Thoughts on university service.

Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad ponders faculty "service" in higher education. For those outside the ivy-covered bubble of academe, "service" usually means "committee work" or something like it.

The usual concern is that, although committees are necessary to accomplish significant bits of the work of a college or university, no one likes serving on them and every faculty member has some task that would be a better use of his or her time than being on a committee. And, because "service" is frequently a piece of the faculty member's job performance that is regularly evaluated (for retention, tenure, and promotion decisions, for example), faculty members are on the lookout for "easy" committees with which to pad the service section of their CVs.

Chad suggests that these easy service options -- and maybe some of the hard ones, too -- could be a consequence of superfluous committees:

I'd like to suggest one element that has been left out of the discussion, though: whether the service roles being demanded of faculty are really necessary. It's not clear to me that we really need all those committees. In fact, at my own institution, it seems quite clear to me that we have a lot more committees than we really need. And let's not even talk about the number of meetings held by those committees.

There's this really perverse collision of incentives that happens with committees in academia. On the one hand, nobody wants to be on committees, because they are a drain on productivity in other areas. But on the other hand, there's a need for faculty governance and faculty involvement in setting the priorities of the institution, so there need to be lots of committees with faculty members and administrators (and some students) to oversee aspects of the day-to-day operations of the institution. So we have lots of important committees that nobody wants to be on.

To fix that, we put in a requirement of some institutional service for tenure, promotion, and/or merit reviews, so people feel like they have to do something. But then, nobody wants to be on the big, important, time-consuming committees. So we create a bunch of unimportant committees to oversee things that aren't that big a drain on anybody's time, so everybody has a chance to do "service" without exerting too much effort. Which further multiplies the demand on the time of those faculty who are willing to be on committees.

I would suggest that a major step in making the service demands on faculty time more equitable is to take a hard look at the committees and meetings that are currently going on, and decide which of those we really need.

Actually, that's probably too timid-- what we really need is a sort of neo-Jeffersonian approach, watering the tree of academia with the blood of committee chairs. Wipe the slate clean, eliminate all standing committees, and re-build the structure from the ground up. If something comes up that can't be handled automatically by the administration or by a general vote of the faculty, then form a committee.
I bet this would cut the number of "service" responsibilities by about a factor of two, which would make it a whole lot easier to get all the really necessary jobs filled.

I'm no stranger to committee work and other activities that are regarded as service by the powers-that-be at my university*. (Indeed, a few years ago, I won the Dean's Distinguished Service Award for my college. Since I was untenured at that point, I probably should have been alarmed, but the small cash prize that came with the award distracted me.) So I have some thoughts in response to Chad's call for a revolution.
1. There are some standing committees an institution of higher learning just can't dissolve.
The two that leap immediately to mind for me are the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Colleges and universities have these committees because federal regulations require them -- at least if there is any animal use, whether in research or instruction, and anything like research with human subjects. Going without an IACUC or IRB would mean going without federal funding, not to mention running afoul of federal law. So, I suppose, a college that had no biology, psychology, or social science offerings might be able to dispense with these, but it wouldn't be much of a college.

There are other committees that may exist to deal with things required by accrediting agencies (whether they accredit the college or university or a particular department or program within it). I'll admit to being in the camp that thinks some of the stuff required by our accrediting agency is silly. However, failing to provide that stuff may have real consequences.

So, as appealing as a complete tear-down of the standing committees might be, it could well create more problems for a college or university and its faculty than it solves.

2. Rendering some committees obsolete (or reducing the workload they generate for committee members and others) may itself require lots of work.
A few years ago here, my department collectively snapped over the amount of work generated by the university committee that oversees the certification of courses for the general education (GE) package, and especially the applications for recertification (usually at 3-5 year intervals after the original certification). The process generated huge amounts of data collection and documentation for people teaching the GE courses and painfully detailed explanations of how each designated student learning objective was incorporated into the coursework and assessed in each section of the course over the many semesters since the last recertification request. It consumed hours and hours of faculty time and boxes and boxes of photocopy paper. And it generated exactly no useful feedback about teaching these courses successfully. (Thankfully, we get that kind of feedback from the peer teaching evaluations our department conducts every term, as well as from informal conversations we regularly have with our colleagues about teaching.)

