Teaching, scholarship, and service—the “holy trinity” of a professor’s professional life. When it comes time for tenure and promotion, the final decision hinges entirely on these three areas. To be sure, the weight given to each category differs from place to place. Research and teaching institutions respectively prioritize scholarly output and classroom competence. Irrespective of the setting, though, professors have at their disposal tangible artifacts to demonstrate their effectiveness in either domain, from books and articles to student evaluations and classroom observations from their colleagues.
When it comes to service, though, things get hazy—especially when it’s university-related work. This category gets reduced to a mere list of committees, searches, and assorted administrative tasks. Accordingly, much like the Supreme Court’s infamous definition of pornography, those reviewing these lists assume that they know a sufficient service record when they see it.
While this is an institutional habit at many universities, it should also be a cause for concern. Taking service for granted has enabled an unjust system that has placed the burden of this sort of work onto a select few—most of whom are women.
Indeed, an article in the journal Academe reports that while women have steadily been populating the tenured ranks of higher education, they remain less likely than their male counterparts to become full professors. This is not due to these women being content with staying at the associate rank. Rather, mid-career female scholars frequently find themselves trapped in what the authors call, “the gully of service.” In other words, after being awarded tenure, women are more likely to become bogged down in the work of sustaining and maintaining the institutions that employ them. Meanwhile, their research agendas—a key requirement for advancement at most universities—becomes a peripheral concern.
So, the ivory tower’s glass ceiling is the direct consequence of a tendency to make women into the principal agents of “institutional housekeeping.” How can we correct this? We can begin by changing a culture that perceives service to the university as being less than teaching or scholarship. Institutions of higher education do not run themselves. And faculty must be involved in the decisions that define our places of employment. Let’s agree, then, to honor this work and those who do it.
Words, though, are cheap. But service doesn’t need to be.
If we are serious about eliminating the “gully of service,” we need to also monetize service. It is an idea that might seem radical or unprecedented. But it is neither. Consider that at my institution, I am contracted to teach four courses each semester. If I fail to teach this number of courses, I have violated the terms of my contract. Conversely, if I agree to teach more than this, I am compensated accordingly.
We would do well to apply this same logic to service, producing contracts that clearly state the parameters for the required amount. This would not only incentivize individual faculty to become more (or less) involved, but it would also cause a shift in thinking at the administrative level. Our present system imagines that the pool for service-work is limitless. By monetizing service, we bring scarcity into the equation and force everyone to differentiate between what needs to be done and what just looks good. Put another way, one can easily imagine an administrator thinking long and hard about creating yet another “assessment task force” if that person knew that the human capital available is limited.
I realize that there are many devils lurking in the details of my proposal. Translating university service into quantifiable terms is no simple matter. But this problem is too great to dismiss on the grounds that solving it would be too complicated. The status quo on service to the university is an insult not only to female professors, but also to anyone who is sincere about making this work meaningful. By putting a price tag on university service, we would be sending a signal that our efforts in this area are valued and valuable.