• September 2, 2015

How We Value Faculty Work

I attended a recent gathering for department chairs, and listened as the subject turned to how some faculty members misreport their accomplishments on their vitas and annual evaluation forms. "I have one professor who lists short pieces he writes for our departmental newsletter under his 'Publications,'" said one chair, "and another who counts coaching Little League as 'Service.'"

Do the faculty members mean to be misleading? Maybe, or maybe not. But the end result, the department heads agreed, was that some faculty members miscategorize their achievements or blur the lines between categories of work. That discussion led to a related subject: how universities value the various types of faculty work.

"Some of our colleagues," said one of the chairs, "are not clear on the usual hierarchy of academic values, especially when it comes to service and research."

Another chair added, "I'm sometimes amazed at the items that appear on a curriculum vitae and where they get listed." A third commented that some professors seem to believe that all activities have equal value. "We've got to do a much better job of mentoring our faculty," she concluded.

Most problematic, the group agreed, was how some academics conceptualize "service."

Of the three typical kinds of service—community service, institutional service, and service to the profession—the first one is the least valued in a university setting, and the last one is the most valued. Often, however, vitas and tenure cases do not clearly distinguish between those very different types of work.

Institutional service—chairing or serving on departmental, college, or university committees and councils—is the most easily understood. After all, it is a standard work assignment, the sort of task expected of every academic.

The confusion over service usually arises from a conflation of community and professional service.

The highest value lies in service to the discipline. Whether you are an editor of a scholarly journal, officer of your national professional organization, coordinator of a scholarly conference, manuscript reviewer for a press or journal, external reviewer for tenure and promotion, or contributor to the discipline in some other capacity, those activities typically receive the most credit in deliberations over tenure, promotion, and performance review.

Volunteering as a Boy Scout leader, serving as a museum docent, or working in a soup kitchen are all admirable and important contributions to society, but not the kind of service that universities give much credit for.

Giving a public talk at the local library on your area of expertise is an excellent way to enhance town-gown relations, but it is not equivalent to giving a talk to your peers at a major professional convention, where your talk (or at least your proposal) is likely to have undergone rigorous peer review. The two talks may even be on identical subjects, but one carries much more weight.

Similarly, giving a talk at your own institution is not the same as being invited to give a presentation at another university—unless, of course, the invitation at your home institution arose from some formal vetting process, as in a distinguished lecture series.

It's not that community service is insignificant. Certainly, civic engagement has become an important theme in higher education lately, and a positive one. The question is not whether we should pursue such projects in our courses or individually, it's how we report them to our supervisors.

Engaging in community-service projects might well say something about your character and your willingness to contribute to society, but it says little about your contributions to your students or your discipline—the two principal responsibilities of our profession, and our raison d'être.

Civic engagement can become a more valued activity if your project is specifically linked to the theme and content of a course you are teaching or research you are conducting. A good example: when a professor of social work organizes a class project around assisting residents of a local homeless center in order to demonstrate to the students how to apply concepts learned in class. Another example: when an adult-literacy specialist volunteers to tutor people in a local learning center while simultaneously gathering data for a research study on the efficacy for adult learners of certain pedagogical techniques.

Years ago I served as a volunteer in a private hospital for abused women, and while I employed techniques related to my work as a university English professor—teaching the patients how to keep journals, for example, that could later be used in group and individual therapy sessions—my work there had nothing to do with my teaching or scholarship. It played no role in deliberations over my tenure, promotion, annual evaluations, or merit pay rankings, nor should it have.

In fact, some institutions actively discourage faculty members from undertaking too much community service. A provost told me that when he was a dean at a fairly prestigious private college, the administration made it clear that community service would not count in faculty evaluations. "We wanted our faculty to focus on their research and, most importantly, on our students," he said. "We emphasized that their community work was their own business and that the college would not reward it."

Some professors also blur the lines in reporting on their research. A dean once told me that one of her faculty members actually listed editing his church's newsletter on his CV under the heading "Professional/Scholarly Activities."