It turns out, a few other departments that offer many GE courses had had enough of these silly committee-generated demands, too. And, within a couple of years, they were cut down to something much more reasonable -- but it took a number of meetings with college curriculum committees, audiences with the university level committee generating all the non-helpful work, and measures presented to and finally passed by the academic senate.

In other words, we had to do committee work (and form a new de facto committee or two) in order to rein in the workload demanded by another committee. And this work we did isn't the kind of work that it's always politic to list on one's CV.

3. "Fake" committee work tends not to be substantially easier or less in quantity than "real" committee work.
Even if there's not much of substance that happens at a regular meeting, such a meeting still eats up a chunk of your scarce time. Even if the work before you does not require great intellectual engagement or skilled negotiation, it still takes time away from the stack of your projects that do demand your intellectual engagement. Unless there's free food, no one has time for that (and even with the food, it may not be worth it).

My experience has been that the truly B.S. committees are not abundant, at least at my university (maybe things are different where Chad is), and I don't know anyone who would seek out a fake committee in lieu of a real one. This is not to say that such faculty members don't exist. However, there might be some benefit to letting them gravitate to each other on B.S. committees, thus keeping them out of the way when the rest of us try to take care of business on real committees.

4. Opting out of committee service means you have to make your peace with putting the issues decided by the committee on which you decline to serve in someone else's hands.
Committees end up making a lot of decisions that may matter to us in our teaching and research activities. They decide which of our colleagues will be tenured or promoted. They decide which of our colleagues will be granted sabbatical leaves. They decide curricular issues that affect our majors and graduate students. They make decisions about how to juggle scarce resources.

If you are willing to leave such decisions to your colleagues -- maybe even to your colleagues in different departments, who may have very different perspectives and priorities than your own -- then by all means, do what you can to dodge serving on committees. But if you anticipate that certain outcomes of committee deliberations could create situations that would be very bad for you and your priorities, that may be reason enough for you not to dodge service. Doing some work on a committee may take up a piece of your time, but in the not-very-long run, it may save you work by keeping things from getting too screwed up.

5. Departments that work well together often play zones when it comes to college and university level committee service.
Now, it's quite possible that my department is an anomaly as far as the level of cooperation and harmony between its members, but I suspect its collective approach to committee service may be a cause of the tranquility as much as a consequence of it. Our chair takes the lead in making sure the department's interests are represented in important places (the academic senate, the retention-tenure-promotion committees at college and university levels, etc.), and we do a lot of strategizing together** about who can best get the job done on which committee. During this strategizing, we also make sure no one is taking on too many committee assignments (which means there is some discussion about the workload involved in each committee), and people who are taking on a new committee assignment are connected with folks in the department who have served on that committee before (to share what institutional memory we have).

As a department, our involvement in committees is driven pretty strongly by what we see as our collective interests (and the interests of our students). This means we get involved where we think it would be dangerous not to get involved (see #4), and that we try to help ensure that none of us is spread too thin. After all, we don't want to break our colleagues. Rather, we want to create conditions where our colleagues can flourish.

To the extent that creating such conditions means working with folks in other departments, or in the administration, who have different interests than ours (or who prioritize their interests differently), working together on committees is something we have to do. But if we approach the work of shared governance as a team, it seems less likely to devolve into a game of chicken.

*Non-committee work I have done that gets counted as service includes being a referee for journals in my field, running our university Socrates Café, and judging the big local science fair.

**Typically, this strategizing happens at one of our two faculty meetings per academic year. See, we don't actually have meetings just for the sake of meetings.

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> Opting out of committee service means you
> have to make your peace with putting the
> issues decided by the committee on which
> you decline to serve in someone else's
> hands.

