landscape of your department.
Be prepared to learn of practical reasons why the idea cannot easily be implemented or may not be seen as very important by others. Conversely, if others are enthusiastic, be prepared for them to want to help shape the path toward reaching the goal.
Building support for an idea (even one that appears to be practical and consonant with departmental culture) will involve still more conversations. You will need to marshal detailed evidence that suggests your goal will be feasible and will lead to the desired improvements. You must also ascertain whom you must consult and in what order.
For instance, if your idea involves creating an online syllabus repository, you should be able to explain how it will help all instructors, note that other new faculty members have asked for such a resource, and suggest how it could easily be kept up to date. You may need to consult the curriculum committee, the departmental chair, the faculty advisory group, and even the administrator of the departmental website.
As another example, if your idea involves starting a journal club to promote research collaborations, consider how it could also contribute to graduate education or boost participation in existing speaker series. The associate chair for graduate studies or the colloquium committee may turn out to be valuable partners.
Even if your idea is deemed sound, someone else may end up being tasked with accomplishing it. Perhaps it requires technical expertise that is beyond your skills. Perhaps it is seen as sufficiently sensitive that only a tenured person should undertake it. Perhaps it will be expensive to implement and the department chair will need to first find the money. Offering to help with the aspects accessible to you can nonetheless provide valuable experience, demonstrate your determination to follow through, and give you a chance to work with someone more senior.
If you are the right person for the job, then it will be essential to see it through to completion. Discuss a plan of work and likely timeline with a seasoned mentor to ensure you are setting yourself up for success. Vet early versions of the final product with others to keep on track with departmental expectations. Let colleagues know when the job is done so they can start using what you have created.
Finally, reflect on what you have learned from the experience, how it shows your capacity to act as a leader, and how it has helped you advance your teaching and research programs. If possible, identify a campus workshop you can attend to acquire skills that might make you more effective the next time you lead a project. Incorporate these thoughts and plans into your annual merit review documents or C.V., so that others can appreciate what you have accomplished and offer feedback.
Above all, keep your eyes open for further opportunities to simultaneously develop as a teacher, scholar and leader.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics at Michigan State University.