"He contends that this work should count because he is an English professor and editing is something English professors do," she said, with amusement.

Another common blurring of lines occurs when professors lump all of their publications in one section of their CV without making any distinctions between those that were peer-reviewed and those that were not. I have seen faculty members list book reviews and opinion pieces published in the local newspaper under their "Publications" section, as if they were equivalent to peer-reviewed articles.

The chairs at the meeting I attended mentioned several similar bad practices:

• Listing items under "Books" that were not really books, such as pamphlets, study guides, and instructors' manuals;

• Not making clear whether a book or article you list on your CV is in print, in press, or under review; and

• Listing nonscholarly presentations (a talk before the Rotary club) along with scholarly presentations.

Other faculty members fail to make a distinction between contracted research and scholarly research.

A civil engineer who accepts a contract from the local city government to conduct research about improving traffic flow through a busy intersection might be employing her research skills, but such a project is a service to the community (and one for which she is compensated). It's not a contribution to the knowledge of civil engineering as a discipline.

While both activities have value, contributing to the knowledge base of one's field is substantially more important in the academic value system than helping the city solve a traffic problem.

Some professors may well pad their vitas intentionally. But most of the mistakes that professors make in reporting their work are probably the result of misunderstanding the hierarchy of academic values. You need only ask yourself one question: "To what extent does the activity or accomplishment contribute to the knowledge and progress of the discipline?"

Using that rubric, we can easily see that editing a scholarly journal trumps editing the neighborhood newsletter, organizing a scholarly conference beats organizing a school event, publishing a peer-reviewed scholarly monograph surpasses publishing an instructors' manual for a textbook, and publishing a peer-reviewed article reporting on scholarly research tops being paid to conduct research for a local company.

The key to reporting your accomplishments accurately is to remember academe's hierarchy of values.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John W. Presley, of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at golson@isu.edu.


1. totoro - October 18, 2010 at 05:27 am

I strongly disagree that engagement with the community, media, and policy process is not highly valued where this is related to one's scholarly/scientific expertise. It is valued where I am and I think it should be at least as highly valued as service to the discipline.

2. kantopet - October 18, 2010 at 07:59 am

So then, is the problem in what faculty are listing or in what is considered academically relevant? Given some of the above examples, I would say the split is 50/50. Perhaps "contributing to the knowledge and progress of the discipline" should include putting those ideas into practice, rather than disciplines just feeding off themselves until they has disappeared into the aether. Which, in the long run, will be of greater benefit to humanity, as opposed to merely being in-line with (*polite cough*) how things are done?

3. snwiedmann - October 18, 2010 at 08:09 am

To further kantopet's point: There seems to be general agreement that American culture does not properly appreciate the academy -- America is anti-intellectual. Perhaps if more academics applied and explained their work to the public, the public would have both a better understanding of and a greater appreciation for our work.

On the other hand, I do have to agree that faculty members (a very small minority in my experience) eggregiously exaggerate their accomplishments sometimes. The two worst cases in my experience: (1) Claiming to have directed an Honors thesis when, in fact, the student decided not to do a thesis (and decided before any significant work was completed). The faculty member seemed to think that "being willing to direct" should count the same as actually directing a thesis. (2) Taking over the directing of a church choir rehearsal when the regular director was sick was actually listed under "Guest Conducting" for a post-tenure review.

4. suburbprof - October 18, 2010 at 08:18 am

I believe the author is overly generous in attributing so many of his examples to misperception of academic values. It would never occur to me to list having donated 10 gallons of blood or participating in a 10K cancer fundraising event under "Community Service". I do have a category titled "Other Professional Activities" on my vita where I put such things as presentations to non-professional groups or book reviews written for the local newspaper. The blood donations and road races are parts of my private life.