Hee hee hee, oh, boy did I get a laugh out of that one. Since when does anyone (professor at a university or not) opt-out of the ability to "throw their weight around" some decision, after the fact, and without regard to whether or not their own opinion is contraindicated by some part of the decision-making process, the overall goal of the decision, the committee, the department, the university, the for-profit institution, the governmental body... or the laws of physics, for that matter?

Of course, I'm not aware of the culture at every academic institution, but I've had evidence of at least one case where bending "the rules" is largely a matter of picking up a phone, dialing an appropriate phone number, and making enough a nuisance out of yourself that somebody gives you what you want just to shut you up.

Even if what you want is to overturn the decision of that committee that you refused to join because you didn't want to spend the time...

I represented the university on a state-wide committee charged with doing bad things to higher education. I managed to slow the process down and convert the rest of the committee to my view. I was thanked by the rest of the committee during our last meeting, and we quietly faded away without accomplishing our mission.

life is for having fun, so committees must be for having fun, right?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 10 Sep 2009 #permalink

1. There are some standing committees an institution of higher learning just can't dissolve.

You can add the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) to that list. Every institution that has one or more NIH grants must have one of these.

One question though: is it really a given that necessary committee work actually has to be performed in the form of a committee, and by the faculty? After all, there's lots of administrative-style work that is not done by committee and not done by faculty already.

Take, say, IRB. It's necessary and important, it involves learning about a substantial legal framework and it has a regular workload. Just off the top of my head here's another way of doing it: Hire two or three professionals part time to do it - from faculty, from the post-doc ranks or from the outside. It shouldn't be too hard to find a clinical psychologist, for instance, that would be happy to take a few fully paid hours a week, especially when they can add a university association to their CV. And if they're from the outside, there's no charges of bias either.

But who's going to pay? You already are. Don't know about your university but wherever I've been a very large chunk of research money (40% or so) are taken by the uni for exactly these kind of services.

Interesting blog posting with some good ideas. This is a quick response to Janne's suggestion/example above, to pay external people "for a few fully paid hours" of service to run an IRB (REB in Canada).

While this is a tempting suggestion, there are more than a few downsides to thinking about this possibility. First, it takes much more than a few fully paid hours to run even a low volume IRB. It can be a full time job for many more than one person along with IRB members who are conducting reviews, etc. It is hours and hours of work.

As far as charges of bias, this isn't as relevant as you might think. IRBs are charged with the mandate of protecting human participants. The model of local review (in which research is reviewed at the site at which recruitment will take place or where the research will be based) means that it's beneficial to have IRB members who have knowledge of the institution/population/community. Having external persons as IRB members is clearly an important and necessary step to help prevent issues around potential conflict of interest but to have the entire process situated external to an institution creates other kinds of problems.

Finally, research ethics is more than just an IRB doing their work. It's part of a University's culture and should be embedded in the institution, in curricula and other learning opportunities and outreach an IRB can and should provide.

By "outsourcing" this work, you are essentially stating, at least to some, that this is simply administrative work that "must be done" instead of an integral part of University and research culture.

I've served on a lot of committees. And I'm guilty for being instrumental in the creation of at least one committee that, as far as I know, ended up doing absolutely nothing (though there were loads of good intentions going into its creation). I would say, most of the committees I was on (except the one I helped create) had a purpose and a clear reason for being, and important work to do, even if it was often irksome and tiring to be part of the committee meetings (and rub shoulders with some of the other committee members...)

My only advice would be, given my experience, to absolutely resist being involved in the creation of a new committee unless it is very very clear what is the intended purpose of the committee, and whether it has a natural lifespan or is expected to go on indefinitely, and if the latter, then clarity of purpose and pre-planning is even more important than ever. If possible, talk to colleagues at other universities who may have experience with similar committees to get their perspective and advice.

People speak of service as if it were just some necessary evil but some of the committee work I engaged formed part of the most rewarding work I did while I was employed by a university, and I'm not saying that because my job wasn't great - it was fabulous.