Service Reform

The Dean Dad and the Tenured Radical are having a really good discussion of service responsibilities, or as TR puts it, the "Just Say No" problem:

The Just Say No (to everyone but me) issue is a problem that, frankly, untenured people, adjuncts and visitors are not responsible for managing; and that achieving tenure can make worse, not better. If you belong to the untenured masses, it is not unreasonable -- nor does it represent a failure of maturity -- to choose a senior colleague, even better the department or program chair, to help you manage the demands on your time. How many advisees is reasonable? How many students should you take over the stated limit, if any? If you agree to non-departmental obligations when they coincide with intellectual, institutional or political interests of yours, will the department understand that it is part of your overall load, or will your colleagues add on departmental tasks regardless of your overall work load?

But I would like to emphasize that the Just Say No philosophy misses the larger point of how poorly understood and ill-managed the average work load of the average faculty member is. Many colleges and university faculties, committed as we are to a model of scholarship that is predominantly individualistic, spend little time thinking about what constitutes a reasonable work load, as well as how (and by who) it should be assigned, monitored and evaluated. What does remain constant are expectations about scholarly production: in other words, regardless of how many committees you are on, advisees you have, enrollments and/or overloads you are juggling, every person who is coming up for an evaluation -- whether it is promotion to tenure, to full professor or for annual merit raises -- is expected to have moved forward in hir scholarship in approximately the same way and to a similar standard of excellence.

She offers some concrete advice for people seeking to rebalance their service responsibilities, and establish reasonable standards of committment. The Dean Dad rightly points out that this, while admirable, would still amount to a voluntary system that would fail in exactly the same way as the current system: namely, the current academic system requires people to fill seats on the committees that handle the business of the institutions, and for responsible people to "Just Say No" puts them into a game of "chicken" with the irresponsible and amoral. Somebody has to take on those service jobs, and those with a conscience are at a huge disadvantage when trying to refuse, even for good reason.

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.

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We aren't too bad on the "drone committee" part of the spectrum, but there are a few college-wide ones that don't get any respect from the administration. (They meet, yet their recommendations are ignored.) We also have one that appears to be doing something our IR people should be doing, if they knew what they were doing. Both are, by the way, hard to fill!

Apropos your committee chair comment, the biggest problem with many committees is that they are poorly run. One of DD's finest articles concerns how to run a meeting. Go to 12/6/2006 if you want to look it up.

My problem with DD (you can read it there) is how he goes all passive-agressive about the failings of management.

My problem with TR's commentary is that bit about seeing last year's final class counts with names removed. Names removed? How can that info be secret? (Even students and the general public can see that info at our college if they know where to look.) The starting point would be to put all of the data out there: classes, body count times hours it meets, committees times hours met (which can be zero), advisees. Whatever counts. Public shame is a starting point.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink