6 Strategies to Address Service Inequity in Academia: Insights from the ACAD Conference


At the annual meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD), over 300 higher education administrators gathered to tackle pressing issues, including the distribution of faculty service work.

Two roundtable discussions focused on equity in faculty service, a topic that has become even more urgent following the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic highlighted and exacerbated existing inequities in academia, necessitating innovative solutions to ensure fair distribution of service responsibilities.

6 Strategies to Address Service Inequity in Academia: Insights from the ACAD Conference

(Photo : PEXELS / Yan Krukau)

Research consistently shows that service inequity disproportionately affects women faculty members and faculty of color. These groups often take on more service work, receive less recognition, and have limited opportunities for other professional advancements. Conversations and presentations at the ACAD conference revealed that many institutions are actively addressing service inequity through various innovative practices. These steps, importantly, do not require significant financial investment and are adaptable across different institutional settings.

Strategies to Combat Service Inequity

A key theme in addressing service inequity is bringing hidden labor to light. Service activities such as advising, mentoring, committee service, and recruitment are essential to university life and student success. However, these tasks are often undervalued in institutional reward systems. To tackle this, institutions can implement strategies such as documenting service work, making this documentation transparent, and establishing consequences for those not contributing their fair share.

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1. Documenting and Sharing Service Work

Documenting all service activities within a department or program can reveal inequities in workload distribution. By recording these activities and sharing the results with faculty members, institutions can foster transparency and accountability. For instance, a faculty in an honors college agreed to document their service activities, assigning points to each task. This practice not only highlighted inequities but also provided faculty with various ways to contribute to the collective service mission.

2. Providing Flexibility and Clear Objectives

Allowing faculty members some flexibility in how they fulfill their service obligations can enhance their sense of ownership over the process. Some colleges let faculty members write a "service philosophy" to contextualize their hidden labor, giving leadership a clearer understanding of their contributions. Establishing clear expectations and documenting service work ensures accountability. For example, those not meeting service expectations might face consequences such as less desirable teaching schedules.

3. Rebranding and Valuing Service

The term "service" often carries negative connotations. Some institutions are rebranding service to emphasize its importance. Oberlin College, for example, uses the term "stewardship," while Colby College refers to "community building and governance." Changing the language around service can shift the culture and highlight the institutional value of this work. Additionally, converting service work into actual currency, such as banking credits for independent research projects that can be exchanged for stipends or reassigned courses, assigns literal value to service.

4. Reevaluating Committee Structures

Reevaluating how faculty committees are formed can also address service inequity. Typically, service leaders sit on multiple committees while others avoid responsibilities. Some institutions, like Colby College, allow faculty committees overseeing governance to appoint unelected faculty to various committees, ensuring a more equitable distribution of responsibilities.

5. Reducing Service Burdens

Higher education institutions often start new initiatives but rarely eliminate outdated ones. It's essential to assess the entire portfolio of service work and eliminate tasks that no longer align with the institution's mission. Some institutions have overhauled their committee systems, reinstituting only essential activities, thereby reducing the overall service burden on faculty.

6. Broadening Volunteer Opportunities

When seeking volunteers, institutions should cast a wide net rather than targeting the same individuals repeatedly. This approach can help avoid unintentional biases. For instance, a faculty member who repeatedly contacted only women and faculty of color for specific tasks learned to include a more diverse group of potential volunteers, ensuring a more equitable distribution of service work.

Institutional Responsibility and Systemic Change

Addressing service inequity requires systemic changes rather than placing the burden on individual faculty members. Institutions must create systems that ensure equity, rather than relying on faculty to "learn to say no." Clear institutional expectations and rewards tied to service work can reframe the understanding of service from a personal generosity to a valued and recognized contribution.

The work of rectifying service inequity is crucial, especially in the current climate of staffing reductions, falling enrollments, and budget deficits. Institutions risk losing valuable faculty members if they fail to address these inequities. Progress can be made when administrators collaborate with faculty to develop and implement solutions. By documenting and recognizing hidden labor, institutions can create a more equitable and rewarding academic environment.

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