5. mbisesi - October 18, 2010 at 08:23 am

When it comes to service, perhaps it is "academe's hierarchy of values" that should be questioned rather than "reporting your accomplishments accurately." If your faculty appointment is in a field of study with, for example, a public leadership focus, is "drafting departmental bylaws" or "reviewing curriculum proposals" a more valuable contribution of professional time and expertise than "advising a state legislative task force on health care reform" or "facilitating a strategic planning process for a nonprofit communiity organization?" And what about the "fairly prestigious private college" whose former dean became a provost? Did that college have a mission statement? Did it say something about preparing students to live and work in the world? Is there not just a little irony that service is often measured in an inverse relation to the number of people served?

6. jsryanjr - October 18, 2010 at 11:34 am

Practing "Economics" may consist of three activities:

1. Managing public affairs according to precepts stemming from what is studied in academic economics. In other words, "political economy".

2. Generating economic knowledge for use in managing public affairs.

3. Refining models that may be used to generate or organize or communicate economic knowledge.

Univerity economists aspire to do only number 3, sometimes pretending to do number 2 but really only illustrating how number 2 might be done if you really wanted to. Number 1 falls in the category of "not economics."

And yet without number 3 what is the point, really? It's like medical science with no physicians. Think it's easy?

7. cullingford - October 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm

What about listing self-published work?

8. vaccinium - October 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

This article is amusing but it seems self-evident. Are there really people on our faculty who pad their CVs in the ways described in this article? No - don't answer that! The real question in my mind contains activities which are not clearly acceptable or unacceptable. For example, how would one rank

1. Serving on a departmental committee which has nothing to do with scholarship (it's function is necessary, but it does not meet the author's criterion of advancing my profession)?

2. Serving on a state commission in the capacity of a research scientist (it's an important contribution to application of science in the state, but it doesn't advance pure science).

3. Publishing a paper in a high-impact journal (although the paper may garner very few citations)?

4. Publishing a paper in a low-impact journal (which paper garners many citations notwithstanding the low-impact venue)?

5. Serving on a University committee rather than a Departmental committee (both of which may be essential to our educational function)?

6. Contributing to "the profession" as defined by a meta-department (e.g. Development Studies, Environmental Studies, Latin American Studies, etc.) rather than contributing to the profession in your home department?

7. Giving opening remarks as an officer of a national society (which may be pleasant but inconsequential) as opposed to presenting hard, thought provoking data as a mere participant at the same meeting?

8. Bringing in a large federal grant (which may not result in many published papers or many citations) as opposed to publishing many widely cited papers with shoestring financing?

9. Teaching a large undemanding course for non-majors (who benefit from their exposure) as opposed to teaching a rigorous course to a small number of majors?

These examples are intentionally arguable. My point is that the value attached to service, teaching, and service is subject to subtle bias and political demands. Gary Olson's criterion of 'highest value to the profession' is simplistic and, ultimately, not very useful. What do people think?

9. superdude - October 18, 2010 at 01:14 pm

I wouldn't place all the blame on faculty for this issue. For example, I've been told by two different academic administrators that providing leadership for Boy Scouts was "one of the most impressive things on my vita" and (just days later) that "listing Boy Scout leadership was dumb".

Since the former was more influential regarding my career, the Boy Scout listing stayed on my vita.

It thus, obviously, did not occur to the author of this article that one's CV is often tailored to the particular audience, just as a lecture or paper is tailored.

10. 22011344 - October 18, 2010 at 01:48 pm

If I remember my Latin, vitae is both the possessive and the plural. Thus, it is curriculum vitae (course of life). The plural is vitae. The word "vitas" is jibberish. I would appreciate the editors of the Chronicle helping their writers get it straight.

11. phdeviate - October 18, 2010 at 03:21 pm

I wonder how folks would read a CV that has a service section split those three kinds of service (assuming that the CV-writer has something to say in each category) into the three sections: community service, institutional service, and service to the profession. It's tempting, the same way I split teaching experience into times teaching my own class and times I served as a TA.

12. ajpennerman - October 18, 2010 at 08:06 pm

I disagree with much of this. It is all interconnected. The divisions are not as distinct as the author presents here. I am thinking of Boyer's "Scholarship Reconsidered." For example, one does not have to stretch the imagination to see how "helping the city solve a traffic problem" indirectly contributes to the work of those who occupy the city's ivory towers.

