Whether at a small residential college or a huge university, professors are typically expected to do at least some institutional service. In fact, at those colleges and universities with a particularly strong tradition of faculty governance, the service load can ostensibly account for as much as third of a faculty member’s workload; the actual time spent on service can exceed this mark during peak periods of the academic calendar.
The constellation of commitments ranges from serving on standing faculty committees, to serving on ad hoc task forces, to advising individual students and student groups, to serving on search committees to hire new colleagues, to organizing lecture series, to serving on dissertation committees, to participating in mentoring programs, etc. During my many years on the faculty at a small liberal arts college, it seemed there were endless opportunities to contribute my time and talents to the life of the college, along the way supporting my students and colleagues in ways that were often immediate, tangible, and satisfying.
If and how to activate on these endless possibilities is partly a matter of personal choice and partly administrative compulsion. Indeed, some faculty members bemoan the service component of their appointments, framing such service as in zero-sum competition with their preferred tasks of research and teaching. That said, institutional service offers a particularly robust and under-utilized lever for effecting positive, enduring change on campus vis a vis open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.
For example, as centers of policy making and activators of ideas, faculty committees wield a good deal of influence on many campuses. Imagine being an engaged and informed committee member in the following scenarios: The Curriculum Committee is tasked with proposing a set of student learning outcomes (SLOs) that will serve as the focus of the college’s next accreditation cycle; the Teaching and Learning Committee is asked to program a series of faculty development workshops for the coming year; your department asks you to serve on the Search Committee to hire a new colleague; the Institutional Review Board considers an application from an investigator wishing to understand research participants’ views on a controversial taboo topic; the Public Programs Committee is asked to propose a theme and slate of speakers for next year’s big speaker series; the Faculty Senate brings a contentious motion to the faculty. In each of these scenarios, faculty members can advocate for—and model—the values of open inquiry and viewpoint diversity:
- The Curriculum Committee might advance SLOs related to critical thinking, intellectual humility, curiosity, perspective taking or conflict resolution.
- The Teaching and Learning Committee might offer a workshop about facilitating difficult dialogues or designing assignments that motivate epistemological self-reflection.
- The Search Committee might craft the position description to include, “The department values diverse of perspectives, including those held by people from different racial, religious, ideological, ethnic and geographic backgrounds.”
- When another member of the Institutional Review Board argues that answering questions about a controversial topic will cause psychological harm to participants and therefore should be rejected, others on the committee can ask clarifying questions like, “What’s the evidence? Are these critiques within the scope of our charge? How might our own biases and assumptions be feeding into this position? Would rejecting this proposal amount to a constraint on our colleague’s academic freedom?”
- The Public Programs Committee can recommend complicated themes and topics, and then invite speakers to engage big questions from a range of theoretical, disciplinary, and ideological perspectives; the committee might also propose a policy that requires speakers to answer questions from the audience.
- The Faculty Senate might elect to use private ballots when the faculty votes on the contentious motion, ensuring all individuals are equally able to vote their conscience without fear of social censure.
Student-facing service likewise affords the opportunity to model and advocate for the values of open inquiry:
- When serving on a qualifying examinations committee, we can invite candidates to integrate across theoretical perspectives.
- Those serving on a dissertation committee can flash their brights when they notice ideological assumptions creeping into a candidate’s research questions, methods, analysis, and conclusions.
- When advising undergraduates on course selection, we can encourage an eager sampling of disciplines, teachers, and formats.
- During office hours, we can model intellectual humility by asking “How do you see it?” or declaring “I hadn’t thought about that before, say more.”
- When advising a politically-focused student group, we can encourage the group to co-host a constructive event with another student group organized with a different ideology.
While this post concerns institutional service, it’s worth noting that professional service to our disciplines likewise matters. Whether as a grant reviewer, journal editor, conference program committee member, or scholarship application reviewer, you can work to open up the diversity of ideas and scholars at the table and to call attention to those times when viewpoint bias undermines the quality of our work.
The emphasis on faculty members here isn’t to say that staff and administrators don’t have a role to play, because of course they do, typically prominently so. But it is to say that faculty members should take seriously their service responsibilities, if for no other reason than they have an underappreciated hand in shaping campus culture. Whether you see service as a necessary evil of your appointment or, enjoy contributing your time and talents in ways that improve the lives of your colleagues and students, service affords faculty members the opportunity to nudge campus culture toward open hearts and open minds.