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Service Matters

How to better prioritize demands on faculty time

By M. Elise Radina, W. John Koolage, and Lisa K. Hanasono

January 26, 2023

The pandemic has adversely affected the professional productivity of many college and university faculty. Increased demands on faculty time have highlighted the capacity, or lack thereof, of faculty to serve their institutions as they balance teaching, research, service duties, and their lives outside of work, including taking care of their mental and physical health.

As the pandemic took hold, many tenure-track faculty members had to abruptly pivot away from conducting research and toward teaching additional classes—with more students—in different modalities. Faculty also took on more administrative and service duties, such as program reviews, curriculum revisions, and governance changes. In many cases, the number of positions for tenure-track faculty decreased while service demands increased. The result has been that a burgeoning amount of service work has fallen on the shoulders of non-tenure-track faculty. Additionally, faculty members who are women and/or people of color have felt this impact more acutely for a variety of reasons, such as having to navigate work-life balance and juggle the often invisible labor of supporting and mentoring students and faculty.

In a day or week that is already full, what ends up suffering is research. As Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Anthony Ocampo from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity note, teaching and service tend to be public activities with high levels of accountability. For example, if a faculty member fails to post final grades, students will notify an administrator; if a faculty member doesn’t complete assigned service tasks, colleagues will notice. Comparatively, many research activities occur out of public view in labs or in private offices. Accountability doesn’t come until faculty members publish or present their scholarly work or face evaluations and promotion considerations.

In seeking to protect their time, faculty members often receive advice to simply “say no to some things.” This advice can be detrimental because it ignores complex structural and power differences among faculty and erroneously assumes faculty receive approximately equal numbers of service requests. The increased demands on women and faculty of color can require time and emotional labor as they support colleagues and students with marginalized identities. In addition, women and faculty of color may be called on to support people in more precarious employment positions (such as pre-tenure and non-tenure-track faculty), who may experience negative consequences from their colleagues and institutions when they refuse service requests. Thus, faculty are left with unclear directions on what service matters and why.

Instead of expecting faculty to “just say no,” institutions must cultivate cultures that support healthy and logical decisions around these requests. As part of this, shared governance should be at the heart of providing guidance for how service is identified, assigned, and valued.

The following recommendations can help institutions of higher education make good choices around allocating service duties to faculty.

1. Complete an audit.

Academic leaders should engage their colleagues to identify (a) the service work faculty are performing and (b) what service work the institution actually needs. (For more information, we recommend reading KerryAnn O’Meara and colleagues’ 2020 and 2021 research on equitable faculty workloads and faculty activity dashboards.)

First, the audit should render visible service that faculty completed inside and outside their academic institutions. In addition to acknowledging easily documented formal service activities (for example, program leadership and committee work), academic leaders should note less visible or traditionally unrecognized forms of labor such as mentoring students and colleagues, writing letters of recommendation, and building partnerships with community organizations.

Completing this audit provides a more holistic and multidimensional understanding of the ways faculty are contributing to colleges and universities beyond teaching and research in the form of formal and informal administrative service. It’s possible, for example, that some faculty members may appear to be doing minimal service work at the department level but are service superstars at the college or university level, in academic organizations, or in their professional fields.

Second, academic leaders and faculty should clarify what service work is actually needed—and who should be doing it. Institutions might find advantages in retiring or updating some committees and service activities to better suit their current missions, demands, and strategic plans. In addition, it is important that administrators assign the appropriate number of faculty to committees to ensure equitable distribution of workload and avoid service loafing (when committee members do not make meaningful contributions) and increase efficient meeting scheduling. Also essential is ensuring each committee is composed of stakeholders with relevant expertise, interest, and experiences who represent the complex makeup of faculty (rank, tenure-track versus non-tenure-track, gender, race, and other characteristics).

M. Elise Radina, one of the authors of this article, offers a practical framework for differentiating and prioritizing service work:

  • Engage: High-priority service activities are urgent and imperative to the vitality and success of colleges and universities. These tasks (such as recruiting new students, engaging in academic program development and revision, hiring faculty, and reviewing and revising governance) keep the basic business of the college or university operating.
  • Tap the brakes: Characterized as moderately high to low priority, other service activities (such as starting new partnership projects, developing new study abroad programs, and revamping course evaluations) lack urgency or importance, as they are not foundational to the basic function of the college or university or its campus community. While this work might be beneficial, it does not have to happen immediately.
  • Full stop: Characterized as low-priority work, this form of service is unnecessary. It may be redundant or may appear to be a form of busywork. It may be outsourced to other people or replaced by new technologies. Or it may no longer serve the institution or its stakeholders (such as community partners and boards of trustees).

2. Leaders should serve as gatekeepers.

To engage faculty members in any type of service, academic leaders must acknowledge their roles in creating inequitable service distributions and service work that is of lower impact or importance. That is, department chairs and college leaders serve as gatekeepers who have influence over which faculty members are assigned to or encouraged to volunteer for certain service obligations over others. Leaders must be careful not to repeatedly tap the same faculty members, however reliable they may be, and thoughtfully distribute service among different ranks of faculty.

Some faculty members, particularly those with marginalized identities, engage in tasks that serve curricular programs, students, and departments behind the scenes, such as mentoring students, faculty, and staff. Annual evaluation reports or promotion dossiers often do not clearly document or formally assign these behind-the-scenes obligations. Academic leaders need to elevate this hidden service so it can be clearly documented. Doing so acknowledges not only that this time-intensive and emotionally taxing work is visible, but also that the college or university mission values it.

3. Revise evaluation and appraisal systems.

Work by scholars such as O’Meara, Radina, Dawn Culpepper, and Lindsey Templeton calls for critical changes to many institutions’ antiquated evaluation and appraisal processes (such as re-evaluating what information can be documented in evaluations and rethinking the prevailing narrative around what activities are valued for promotion and tenure decisions, and the distribution of service workload).

One way of identifying where changes are needed in current institutionalized systems is to adopt a democratic service audit design. Ensuring participation in the development of department-level audits of faculty service allows the institution to generate comprehensive audits that make all service visible. A department retreat and review of aggregate audit data encourage democratic engagement and allow everyone to recognize the work the department does for the college or university, community, and various disciplines. Importantly, the retreat and review of aggregate data also serve as opportunities to use Radina’s framework to clarify service expectations and assignments.

Institutions that are committed to their faculty members’ making healthy decisions and having agency around service must redesign their evaluation of faculty service to reflect that commitment. The public nature of a democratic audit process will reduce the number of surprises during the evaluation process and create a public record of what was valued when and how.

This type of evaluation and appraisal at the institutional level provides a better picture of faculty members’ service expectations and how their service is valued. It lays bare the hidden and erased labor frequently done by women and faculty of color and provides an opportunity for academic leaders and individual faculty to collaborate around service. At the very least, it provides an opportunity for dialogue about service demands and requests.


  • M. Elise Radina

    M. Elise Radina

    M. Elise Radina is a professor in the Department of Family Science and Social Work and associate dean for the Graduate School at Miami University. She is also an affiliate and steering committee member for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

  • W. John Koolage

    W. John Koolage

    W. John Koolage is a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy and the Director of General Education at Eastern Michigan University.

  • Lisa Hanasono

    Lisa K. Hanasono

    Lisa K. Hanasono is an associate professor in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University. She is also an affiliated member of the American Culture Program and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.