13. sherbygirl - October 18, 2010 at 09:26 pm

More proof that higher ed makes most things meaningless.


And you are arguing that we should! My one experience in a TT position actually expected me to engage in community service. But we served non-traditional/minority students - any work I did in the community directly helped out students (and future students). But, we were primarily about teaching, not about research. I go back to the earlier essay in the Chronicle asking, why do they hate us? That's why.

14. rsgassle - October 19, 2010 at 02:08 am

to jsryanjr: Without number 3 is like physicians without medical science, since number 1 is what physicians do and number 2 is what medical-school professors do.

in general: Why not just list the categories separately on a CV and let the committee decide the relative values? I used to list all publications in one place until someone said my CV was padded. Then I separated "scholarly" from "other," while carefully defining each in the CV. Liberal-arts colleges do often value talks before local groups as scholarship, even though they presumably value the other more. Universities that look at my CV can just stop at page seven.

15. lotsoquestions - October 19, 2010 at 09:51 am

One also wonders how issues like race and gender may play into the values placed on these activities. I have the feeling that the male who lists Boy Scout leadership on his CV is probably viewed differently than the female who lists PTA service. (Hers, arguably, is something that's expected because she's a mother -- while his is a contribution to the community. Huh?)

In addition, our university has African-American and Hispanic faculty in particular who are frequently asked to participate in educational and social initiatives in our impoverished area. I would argue that a black or Hispanic male professor who spends time with impoverished youth and in doing so shows them that attending college or even becoming a university professor is a possibility for them as well is making a substantively different and important contribution than the white guy who helps out with Scouts. There are various activities in our town that might not exist if it was not for the service provided by faculty -- perhaps that might be a consideration as well.

16. freddel - October 19, 2010 at 10:59 am

How We Value Faculty Work
It seems incredible that such an archaic and distorted view of the value of faculty work persists in academia. Surely the attainment of educational objectives, hopefully engendered by faculty, should be given the highest priority. Admittedly, it is difficult to assess the value added by a faculty member in performing educational activities but the task should be performed as objectively and constructively as possible.

17. 101983 - October 19, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I equally and strongly disagree with much of this. The article seems to place the blame squarely on faculty members, apparently, from an administrator's perspective. In addition to the fact that faculty work should and must be valued adequately and fairly, administrators, especially department chairs, need to put in place a strong system of mentoring that is lacking in many universities.

18. 11272784 - October 19, 2010 at 01:12 pm

At research institutions, many faculty are focused on research to the extent that teaching and service take a back seat. Frankly, most departments don't care about service - just research and publication. I've heard the flat statement "No one ever got fired here for being a lousy teacher". We need to add emphasis to teaching and make sure that faculty are rewarded for doing things that matter to sdtudents. And if nothing else, teaching distance students should be credited under service - some departments don't even consider it to be teaching because it's not in a classroom.

19. lothlorien - October 19, 2010 at 09:33 pm

My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that volunteering for a youth group, the PTA/PTO of a local school, working at a soup kitchen, or volunteering at a library are things that one should be expected to do as a good citizen - apart from any connection to academia. I don't list talks I give at my church or for service organizations, and until I read this, it never occured to me that some might. After all, if you _are_ in academia, that is simply a greater set of skills you have to offer to your community.

Clearly professional talks at conferences, guest lectures at other colleges or universities - these are clearly professional activity. And if you are the final editor of your own work, you probably should leave that off your CV, or at least the professional section. My non-professional section is one sentence long.

