At your service: all of the responsibility, none of the authority?

In a post about having responsibility but no power in a new service task, Bardiac writes:

I’ve been asked to consider taking on a new responsibility here. It’s a responsibility that comes with a lot of responsibility, and relatively little power, though it’s very important that the job be done well and ethically. It involves working with folks who have tenure, organizing them to get certain tasks done.

.       .       .       .      .       .      
So, as a responsible person with relatively little power (I can’t fire these folks, affect their pay, or withhold special treats/privileges), what do you do when someone says “no” to doing their share of a group job?

In general, it’s a good policy to avoid assignments in which one would have all of the responsibility, but little or no authority.  I have taken on major service tasks in which the responsibility-to-authority ratio was a little more evenly balanced–for example, I served as Graduate Studies Chair, and I served on the program committee of a major conference.  (These jobs also kicked my butt–that was the responsibility side!)  But in both of those jobs–as on the search committees I’ve been on–I got relatively immediate gratification.  We hired a fine new colleagues/admitted some promising new graduate students/or put together a great conference program–and so I got to see what all of my work added up to within a year or so–and then it was done.

We all know that service tasks undertaken by the faculty are hardly ever recognized or rewarded with respect to our annual salary exercises or with respect to tenure and promotion.  And yet, someone’s got to do the jobs in which the authority : responsibility ratio is all out of proportion.  There are a few exceptions for which I’d consider breaking my general rule–such as, is the task one I think is important and whose goals I believe in, or one I might even enjoy?  That would make the work easier to bear.  But (for example) feeding the bureaucratic beast is not my priority.

Bardiac’s commenters have a lot of good ideas:  for example, it helps if you’re someone who always pitches in, or if others are in your debt.  Someone also suggested flattery.  Finally, one commenter’s brief (and I think humorous?) suggestion was simply:  “I have two words for your consideration – Tonya Harding.”  (Does anyone under the age of 30 or so get that joke?) 

What do you think?  Which have been your service tasks from hell, and which have worked out okay, or even (to your surprise) have been enjoyable?

0 thoughts on “At your service: all of the responsibility, none of the authority?

  1. Most satisfying committee task: Serving on a academic dean search committee. It was a huge committee with a lot of different disciplines, but everything turned out OK. All three candidates we recommended were strong. It was satisfying because I got to meet new people and I thought we did a good job.

    Moderately Satisfying committee task (I.e. did not suck rotten eggs as badly as I had expected): Believe it or not, working on my Department’s assessment plan! This was an assignment that I loathed when I first drew the short straw. But thanks to a couple of really pragmatic colleagues, it turned out to be very useful and helped me think about my teaching in a new way. It helped that one of the committee members had worked in K-12 education for many years. He/she knew the lingo of assessment and had a well developed BS detector. As a result, we put together an assessment plan that will actually help us get useful information about our program w/out giving the administration ammunition to use against us. And that was the best possible “outcome” for that committee assignment.

    I’ve been spared, so far, from having a really painful committee assignment. Although I suspect I will have to take my turn as chair at some point (hopefully that can wait a decade).


  2. Historiann, you’ve had so many great posts the last two weeks, and I’ve only been able to read them after the fact. Accidental that I’m on time today, but also a quick thought about service.

    Service, one quickly learns, is the cement of academic culture. It’s vital, and it can sink you. Our jobs have few requirements, and lots of implied obligations. But it’s always seemed to me that the key to service is the group and the group culture, around you. In my previous job the group wasn’t particularly hardworking, and senior people shifted a lot of burden to younger people without being willing to share real authority. Time spent in service was time away from teaching and research, which in the end were far more valued. In my current job there is an incredible ethic of mutual responsibility– service is far more intense than anyplace else I’ve worked, but it’s also clear that absolutely everyone pitches in. That means that service is valued, that people really try to do a god job, and that they appreciate and reward the good service their colleagues are performing within the department or institution and professionally. It’s not always as peachy as I make it out here– because the load is heavy–but the burden to satisfaction/ reward ratio is much better.


  3. Most enjoyable service: Giving a talk/leading discussion of a book for a local library series. It’s always fun, the audience is always very appreciative, and it’s something simple that I can do that always leaves me feeling good.

    Most rewarding and yet most maddening service: Curricular reform. It’s most rewarding for me because I care so deeply about keeping curriculum strong, but it’s also most maddening because it’s a process that’s all about slow compromise and about political alliances and somehow getting people with lots of different agendas on the same page, and work that goes mostly unrecognized.

