Public Service

Alex Usher, Commentary, Education

I have a strong message today. It’s mostly for people in social science fields (especially Deans and Department heads), but I think Provosts, VPs Research and President will want to pay attention.  The message is this: the academic profession in Canada desperately needs to take its head out of its collective behind when it comes to public service.

Universities have a schizophrenic attitude when it comes to public service.  Ask any university President about the value of their institution to the public and guaranteed one of the things that will come out of their mouth is something about contributing to the community, being a place of solutions, partner to government, yadda yadda.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that they actually mean this.  If it were up to university Presidents, that is exactly what universities would do.

The fly in the ointment here is that university Presidents do not actually run things at universities.  In the things that matter to individual academics’ careers (i.e. pay, tenure, promotion), universities are very specifically structured so that Presidents have no say at all about how things are run.  So whatever the President may say about how excited the institution is to participate in certain activities, at the place where the rubber hits the word, their word means essentially nothing.  Everything is in the hands of committees which are rooted in departments rooted in very specific disciplinary traditions and interests.

Now, to be clear, not many academics will ever say they are “against” public service.  It’s just that they have different ideas about what that means.  For far too many of the academics on tenure and promotion committees, public service means writing an article that miraculously gets picked up by someone in government and translated in policy.  The painful jobs of knowledge translation and mobilization?  That’s just something that happens to other people.

And God forbid someone in Government asks an academic to actually devote time to working on a temporary gig like a commission or roundtable or an expert committee.  This looks like an honour both to the public servants doing the asking, and to upper admin (“Look!  People think we are relevant!”) but frequently, and with good reason, academics look at these opportunities with great trepidation.  It’s not because they’d prefer to be writing academic papers: any academic that gets asked into these kind of gigs has probably been asked because they’re interested in/good at this kind of work to begin with.   Rather, it’s because they are worried that their colleagues – possibly jealous ones – will punish them if they don’t.

I raise this issue because frankly I’ve heard one too many stories like this from young and mid-career academics in the social sciences.  People who spend time working with government translating evidence into policy are very frequently punished for it in career terms, and there seems to be remarkably little urgency to alter tenure and promotion criteria to reflect the huge effort that public service actually requires (let alone the psychological toll taken by partisan internet trolls of all stripes who want to impugn academics’ motives for public service).  To many academics, there is a very real sense in which the sweetness and light approach to “serving the community” that senior university administrators talk about with such sincerity is a sucker’s game.

Universities’ position in society is never entirely secure.  To the extent that they appear to be more interested in their own narrow disciplinary pursuits than in benefitting the communities that support them, their position will be ever-less secure.  And yet that is exactly the outcome the current system is engineered to deliver.

Universities need to fix this, now, by actively reviewing their tenure and promotion criteria.  Some of you, dear readers, are in a position to actually do something about this.  You should get started.

Originally posted on Higher Education Strategy.