Managing University Service Work

Blog No. 2012-01 (January 1, 2012)  

Another Year and Another Hemisphere of Professional Life

Welcome to a new year, new semester and a new posting from The Ethicist.  When writing last October, I promised to explore ethical issues in the very broad sphere of professional life, the part of our work neither falling neatly into research nor teaching.  It’s the sphere of “everything else” that can be divided into hemispheres related to issues arising from membership in professional organizations like the Academy of Management and issues arising from membership in academic or research institutions.  Last October, I wrote about an ethical issue arising from our work in professional organizations.  This time, I thought I would travel to the other hemisphere and discuss an ethical issue more commonly (for me) encountered in academic departments, colleges and universities.  The topic is service and the issue is knowing when to say no.

Why We Don’t Say “No” More Often

You know this routine.  It’s mid-afternoon, mid-semester.  You are in your office reading an article, writing a paper, or putting down the phone after a chat with an academic colleague.  There’s a quick double knock on your nearly-closed door followed up by its swift swing open to reveal the department head.  S/he’s smiling slightly, holding a sheaf of papers rolled up tightly in the left hand, casually waving you into the department office with the right hand, and mumbling three words that should turn on any faculty member’s time-management radar:  “Got a minute?”  20 minutes later, you’ve somehow consented to enlistment on a departmental committee to overhaul the undergraduate curriculum, on a college committee tasked to identify and recruit a new director of college alumni affairs, or maybe on a university task force investigating the causes and consequences of teaching assistant unionization.

What were you thinking?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself (or my wife has later asked me) many times.  I’m a guy who has trouble saying no to service, whether it be for professional or university communities.  And I don’t think I’m alone.  Service goes with our job.  It always has.  Ancient universities of Western Europe saw (and still see) college fellows debating Plutarch in the morning, and then debating alternative investment strategies for the college endowment in the afternoon.  Historically, they did administrative jobs as members holding equity rights in the college akin to property.  Today, they do so as faculty members holding (or hoping one day soon to hold) property-like “tenure” in a department, college or university.  With rights also come obligations.  Larger and wealthier academic institutions may have resources to contract out many administrative obligations to non-faculty employees.  But whether contracted out or retained within the faculty, the jobs need doing.  And faculty, starting (but not ending) with the dean, are responsible for seeing that the jobs get done and that the college moves ahead with its academic mission.  Such assumptions are central to maintaining faculty governance over any academic institution.  They’re our jobs.  It’s one important reason we might find it difficult to say no to our department head, dean, provost, chancellor or president.

There are other reasons aside from the weight of history and or the dearth of non-faculty employees.  Maybe it’s also a matter of personality.  Let’s be stereotypical for a moment and think of two extreme responses to a service request.  At one extreme, think of a brash in-your-face confrontational colleague who not only declines the current invitation to serve on a committee, but also tells the department head exactly where the next such invitation can go in advance of any knock on the office door.  At the other extreme think of a reticent go-along-by-getting-along colleague, who accommodates this and almost any other service request.  Neither extreme is appealing.  If the more realistic colleague is a mix of each, then perhaps a dash more reticence and getting along is a better long-term strategy.  On the other hand, there’s a good chance that brash, in-your-face confrontation will get you more time to finish reading the article or writing the paper in the short- to medium-term.

Maybe it’s also a matter of gender.  I claim no expertise on the topic, but there’s clearly a substantial research tradition in psychology and related fields theorizing about apparent differences in the moral decision-making processes of men and women.  30 years after its publication, Carol Gilligan’s book, In a Different Voice (Harvard University Press), can still start a lively debate over the proposition that men base their moral judgments on individual rights and abstract principles of right and wrong, while the moral understanding of women is contextual and emphasizes human needs, empathy, and interdependence.  For proponents of this view, it’s easy to see how female faculty members might find it more difficult to decline service requests.  Add to this requirements at many universities to include female (and under-represented minority) faculty on committees dealing with hiring and diversity.  It sums up to more service requests aimed at faculty who may be less pre-disposed to declining them.

Maybe it’s also a matter of taste.  To choose an academic career is, to some substantial extent, to choose a life devoted to the generation, presentation and publication of new knowledge.  Many academics are good only at that.  But some can also create the context for knowledge generation, presentation and publication by others.  Such doubly-gifted academics know how to motivate their colleagues with the right kind of faculty seminar theme, teaching schedule or research grant program.  They may even occasionally enjoy saying yes to such service.  Developing that taste can be dangerous for junior (untenured) faculty where the focus begins and ends with scholarly research publication.  For other established senior scholars, the taste for service can co-exist, even complement and enhance research agendas.  For a few, service acumen can lead to the dean’s suite.

