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Doing the work: the value of academic service

There are systemic issues within our institutions that continue to present significant barriers to equity, diversity, and inclusion. This is not meant to be a ‘hot take’ - the data are conclusive; everything from biased recruitment, to teaching evaluations, to meeting schedules serve to maintain long-established imbalances in representation amongst tenured faculty and University administrators. The broad-ranging benefits to correcting this imbalance are also obvious; diversity in leadership is positively correlated with productivity and creativity, and provides visible role models to otherwise underrepresented groups. As a result, there has been a groundswell of support for structural changes to begin correcting these imbalances.


A change to the status-quo would, of course, be welcomed. But it raises the question of who is going to do the work? Across departments, institutions, and learned societies, committees are being struck, internal reviews initiated, workshops organized, and panels convened. But if you look closely at who is driving these initiatives you’ll see that, unsurprisingly, the burden falls disproportionately on faculty and trainees who identify as belonging to one or more of these underrepresented groups. I say ‘unsurprisingly’ because these individuals historically take on outsized service allocations, and may feel a greater sense of urgency for systemic change. However, the allocation of time is a zero-sum game - additional service work undertaken in support of equity further disenfranchises underrepresented groups by taking time away from those parts of the job that are valued and emphasized in hiring and promotion decisions (i.e. research/teaching).


And herein lies the dilemma - we cannot support systemic change when our evaluative frameworks are punitive to those willing to do the work. One solution put forth to correct the more general imbalance in service loads between underrepresented and majority groups asks that administrators audit service assignments and redistribute as needed to ensure fairness. However, this fails to address extramural service, and seems poorly designed to address the types of service described here (i.e. while there should be increased participation from majority group members in EDI initiatives, the value provided by underrepresented voices in restructuring policies cannot be replaced). Instead, I would argue that we need to fundamentally reassess the way in which we value service contributions.


At present, academic service nominally comprises 20% of my workload. However, as part of their ‘tips for promotion and tenure’, my Faculty Association provides the following guidance: ‘Understand that the focus for your probationary period is research and teaching—you can’t get tenure by having a great service record.’ But why do we place so little value on service? Promotion and tenure are commonly awarded to those judged to have made outstanding contributions to their field of study, as evidenced by traditional measures of research productivity (and to a lesser extent, teaching proficiency). However, if we truly believe that inequity in the academy is an issue of significant consequence, then service roles that aim to correct these inequities necessarily represent meaningful contributions. This imbalance between the value placed on academic service, and the value it provides is documented in the film ‘Picture a Scientist’, where Nancy Hopkins reflects on her efforts to correct gender inequity amongst faculty at MIT. She notes that the 20 hours per week she spent on these efforts were time wasted with respect to her research program; however, it would seem inarguable that advances in gender-equity tied directly to her successes represent an outstanding contribution, both in supporting female representation in STEM and via the collective research productivity afforded to her peers and subsequent generations of female scientists by a more equitable allocation of resources. While I am not proposing that one should be promoted based solely on a strong record of service, I argue that the systematic devaluation of this type of work represents a structural barrier to those compelled to undertake it.


So, where to start? In the short term, promotion and tenure committees should be asked to critically evaluate the way they consider the value of academic service as part of their decision making processes, and consider ways to thoughtfully acknowledge the value provided by academic service in the broader context. In the longer term, it is worth considering whether evaluative frameworks (such as those specified in our collective agreements) should be revised to align the value that we place on service roles with the value they provide. To be clear, this represents a course correction to one aspect of a broad and complex system that functions to marginalize some groups and benefit others. However, I believe it represents an acknowledgment of the necessity to move toward a more inclusive academy, and a means of acknowledging the people who are doing the work that will keep us in motion.


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