WATCHING ADAMS COMMENTARY – 10/31/16
When I started in academia, I quickly learned that there are three fundamental pillars to a good faculty member: teaching, scholarship, and service. I’ve noticed that many of my more observant colleagues have come to focus on the first two and are wisely avoiding any more of the third than they have to. Which is too bad, of course, because shared governance is a vital component of any institution and certainly impacts faculty, staff, and students alike. But what I have come to surmise here at ASU arises out of a deeply flawed and problematic campus culture that leads to a pragmatic conclusion, however glib: university service at Adams State is for suckers.
Teaching is likely why many of us got into the professoriate in the first place; interacting with students in our areas of expertise is deeply fulfilling and is probably the biggest consolation prize for all the bureaucracy, low pay, and negative office politics we try to avoid. Scholarship is likely the other main reason; researching and publishing on the topics that animate our intellectual lives keeps our teaching relevant and can elevate our career trajectories (and perhaps rub off on a worthy supporting institution). Years ago, I would have written a passionate defense of university service, as well, but not at ASU today. Here are the three major reasons why I believe service at ASU is somewhere between a fool’s errand and flirtation with career suicide.
1. Higher education doesn’t recognize university service especially favorably
Admittedly, this is a general problem in higher education, made especially intractable at an isolated rural university. Unlike a professor behind a lectern or one published in an academic journal, serving on a committee may be little more than a warm body who shows up to approve meeting minutes (if any minutes are taken and posted, at all). Typically, committee work tends to take credit for any improvement – however immeasurable – while deflecting elsewhere responsibility for any deficiency. While any faculty member can distinguish themselves with strong student evaluations and a rigorous publication record, filling a CV with university service tends to say very little about the professor in particular.
At ASU, this is made worse by its isolated, rural location that can very well bury a professor in committee work with no end in sight and diminished ability to remain a competitive and relevant member of their peers outside their own university. A heavy commitment to university service at ASU could brand a professor as a “lifer” with little chance of escaping because their CV won’t reflect more research and publications than they have in their limited bid at the third leg of this trifecta. Given heavy teaching loads as the norm and an almost endless bid for committee work, it’s entirely likely that scholarship is an afterthought at ASU that nobody other than each individual faculty member can fight to maintain. And don’t even get me started with overloading courses online for extra pay.
2. ASU’s shared governance is broken and the administration prefers it that way
For those unfortunate or unwitting enough to take on a large number of university service commitments, a sea of red tape awaits in which to drown. Some of this is the invariable result of bringing together a large group of people to accomplish tasks in a democratic fashion, which is defensible. What is indefensible has been a culture of obstruction at ASU – with groups across campus experiencing the intentional and institutionalized delay of progress on any number of campus initiatives that should have been completed years ago. I don’t even have to name any here because anyone remotely familiar with ASU or the reporting on Watching Adams has thought of one or several examples already.
The concept of university service is in the aspirational practice of shared governance. Given the often autocratic and deliberately obstructionist tactics of Adams State administrators past and present, shared governance is broken and the administration prefers it that way. Too often, individual employees with a connection to the administration make an end-run because they understandably recognize the designated democratic processes are designed to fail and instead stifle anyone who has the temerity to work through the system for meaningful change. Sure, a kitschy crosswalk or two are easy enough to implement, but actually achieving systemic change (like faculty status for librarians, or pay equity with CUPA data, or a return to emphasize academics over athletics, or a structural and fully-funded HSI curriculum, or any number of policies ASU doesn’t have at all) is an effort destined to be stonewalled.
3. ASU’s campus culture punishes anything resembling dynamic university service
Let’s assume that an especially motivated and adept faculty member is able to time-manage their university service at the expense of scholarship with an ever-present full teaching load. Let’s further assume they are somehow able to play the three-dimensional bureaucratic chess necessary to implement some dynamic university service that will truly make a difference rather than maintaining a “business as usual” institutional culture. What then? Swift punishment is likely eminent. That’s because ASU’s culture of fear and retribution punishes anyone who might use the powers of shared governance to affect real institutional change.
At ASU, the worst label anyone could have is being a “troublemaker.” So while trying to make bold moves in Professional Administration Staff Council or Faculty Senate or Classified Employees Council might seem like the right thing to do when any amount of data or best practices in higher education would demand as much, doing so at ASU raises institutional alarms and instantly subjects any faculty or staff member to ongoing harassment, shunning, bullying, and a generally hostile workplace. And God forbid any faculty or staff member attempts to start their own committee (administrations will refer to it as a “rogue group”) to go about dynamic and urgent university service.
However noble the intentions or sincere the convictions, university service at ASU is for suckers. My colleagues at ASU who prefer to focus on their teaching and scholarship are making whatever cynical, calculated, and battle-hardened choices they need to survive a faculty position at ASU long enough to advance their careers. While I have no doubt that the “lifers” will redouble their efforts to maintain the established order – however often it fails students and the campus community at large, I am seeing more ASU faculty with an eye on the door and their minds on the future limit their university service commitments. There are only so many ways to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic before it’s time to admit that the ship is sinking – and that there may not be enough life rafts for everyone to escape with their careers intact.