How FAR to Go With University Service

So there are many reasons service calls and we answer.  How often should we answer in the affirmative?  How much of our job is to be devoted to service, particularly university (not professional) community service?  One way I answer the question is by looking at my annual “faculty activity report” or FAR.  It’s the form I fill out each January to tell my colleagues what I’ve been doing (and gotten done) in terms of research, teaching and service.  My colleagues, including my dean, then get to tell me how well I’ve performed and what kind of (relatively small) adjustment in remuneration last year’s performance merits in the coming academic year.  My FAR has weights:  approximately 40% of my performance is based on research; 40% is based on teaching; and 20% for service.  The FAR for an untenured assistant is weighted more on research (60%) with less on teaching (30%) and service (10%).

So my simple answer is 20% of time on the job.  It might be difficult to stick by this guide on a given day or week but over the month or semester, I can rely on certain guides –hours preparing for and attending committee meetings—to tell me whether I’m on or off track time-wise.  Of course, effective service is not merely a matter of time inputs, but also result outputs.  Did the faculty search committee I chaired come up with a pool of viable candidates leading to multiple campus visits, an offer of employment, a successful tenure review process, and then an acceptance?  In answering these questions,  I also need to account for steps that I can control better than others.

Let me complicate things a bit more.  My 20% goal includes service to the university and the profession, which often means professional academic organizations like the Academy of Management.  In prioritizing between these two, the university often loses out.  Service to a professional organization like the Academy of Management may be recognized and rewarded by your university colleagues and by your professional colleagues located throughout the world.  Not so with university service.  Recognition and reward follows from colleagues who could be with you for an entire career or for a single quarter.  For this reason alone, university service is often last hired and first fired for academics thinking strategically.

I’m not so strategic when it comes to the choice between professional and university service.  Departments and colleges (not professional organizations) are where key career decisions are made regarding tenure and promotion, curriculum, and expenditures.   For senior faculty, there can be some immediate and substantial rewards from service to those ends.  More self-interestedly, committee service means being able to set in place preferred standards and processes for allocating scarce university resources.  More altruistically, committee service means (re-)shaping a department, college or university for years to come.  It means leaving a legacy that redounds to the benefit of others in the future.

Many might disagree, but I believe that some of these critical committees are precisely where junior faculty should serve at least briefly.  A newly-minted assistant professor should, for example, serve on a department- or college-level committee charged with making recommendations about the granting of tenure.  It strikes me as an unconventional but quite effective way to acquaint junior faculty with research, teaching and service norms of the institution.  Either as a voting or non-voting member, this sort of committee work will also give new faculty rich insight on the sort of frank discussion and sometimes tough decision-making that their more senior colleagues are called on to make for the good of the institution.

Two Ideas for Managing Service Work:  A Handy List and a Yes-If Policy

Recall the scenario I described at the beginning of this post.  A faculty member meets the department head and comes away with some additional service work.  Should the faculty member have said “no” to the request?  Like many ethical questions, the answer is often “it depends.”  For me, it would depend most importantly on how much else was on my professional and university plate.  If I’m well over that 20% threshold, then I’m likely to decline the department head’s request and get back to my work.  I’m well under that 20% threshold, then I’m more likely to accept, especially if it fits my own service interests.  In making that decision, it helps me to keep handy a one-page list of current (semester or academic year) service appointments and estimated time each month devoted to such appointments.   My list is right next to the office phone just in case my department head calls rather than stops by in person.

My junior faculty colleagues might also have the same sort of handy list, and use it when mulling over the occasional service request from a department head or college administrator.  Even so, s/he may find it more difficult to decline a request.  No matter how congenial and collegial the work environment might be, there’s always some power distance between senior and junior faculty members.  And that may make it harder for the junior colleague to decline a request.  So here’s a suggestion for the junior colleague.  Don’t say “no.” Say instead “yes if.”  If the department head wants you to serve on new department or college-wide committee and if such service seems difficult to shoulder at the moment, then try a response that begins: “Yes if you can also help me get these other current service obligations met as well as this current teaching and research work you want me to prioritize.”  Many times, the department head isn’t fully aware of all service appointments that the junior faculty member is currently filling.  Alternatively, the department head just needs a little update on current teaching and research efforts as a reminder about near-term priorities.  In either case, the handy list and the yes-if policy can help junior faculty members respond to service requests.  They can also help senior faculty better manage service obligations and improve their academic institutions for future generations.

It’s a new year.  In addition to the usual resolutions we all make now, try these two.  And let me know what happens.

Best wishes for a productive and enjoyable 2012.

Please address your comments to:

Paul M. Vaaler

Department of Strategic Management

Carlson School of Management

University of Minnesota

3-424 CarlSMgmt

321 19th Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Tel (612) 625-4951

Fax (612) 626-1316


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Author: Paul Vaaler

Professional Life