I have been thinking recently about what we, as professors, owe the department and the university where we work in terms of service. Let me start by stating that I understand we all have to do service, and that doing very little is extremely uncollegial. With teaching, it is clear that we have a duty to students to teach them to the best of our abilities. Unlike teaching, service is a necessary but highly variable and plastic aspect of our work; it is sometimes rewarding and sometimes necessary, but both the rewarding and the necessary aspects are considerably less common than ideal. Slacking on some service aspects has the potential to ruin a department, such as mishandling recruitment or promotions, or how the funds are disbursed; systemic issues with personnel or funds have the potential to wreak havoc across a whole university. Not slacking on service, however, in cases when a committee mission is poorly defined or the committee appears dysfunctional has the potential to drain you of a will to live and has negative effects spilling over onto your research and personal life.
When it comes to department or university service, I prefer fewer but larger and more substantive assignments, where the workload may be considerable but where I understand what the mission of the committee is and I think it is important. I have been on the search committee for two years in a row, there is little that is more important than making sure we bring in good people. I was also on a pretty intensive university-level committee tasked with disbursement of intramural funds for research. I may spend the next several years on a committee that is a critical hurdle in the tenure and promotion process.
But there are some things that I simply won’t do because I feel they are not a good use of my time and energy, and often I don’t think they are a good use of the department’s time or money either.
For instance, we have annual recruitment days for prospective graduate students. These students, however, are all domestic students only from the neighboring several states. I used to participate in this event as a brand new assistant professor, but have decided to start ignoring it a few years in. I have never been able to successfully recruit a student through this event; the very few I do like and who might be a match end up going to better-ranked schools. So I realized that my time and effort are completely wasted on this event, and I also don’t think the amount of time and money invested by everyone is warranted: the best domestic applicants won’t come here no matter how good the snacks and entertainment are, so spending all this money on travel and lodging to either kiss up to those who never considered us seriously to begin with or to court so-so applicants just because they are from the neighborhood is a complete waste. Our best and brightest remain international students, and I would much prefer that this money be used to fund a few department fellowships open to excellent international applicants. I have mentioned my thoughts to the powers that be several times, but to no avail; apparently there are enough people who think our recruitment day applicants are awesome and that it’s the greatest practice ever. So what I can do is just save my time and energy and not participate.
Also, this year the faculty search has been so drama-fraught that I don’t think I will be on a search committee in the near future if I can avoid it. It’s been the case of musical chairs — we can hire N people but there are N+1 subareas who claim priority in hiring, and it’s all been extremely unpleasant. Being on the search committee is an overwhelming amount of work even under the best of circumstances, and this additional tug of war is making me regret that I ever agreed to be on it.
I feel myself withdrawing from department life, not because I don’t care, but because I do care, a lot, and I feel frustrated and helpless by all the things that could and should be done differently. Maybe things look different once you are in a department leadership role, you realize you have to balance all sorts of competing interests. But at this point I find that I largely just don’t want to participate because the aggravation isn’t worth it.
I know people often talk about those who don’t participate in the life of the department as selfish. Maybe that’s true and maybe I am selfish. But I am becoming increasingly aware that at least some of those people who withdraw from department life, perhaps periodically, do so out of self-preservation. There are likely those who can argue and yell and then go back to their offices or their homes virtually unfazed. Perhaps they are a majority. Perhaps they are a majority of men. But whatever the demographic, there are those of us who can’t, and for whom the aggravation over department politics or inefficient spending spills over into other aspects of our lives. If I have an altercation in a meeting, I will be fuming over dinner, I can’t work in the evening and perhaps for a day or two afterwards. So instead of cuddling with kids or working on a proposal, I expend energy on disagreeable colleagues. That is not in my job description.
Service is important, but it is not more important than teaching or research or my peace of mind. Considering that the bullshit/importance ratio for service tasks can be unbelievably high, I have decided that I am within my rights to blow off the service tasks for which the ratio exceeds a certain value in order to be able to tend to the activities with a much, much lower ratio. I owe the department and the university the benefits of my expertise, teaching, research, and good citizenship. I do not owe the department enormous effort just so I could be heard. I do not owe the pigheaded colleagues the energy and time that my children and my students need instead.