    Most irritating service: Any task that has a person running it who doesn’t know how to run a meeting, who calls multiple meetings, and who ensures that meetings do not accomplish their agendas in 1 hour or under. I’m happy to serve, but I’m not happy to have my time wasted.


  4. I agree that institutional service can be thankless, grinding, and soul-sapping. When and where good friends and colleagues fail to shoulder their load, it can also be demoralizing. But we don’t do it for the good feelings and fuzzy memories, do we? We do it because it is an expression of civic commitment. What I mean is, service is an extension of our belief in faculty governance. We don’t want to delegate to the Chair responsibility for every decision, and more than we want the President acting as a one-man search committee, or the Provost sitting alone to determine tenure and/or promotion. We do these things for the “we,” right?

    (In my old age, you will find me sitting in a soft chair, with a bottle of Scotch in my lap, mumbling something like this. I suppose the real question is whether I will believe it then, when I can look back and think about books not written and articles given up in favor of service).

    To get to H-Ann’s question:

    Best service gig: program director – lovely people, lots of fun, no formal concern about T & P, great chance for curricular creativity.

    Second best: external program reviewer – got me out of town, and walking in another person’s shoes. Plus: some $

    Worst service gig: co-DGS – my partner refused to use email; no real compensation; a ton of work with no real payoff.


  5. OPU has a huge service burden — despite the fact that we have lots of highly-paid administrators, whose ranks have increased vastly over the past ten years. I fail to understand why it is that we have such a thick layer of administrative personnel, yet it seems we faculty also are doing lots of service under the rubric of “shared governance.” Harumph!

    Nevertheless, I have had some very good service experiences. I was program director for a small interdisciplinary program for two years, during which time we hired two new colleagues into that program — so I chaired those search committees. Since the program was small, those two colleagues really had an impact, and it was really gratifying to have the opportunity to establish something in that way. I also served on two committees dealing with a provost position — first an evaluation of an outgoing provost, then a recommendation of a successor. Those were interesting because they provided an opportunity to meet people from across the campus whom I would not have encountered around my department.

    The worst committee is a departmental I am asked to serve upon frequently, which involves, among several other responsibilities, the task of setting up class timings for a group of about 12 colleagues. Of course, getting time preferences from them is like extracting teeth; when I finally do, all 12 people tend to request the same three time slots; and there are 3 colleagues who can be relied upon to refuse all compromise or acceptance of second choices, but who then will complain endlessly if their classes overlap with anyone else’s. This task makes me want to shoot myself.

    I will say that, in 14 years teaching at OPU, I am seldom placed on “important” departmental committees, despite the fact that I am actually quite reliable. It’s because I don’t train that many graduate students, and graduate studies is pretty much my department’s #1 (and #2) priority. I have only served on a History department search committee once, for example; and have never been on the planning committee. Instead, I usually get the teaching committee — the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. On the one hand, the good thing about this is that the tasks of the teaching committee can mostly be done from home, so it only has 4-5 meetings per year. On the other hand, my service assignments make it clear to me that I am structurally marginal within my department — and that contributes to a general sense of alienation from OPU. I don’t have much invested in a departmental identity, but I enjoy my teaching and research, and find other satisfactions in art and performance.


  6. Service to Ethnic Studies is almost always expected; yet it is some of the most unacknowledged service on campus. These units are often starved for funds, but also are often the only instruments of “diversity” on campus.


  7. Anyone have advice on a related question I’ve mentioned here before: What do you do when your institution assigns jobs with power to men and jobs with drudgery to women? At schools where I’ve taught, women are expected to toil humbly in the service of other people’s agendas. Junior men too, but once a man gets tenure, it’s understood that he gets either at least one pocket of fiefdom + pork or a total free-pass on committee work. Senior women don’t rise to power and are not excused from laboring.

    Is there a solution? I’ve tried to stir up some collective resistance but my female colleagues seem unwilling to rock the boat.


  8. I generally copy Squadrato on that last paragraph there. Good service? A double-search committee, with about 28 interviews in two very different fields over 30 hours, the candidates all mixed-and-matched across the two searches, in two very different venues: the infamous Pit one day and the “Mini-Make Believe Ballroom” upstairs the other. Two colleagues got royally chewed out by the volunteer staffers of the holding pen downstairs when they tried to clarify appointment issues. And the committee (but none of the candidates!) committed one major ettiquete faux-pas which was kind of hillarious, but still not really excusable) Try sorting out what you remember after a crazy salad like that. But, it was in Chicago, Historiann’s fave-AHA venue :), as well as mine, and we hauled back some good finalist candidates and two good colleagues.

