The Academy as a Public Works Project

Article excerpt

We need to reassess where, how, and whom we serve in the same way we have reassessed teaching.

Our varied views of service come to the fore when we evaluate one another's work, most notably in promotion and tenure reviews. If you have worked on such reviews, you may have observed the differences among your colleagues' service contributions. One faculty member may have served on an editorial board and evaluated grant proposals. Perhaps another did committee work and served as a program director, while a third was involved with outreach and bridge programs for minority students.

Each of these service activities involves different collaborators and purposes, though we rarely have the time to pause and reflect on the differences in how our work serves our disciplines, our institutions, and the broader public. These differences have become more important as we have been pressed to account for our contributions in terms that make sense in the prevailing service economy. Nowhere are our accounts of our contributions more definitive than in the promotion and tenure process. Tenure defines not only individual academic careers but also the very nature of academic work, and deliberations on tenure provide our most explicit and carefully considered evaluations of our work.


Our promotion and tenure reviews generally concentrate on research and teaching, often leaving little time to delve into the vagaries of service and outreach contributions unless an individual has served in a particularly prestigious role. Service to our disciplines typically has the most prestige because being invited to serve on an editorial board or review grants indicates that someone has gained national recognition in his or her field. Committee and administrative assignments confer the least status. They are generally taken into account only if faculty members refuse to meet their obligations or do them so badly that others are leftto do all the work. Outreach often falls somewhere in between-depending on how committee members understand the mission of their discipline, department, and institution. In virtually every case, service "obligations" carry less weight than research or teaching. After all, service commitments commonly account for the smallest fraction of our workload assignments. As a result, we often try to "protect" junior faculty by advising them to limit their service duties to avoid having committee assignments take time away from the research needed to earn tenure, promotions, and raises.

Such advice often comes up in my discussions of promotion and tenure. As part of my work as associate provost, I help coordinate the review of up to one hundred promotion and tenure dossiers each year. By the time I see them, every dossier has been read by more than twenty external reviewers, committee members, and administrators. Together they write about thirty to fifty pages of commentary on each candidate's work. Ironically, none of that feedback will actually get back to a candidate unless there is an appeal. Each external reviewer will write as many as seven pages of detailed analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of candidates' publications, and perhaps of their courses and even their service contributions. These letters include some of the richest analyses that faculty members will receive in their entire career, and yet they will never read them.

This fact can be rather disconcerting to consider if you have spent time writing external letters or serving on promotion and tenure committees. To protect confidentiality, those who serve on departmental committees are not generally informed about how their assessments were viewed by those who are involved in later stages in the process, or even how the process itself turned out. As a result, the promotion and tenure process tends to function as a sort of black box that records our most carefully developed assessments of the values of our work, including the services we provide to our disciplines, our institutions, and the public. …