20. annakarenina - October 20, 2010 at 04:06 am

Well, in one small-town 'liberal arts college' I once had the dreadful experience of holding tenure, the professor of English (note my intentional small 'p') used to give "literary even-song" at the local Church of England cathedral once a month, and this was seen as reason enough to keep him in a job at a secular institution because all his fellow closet-cases who sat on the committees dealing with promotion and tenure agreed that this was a suitable criterion for professing on English literature. Ironically, this same person confessed to one graduate student that her report of reading Toni Morrison's analysis of the significance of 'race' in Moby-Dick was an eye-opener, in 2003, and the homoerotic elements of the novel he'd never thought of, despite having taught the novel for almost thirty years. In the same place one person was promoted to 'full professor' despite no PhD and no publications, because, to quote the dean of the time, (this was post-2000!), "he had taken a good department and made it a brilliant one"; this department, needless to say, squeezed out on article every four or so years, and once gave a Master's degree with distinction to a candidate who had consistently misspelled the name of one of the authors under investigation from the cover of the dissertation through to the bibliography at the end. So there are places where padding your CV with utter rubbish of the least intellectual value gets you promoted to the top of the profession. And I do so hate that sad moment in the CV when the candidate declares they do aerobic exercise or the cultivate mushrooms as a hobby, or worst of all, list "reading" as an extracurricular activity ... Sigh.

21. wilcoxlibrary - October 20, 2010 at 09:12 am

Just how is coaching Little League not a community service?

22. muddle - October 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Ah, the tenure track and all of the anxiety and stratagems that it entails.

So happy to have escaped the wheel of samsara.

23. texasguy - October 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm

First, most universities put research first in their tenure and promotion criteria because it is the most demanding part of the job. As a Dean said a few years ago, anyone can become a great teacher by spending two to three hours preparing each lecture while no one can build a research program by only working forty hours a week.

Second, people criticizing this emphasis on research, should look at university acceptance rates. They will see the best and brightest students all want to go to research-oriented universities because the value that research will add to their future degree.

Third, service to the community actually means professional service to the community, that is, a law professor organizing free law clinics, an engineering professor teaching refresher courses for the local chapter of an engineering society and so on. Community service that is unrelated to one's discipline should not count. Minor stuff, such as posting on this forum, should not either.

24. jffoster - October 20, 2010 at 02:08 pm

No 10, I believe _vitas_ is accusative plural. One might also contend that _vita_ by itself is now English, and Anglicized into a regular plural. In any event, it is not "jibberish" in English and would not have been jibberish in ancient Italy either. And I suggest CHE editors may have better things to do than edit various Latin >~ English usages in articles about curricula vitarum. Or is it _curriculas vitarum_?

25. dogvomit - October 20, 2010 at 03:13 pm

How about those colleges where serving as a little league coach actually does out-rank publishing and teaching? I just left one of these.

26. 22158347 - October 20, 2010 at 03:40 pm

26. disheartened--October 20, 2010 at 2:38 PM

How many of you have a colleague who lists getting a flu shot under service to the university? And my institute is likely to grant the person tenure and promotion this year

27. geoz32 - October 20, 2010 at 04:21 pm

Favorite faculty topic: the value of faculty work.

28. manitoga - October 26, 2010 at 03:17 pm

and this is different from the corporate world how?

I've come across many non faculty members who pad their resumes day in and day out. The problem isn't just an issue in academia. As humans we see what's required as proof of our work to get or to keep our work and we do what is necessary. If we can get away with fudging the lines a bit, we do! It's human nature! The problem that we have to look at is WHY we feel the need to fudge the lines - is there something in the tenure process that makes us want to fudge the lines? what is it? why is it there in the first place? How can we work through this problem?

Instead of just blaming the people who inflate their CVs, look at the problem from a holistic perspective and find a solution.

~ Dr. Pepper

29. txloopnlil - November 03, 2010 at 03:47 pm

a late addition- Many of us have federal funding that mandates we demonstrate the "broader impacts" of our funded research. So when I go speak to a Rotary Club on some topic of my research, or do a presentation for a local elem. school it is something that I can cite to show outreach in ways that can be important to my funding agency. Outreach through community service is also an important recruitment tool for students and potential donors to the university or department. Giving blood - yeah I doubt that counts, but lots of community service does directlybenefit the profession, discipline or the univeristy.

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