    Medium/bad service? Elected department “Senator” to an Addled Parliament deliberative body. Can’t elaborate. Nightmare service? Illegally “elected” member of a U-wide committee (i.e., contrary to explicit eligibility bylaws disclosed much later) that I didn’t seek or even much know about, and having to extract myself from that quagmire.


  9. My experience is that carrots work much better than sticks in these situations. If you try to tell someone over whom you have no actual authority that they “must” do something, you’re fucked. The trick is to convince the person that it is in their *own* interest to do the thing you want them to do.

    In order to play this game effectively, that means you need to have a very clear picture of what the person’s interests actually are: self-aggrandizement, avoidance of effort, free food, power to tell others what to do, etc.


  10. I agree with CPP, carrots are best, the trick is being crafty enough to figure out what they are.

    Here at Provincial State U we have a committee on committees that makes appointments to all university-wide governance committees according to a ballot-type form we fill out indicating where we are “willing” to serve. As long as the committee on committees is well constituted, many problems should be avoided. I suspect there is nevertheless a popularity contest aspect to appointments to plum committees.

    I try to keep in mind that the real power is not with the faculty, no matter what they tell us. From my admittedly cynical perspective, the budget committee is mostly good for gathering raw material about how we are going to be screwed this time, for later propagation down the grapevine. So, the graduation program committee is just fine: we pick the student speakers for commencement, one of my favorite assignments ever and a way to make a statement about what I think our students represent. I have also enjoyed serving on scholarship committees. It’s a boatload of reading but a chance to make a real difference for a student. I’ve been glad at times to have been the vocal feminist in the room on that sort of committee.

    I chaired our department P&T committee one year, during which time we had an easy promotion and a potentially divisive “merit pay” recommendation process forced on us by the administration. In some activist/collectivist departments, chairs asked for volunteers to go up for the merit review and everybody declined. In my department, I did a lot of leg work making the case that the premise was broken to begin with and that our best option was to subvert it (to lift the salary of somebody who had been hired low many years ago and suffered for it ever since). It worked. Many years ago we had another event like this and our then chair recommended to the dean equal shares for everybody. That did not work.

    There is a lot of good work to be done on seemingly undesirable, lower profile, committees. It’s not big institutional reformation power but I’d argue that the steady drip, drip, drip matters too.


  11. I will shyly admit to only having positive service experiences. I’ve been appointed to a range, from the dept committee that dealt with the issue of “merit pay” during a raise year (every time there’s a raise at the large state uni, everyone goes into the merit pay pool and the dept has to decide how to dole out everyone’s money), to a university committee that decided summer research funding, to a search committee. I’ve enjoyed all of these for different reasons – but generally I was lucky because they were almost all very *well run*. In addition, as the always-junior person on the committee, I’ve had little responsibility (except to be present, read the materials, and voice my opinion occasionally). None of these experiences, with one exception, was contentious – the committees were unfailingly professional and collegial. The exception was the second year of the summer research committee; the previous year it had been extremely well run by the administrator in charge of the program with many years’ experience keeping the faculty-sheep on task and focused. The next year it was poorly run by a newbie who had no idea what ze was doing and was quickly outtalked by a couple of unbelievably opinionated faculty members who insisted on derailing the meeting for endless pointless discussions of nothing. (I made myself *very* unpopular at this meeting by repeatedly attempting to streamline and speed up the process.) I have been put on notice that next year I might be on the graduate committee, which should also be interesting, but possibly more tedious and time-consuming that the others. I know I have a bit of the naive shining light of the relative newcomer (and an untenured person sheltered from the more serious burdens of service work), but I like service work – I like meeting new faculty members and understanding better how the university works. I like participating in truffula’s drip drip drip.


  12. PS CPP’s comment made me giggle – the whole idea that we’re years and years beyond grad school and yet the category “free food” still exists as a legitimate unit of self-interest to be leveraged.


  13. The ultimate state of academic “beyond” is called “OMM.” You stop eating, so you’re completely beyond cajolery(?), and certainly by carrot. A publisher may get to you now and then by offering to send totally free exam copies instead of the *new* “free,” which is something like $6. But most people can deal with this, and reading exam copies is not really service anyway.


  14. It’s true! But, even if not everyone partakes, it changes the dynamic of a meeting sometimes. (Not always.) It conveys a sense of hospitality that can be charming. (Most of the time.)

    Sorry to have been checked out today–great suggestions and ideas in the comments. And, maybe it’s unsurprising, but it sounds like most of you take service pretty seriously. (That is, you all thought about these issues long before my post here today, even if it’s the first time you’ve commented on a blog about it.)

