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Called to Serve — Often

How universities can lessen the burden and increase the reward of faculty service commitments

December 3, 2014
COACHE gears

To an observer, there is something ennobling in the fact that service — to one’s university, department, and discipline — is an integral responsibility of academic life. It distinguishes universities from other types of workplaces, and it underscores the commitment that faculty members make to shared governance and to the scholarly enterprise, in addition to their individual academic careers.

For faculty members themselves, though, service obligations too often bring headaches, breed resentment, and drain energy, according to a new white paper released by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Assessing the Burdens of Service

As part of its “Benchmark Best Practices” series, COACHE surveyed faculty and leaders at its member institutions — more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada — about their satisfaction with the amount of time they spent on service, the nature and impact of the work, and the discretion they had in choosing the projects they served.

Although faculty overwhelmingly value willingness to serve in their colleagues, many feel dissatisfied with their own service commitments, the survey reveals. They sit on too many committees doing unfulfilling work, they generate reports with no impact, and they see a system that burdens the good citizens who step up, allowing other colleagues to evade responsibilities.

“The COACHE instrument provides measures of satisfaction with service commitments,” said Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of the project. “Service is part of the faculty DNA that cannot and should not be changed. But satisfaction with service? That’s a needle that can be moved.”

Despite good intentions, universities send mixed messages when they allow pre-tenure faculty to avoid service commitments as they bolster their tenure cases, the report finds. Such policies not only increase the burden on senior faculty, but they create the sense that service is both a chore and unvalued.

Fixing the Service Pipeline

“The good news is, fixing service doesn’t require a big budget,” said Mathews. Using diagnostic reports, COACHE helps college leaders improve the working conditions of professors. “But it does require leadership.” Findings like these, he explained, give presidents and provosts an opportunity to empower faculty to reorganize or reform their own self-governing systems.

Among institutions where faculty members reported more satisfaction with their service commitments, several common themes and practices emerged:

  1. The service commitments are tied to institutional mission and culture.
  2. Service obligations are seen as meaningful.
  3. Expectations for service are communicated clearly, upon hire, and through a variety of avenues, including the handbook, orientation events, and in reviews.
  4. Hiring is aligned with institutional values; institutions that value service seek to hire faculty who do too.
  5. Respected faculty members engage in service, allowing newer faculty to see that service matters and is valued.
  6. Service is recognized.
  7. Service is voluntary, not coercive. Disciplinary variations in service expectations are respected.

In addition to summarizing common themes, the white paper cites specific examples of successful practices at Fayetteville Sate University, Hamilton College, Kenyon College, North Carolina State University, Stonehill College, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the University of St. Thomas, and the State University of New York system.

Download the full COACHE benchmark report on service, or browse benchmark reports on best practices across a variety of topics related to faculty and administrative careers in higher education.

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