From the Professional Division

The Ethical Historian: Notes and Queries on Professional Conduct

Catherine Epstein, Philippa J.A. Levine, Valerie Paley, and Mary Louise Roberts, October 2015

The Ethical Historian features the Professional Division’s reactions to the ethical and professional questions it regularly receives. We welcome suggestions for this column, which may be sent to the division members listed below at The Professional Division will not reveal in this column the identities, or identifying characteristics of individuals or institutions involved.

Imagine this scenario: you are an untenured faculty member, and you have just finished serving on a search committee, you are the adviser to the undergraduate history club, and you already serve on a minor university-wide committee. Your department chair walks into your office and asks you to serve on the committee that will select the best undergraduate essay submitted this academic year. The chair tells you that this is a “good” committee because you will get to see the work of the best students majoring in history. “It won’t take much time,” she tells you. “And it will really help us out.” You, however, are concerned about the pace of your publication and worry that your writing suffers because of the thousand little demands made on your time. You are probably also thinking that you want to be a good citizen and help out your fellow department members. You may worry that if you say no, your colleagues will think you are not pulling your weight, and that this might come back to haunt you come tenure review. At the same time, you know that while service is appreciated, it doesn’t really “count” for tenure.

Think of service as a generational compact. While younger colleagues are working to achieve tenure, tenured colleagues should lighten the service load for them, with their commitments increasing as they gain experience.

At this point, it is helpful to think about what service really represents: faculty governance. Service is about upholding faculty influence on all academic matters. It is about faculty shaping the future of their departments and their universities more broadly. It is about preserving academic values in the face of the external pressures sweeping higher education. Indeed, while service begins with relatively unimportant departmental committees, it eventually broadens to participation in the most important academic decisions made at colleges and universities. At its best, faculty governance keeps the institution focused on core academic values.

Seen this way, service is not a burden, but an opportunity. Moreover, there are other benefits of service commitments. Departmental service allows colleagues to get to know each other. It is also a way to socialize new faculty members into departmental culture. Similarly, university-wide service allows colleagues to meet others across the institution. It lets faculty members learn much more about how the university is run and the challenges it faces. It often results in opportunities for growth and professional development.

Of course, these lofty notions about service are likely lost in the day-to-day grind of classes, office hours, meetings, and attempts to meet writing deadlines. It feels like a burden. One might also argue that in an era of corporate universities, faculty governance is merely a cynical justification for the rank exploitation of faculty themselves. After all, this work is essential for the running of the university, but faculty members are usually not compensated for it. But if they don’t do this work, who will? And do you want to work at such an institution?

Beyond opportunity, there is another way to think about service: as a generational compact. Rather than thinking about service commitments as something that all colleagues take on more or less equally, it is important to think of service as spread over a career. While younger faculty members are working to achieve tenure, tenured professors should be willing to lighten the service load for them, taking on more service commitments than their still untenured colleagues. Their new colleagues should, in turn, take on a reasonable amount of committee work, with their commitments increasing as they gain more experience and receive tenure.

Indeed, responses to a recent query we posed to the AHA chairs community suggest that many institutions actively “protect” new faculty members from onerous service duties. It is typical to serve on one undemanding departmental committee during the first few years of a tenure-track appointment. One might be the scribe at departmental meetings or the adviser to the undergraduate history club. By year three, individuals are often asked to serve on an undemanding university-wide committee. Untenured faculty members typically serve on a search committee at some point—should the department be so lucky as to have a search. Tenure-track professors with records of scholarship viewed as strong might also be asked to serve on somewhat more demanding departmental or university committees. Of course, all this changes once a colleague is tenured. At many institutions, newly tenured associate professors are hit by heavy service demands as soon as the ink is dry on the president’s congratulatory letter.

For faculty members of color, service demands are particularly onerous. University administrators, eager to showcase diversity, constantly call on faculty members of color to serve on search committees, ad-hoc working groups, and diversity task forces. Faculty members of color also often face greater student demands. They are sought out by minority students as advisers and role models. Many of these faculty members want to participate in the forging of a new, diverse faculty, as well as to serve as good mentors to their many students. They thus face particularly acute dilemmas about service commitments.

So what do you tell your chair about serving on that committee that will select the best undergraduate essay? First of all, do not answer immediately. Tell your chair that you will need to think about the matter. Go home. Sleep on it. Think about the long-term opportunities that service provides. Then look at your schedule. Is this something you want to add? If so, be sure that you still have scheduled time for research and writing, even on weekdays, during the semester.

If you choose to say no, do not feel guilty. You are likely making the right choice for your career. Moreover, there are many ways to say no gracefully. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, author of The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure—Without Losing Your Soul (2008), suggests 10 ways to do so, including “That sounds like a really great opportunity, but I just cannot take on any additional commitments at this time”; “I cannot serve on your committee right now. But why don’t you ask me again next year?”; and “Right now, I need to focus on my research agenda and publication. When I have tenure, I hope to be able to say yes to requests like this one.”

Whatever your response, once you have tenure, help out new and still untenured colleagues by taking on service obligations that might otherwise fall to them. Your administration and your younger colleagues will be very grateful. At the same time, approach service as the opportunity it is. You are participating in a great tradition of American higher education—shared governance. Embrace the challenge, and enjoy the opportunities. In all likelihood, your efforts will make a positive difference in your department and beyond. Your institution will surely be the better for it.

The AHA’s Professional Division collects and disseminates information about employment opportunities, helps ensure equal opportunities for all historians, and helps set guidelines for professional ethics. The division does not, however, adjudicate cases (see for more on why).

Members of the division are Catherine Epstein (Amherst College), Philippa J.A. Levine (University of Texas, Austin, and vice president, Professional Division), Valerie Paley (New-York Historical Society), and Mary Louise Roberts (University of Wisconsin–Madison).

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