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President’s message / Service for the greater good

President’s message / Service for the greater good

By Peter McInnis

In the calculus of academic performance, service is often relegated to a distinctly minor role behind research and teaching. The oft-cited workload ratio of 40/40/20 is invoked to suggest some clear rationale for these artificial divisions, and that by implication, professional careers may be so neatly subdivided.

The term “service” itself should be scrutinized for its connotations as a form of domestic service, and the often-gendered implications of such framing as a way of dismissing its importance. Is academic service simply something to “get out of the way,” as tertiary labour dutifully or reluctantly offered to then focus on activities that are more highly valued in career metrics?

Too often we read listserv emails pleading for committee nominations as vacancies remain unfilled. Should we then resort to roving press gangs to recruit faculty for service?

Service and collegial governance have recently become topics of intense debate between academic staff and employers. The CAUT Policy Statement, Nature of Academic Work, emphasizes the importance of the holistic academic job: “Central to academic work is service to the profession, internal and external to post-secondary institutions including collegial governance, academic staff association work, the defense and promotion of academic work, activities in provincial and national academic staff associations, community engagement, and public discourse.”

Obviously, the overreliance on precarious contract academic staff undermines the service component of the academic job. These positions are sufficiently demanding and poorly compensated as to make additional contributions onerous.

One of the lessons of the last three years of the pandemic suggests service should be emphasized if we are to ensure the progressive future of post-secondary education. Citing the need for expediency during the public health emergency, many universities and colleges sought to bypass existing channels for routine decision-making.

This truncated collegial consultation continues as many collective fora for faculties and senates have retained online formats. While this technology allows for easy access to meetings, should one click the provided links, this may discourage active engagement. Arguably, it is much easier to rush through an agenda online than in person.

A simulacrum of collegial engagement is of no benefit to our campus communities. Service must become a priority.

The linkage between service and effective collegial governance is important. The pernicious trend to retain outside consultants to advise on “streamlining” governance to ostensibly improve “efficiency” may ultimately diminish the service component of faculty activities.

Fortunately, these initiatives are not universal. Some enlightened administrators have stated they are willing to embrace collegial governance provided there is mutual commitment.

It’s a fair point. This would entail more faculty volunteering for committees, reading the relevant advance documents, and coming prepared to make substantive contributions to the debates. In return, this service must be foregrounded as a crucial component to rank and tenure decisions.

Academic staff associations also struggle with service. Faculty members with a history of long-term commitment to their associations comment on the challenges recruiting colleagues. Further, there is often a discernible generational gap from union activists that skews towards older members.

Association executives may show evidence of stagnant electoral renewal and lag in encouraging participation of members who have only limited investment in their unions. New tenure-stream faculty are frequently advised to shy away from active association service until their careers are well established. Yet such delayed interaction often leads to ongoing patterns of disengagement.

The neoliberal university defines successful academics more as private entrepreneurs, intent on maximizing individual gain, rather than members of the collective collegium with a broader civic mission. Academic staff associations in this restricted sense merely function on a transactional basis to negotiate a collective agreement and address grievances rather than as part of a broader project to support collegial governance and the academic job. The union as opposed to our union.

It should be obvious to all that Canada’s post-secondary educational system has weathered the last few years with tenacity, but our public institutions face considerable challenges. Service, to our specific institutions and to our profession, is vital to overcoming adversity. Collegial governance, sometimes derided as an illegitimate effort at “co-management,” is long overdue for constructive renewal.

To support this goal, academic staff associations must make concerted efforts to attract and encourage their members to see this work as crucial to the broadly defined profession. University and college administrators must similarly value all aspects of service and ensure this continues to inform their future actions.

If “we’re stronger together” then let’s act like it.

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