    Another idea from the comments over at Bardiac’s I forgot to mention: transparency. Be sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and that will leave fewer corners for the shirkers to scurry into. Plus, the people who are doing the work will appreciate the acknowledgement. So: leadership is transparency, carrots not non-existent sticks, efficiency in running meetings, and “free fracking food!”

    I’d like to discuss kw’s comment way up above about the fact that “[s]ervice, one quickly learns, is the cement of academic culture. It’s vital, and it can sink you.” (At least, I acknowledge this as a fact.) Also, LadyProf’s comment about the gendering of service, and even the different kinds of service expected of men and women. Personally, I think there are a lot more Senior women who could afford to say “no” more often–but that may be naive of me. Tenured women can’t be fired, but they can be denied other goodies and consideration, like reasonable teaching assignments and schedules, research funding, promotion to Full, etc. They may also be disinclined to give up something they know they do well and which is appreciated, in favor of something (like writing grant proposals and submitting articles and manuscripts for publication) that is riskier, but ultimately more rewarding.

    kw’s current department, which sounds like it’s full of good citizens, sounds ideal–but how do you create a department like that, especially if you’re working with a faction of shirkers who won’t let you? As I have said here before, it seems a lot easier to trash a good department, than it is to un-trash a crappy one. (Along the lines of the fact that it’s a lot more difficult to un$h!t the bed. . .)

    Does anyone have the magic formula?


  15. I wouldn’t say that there’s any one particular standout bad experience, though several very annoying ones made so mostly by a clash of personalities or a sense of hopelessness (serving on the website design committee to have our advice ignored; serving on the computer providers’ tendering committee only to be unable to attend the last meeting and actually, you know, get a voice in the outcome).

    Squadratomagico, I hear you about graduate studies only I found the way to become a part of a graduate program where I have very few students (three over almost twenty years) has been to become integrated into the administration of the same. You don’t have to be a graduate supervisor on a regular basis to run the program. The flipside is that it can begin to become “your job” and you spend eleven of the last fifteen years in that position. Bah. I’m tired and stepping down and I only hope that my colleagues have my replacement lined up because I’m sure not doing it again!


  16. I don’t have any good committee stories but my favorite one to hear is of one of our dept’s female professors, I think the first, or one of the first, to be hired here.

    Not too long ago she was on the campus’s architecture and building committee, and they were approving the final blueprints for the new engineering building. She’s staring at the prints, not really listening to the architect’s presentation, and something doesn’t feel right. Suddenly she has the realization: nothing in the whole building is labeled as a woman’s bathroom!

    Not only had none of the other faculty thought to check on this in the however many years the plans had been going through the process, but the designer guy, when called on it, pretty clearly assumed that there wasn’t going to be any need for them since it was an *engineering* building. F*cker.

    Unfortunately, I just heard that our campus’s new student services building had had a lactation room, marked “pump room,” on the blueprint, and that the construction people installed all the water and airconditioning pumps in there. In the middle of the women’s center. Gah!


  17. Weirdest Service: At my first job we had a journalism program within English, and I was on the journalism committee. Two retired and cranky journalists actually called each other out of the room — “You want a piece of me?” More importantly, one of these guys was tremendously talented at filibustering and that’s where I learned that one way to stop something from happening is to stall with unanswerable questions and endless objections.

    Worst service: a three-day junket to a nice city, stayed in a suite, and spent endless hours in meetings and going to seminars considering how to bring diversity to one of the hwcu’s (historically white colleges and universitites). Losing proposition.

    Enjoyable service: today I spent a couple of hours as a respondent to some excellent papers by graduate students in a workshop. The papers were by a historian, an anthropologist and a theorist, and we had a lively discussion.


  18. I enjoy service where I feel something is being done, and that I’m working with people. Historians, by and large, work in solitary ways, so this is a nice change.

    Bad service= any committee with a disorganized chair, who forgets that his role as chair is to serve the committee, not just himself. ARGGGGHHH. I am currently on a committee (one of the few I don’t chair) whose chair wants ME to do the work to serve him.


  19. Many years ago I served a two year stint as Chief of our hospital medical staff. Of course, as soon as I finished, a stipend was awarded to the next Chief. My least enjoyed service job was to temporarily suspend doctors ( they then couldn’t admit ) for failure to dictate discharge summaries in a timely fashion – despite their pleas of dying grandparents or prolonged laryngitis. My secretaries would blush while listening to the invective shouted over the phone by the irate physicians demanding justice. The best part of this unpaid job was that I got to divert surplus dues to my favorite clinic in Haiti – telling the staff only after the fact.


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