The compensations of academic service

I blogged a while ago about being the reasons people go into academic service, in particular as departmental Chairs*. I suggested that the vast majority of academics don’t take on such a job because they’d always dreamed of doing it, or because it comes with prestige or pay or other perks. Instead, they take on the job because somebody has to do it, and because our whole system of collegial governance would grind to a halt if we all depend on Chairs but nobody is willing to do the job.

That argument might seem to confirm your preconceptions about being Chair. You might think it’s largely a thankless job (and you’d be right). You might think you’d have to deal with some very unpleasant problems (right again). You might think you’d have lots of responsibility but rather little power (you’ve scored a hat trick). And you might worry that some of the people both above and below you in the academic hierarchy would treat you like an enemy or worse (and wow, you are absolutely on fire today). To be honest, some days the job sucks.

And yet, that perspective would be really incomplete. Sure, there are some unpleasant parts to the job. Not many jobs that grownups hold are without unpleasant parts. But being Chair has its compensations, too. I may not be itching to go back into the job, but my time in administration left me with a great deal of satisfaction and with a few things I’m really proud of. So having been honest about the down side of administrative appointments, let me now tell you a bit about some of the rewards. I’m going to work up from least to most important (to me).

I’ll start with formal compensation. Being Chair usually comes with some extra salary. At some universities this is utterly laughable; at others it may be more substantial – but we’re not talking CEO money here. Fortunately, few of us were motivated to get into academia by salaries in the first place! In addition, there’s usually some teaching release. This may or may not be a “compensation” for you, depending on how you feel about teaching, but it’s a necessary thing, since there are only so many hours in the day. Finally, it’s common for a Chair to receive some money to support their research – perhaps a few thousand dollars, perhaps (although not for me) enough to hire a postdoc or a technician to run the lab. None of these things is substantial enough to make it imaginably “worth” being Chair – but they do help ease the sting.

A perk I didn’t know to expect is that administrative experience gives you mobility. It’s very difficult for an academic to move mid-career, and even more difficult to move in a targeted way – say, to a region or city you’d like to live in. Service as a Chair, though, makes you a plausible candidate for Chair, Dean, and other administrative openings at other universities. More than “plausible”, actually – you’ll be called routinely by recruiters. I was never interested in taking advantage of this, partly because I saw my stay in administration as temporary, and partly because I absolutely love the department, and city, I’m in – but knowing it was possible was nice, and this could be invaluable for someone whose career aims differed from mine.

Another perk I didn’t expect, and this time one that I valued (and still value) very much, was the opportunity to get to know people in different units. Most obvious were the other Chairs in my Faculty of Science (and when I served as Dean, the other Deans at my university). But it extends much further: for example, Chairs in my discipline at other institutions, Vice Presidents and Presidents of my institution and others, undergraduate and graduate student leaders, and support people working hard in offices I’d known little about (doing things like student counselling, energy efficiency, legal and HR advice, and on and on and on). Some of these people I might have stumbled across another way, but many I wouldn’t have. They were sources of support, and in many cases friendship, and I’m glad to know them still.

Now we get to the real gold: the accomplishments a Chair can take pride in. If you serve as Chair, you might be proud of new programs birthed under your watch, improvements in your department’s teaching or research capacity, or the success of new faculty you help recruit (that last one being at the top of my personal list). Or you can be proud of solving problems: maybe protecting a grad student from supervisory misconduct, helping a supervisor cope when a grad student disappears, finding bridge funding for an excellent researcher caught between grants, or providing a leave for a staff member who needs one.

Things like this were a source of satisfaction for me because I made a very important decision – one I think is central to anyone’s ability to find rewards in administrative service (or indeed in service of almost any kind). That decision? To recognize, at least internally, what I call “academic inclusive fitness” (in analogy to inclusive fitness in evolutionary biology). What that means is that every time one of “my” faculty members published a paper, one of “my” staff got an award or a promotion, one of “my” grad students defended a thesis, or one of “my” undergraduates walked across the convocation stage, I mentally credited myself with a little piece of that accomplishment. After all, one of my major roles as Chair was to take care of all the nonsense so that my colleagues could be free to do their academic jobs. My own academic productivity certainly suffered from being Chair; but everyone else’s increased because I was there to do the job. On balance, inside my head, I came out way ahead.

Now, none of this makes being a Chair (especially, being a good Chair) fun all the time. Being a good researcher isn’t fun all the time either, and neither is being a good teacher! But it does mean that if you take on the job (and you should), you’ll find it has more to offer you than perhaps you would have thought.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 16, 2015

Here’s a post from Chris Buddle with some related ideas.


*I’m drawing here on my five years of experience as Chair of my own department and my year as Acting Dean of Science. I’m quite confident that everything I say here applies to other administrative jobs too; but for simplicity, I’m just going to talk about being Chair.

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6 thoughts on “The compensations of academic service

  1. Chris Buddle

    Excellent post, Stephen. Although I’ve never been a Chair, many/most of your arguments are true for Associate Deans, Directors, etc. Your post resonates strongly with me – especially the part about ‘getting to know’ other units at a University. The silos at universities are so very tall and strong, and although some academics are able to break down the barriers with interdisciplinary research programs, many do not. However, University admin is the easiest (?) or most effective way to truly appreciate the horizontal connections in a University.

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