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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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Public Service Discussed as Possible Tenure Requirement

A proposal that would require faculty members to conduct research relevant to the community as a condition for tenure is currently under review by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee.

Robert G. Shibley, chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on Public Service and Urban Affairs, asked the FSEC Wednesday for advice on how best to encourage professors to engage in significant works of public service that would also be considered important academic contributions.

Shibley described public service as "a form of scholarship that includes regeneration, concentration, application and preservation of knowledge for the direct benefit of their communities in ways consistent with our university and academic recognitions."

Shibley said emphasizing the public service aspect of research would allay the perception that UB is neglecting the surrounding community and enhance UB's prestige, while acknowledging that academics also have a social responsibility.

To stress the importance of such initiatives, he distributed a booklet titled "As We Make Our Road by Walking," containing examples of how scholarship can be incorporated into service for the community. One of the examples was the "Hull House Maps and Papers," a 19th-century research project conducted by Jane Addams for the Chicago School of Sociology. The paper investigated the social and domestic structures of an under-privileged immigrant neighborhood, and eventually lead to important social reform and distinction for the university.

"There's been a call for ... a new relationship between public universities and the publics they serve," said Shibley.

Shibley's committee conversed with both faculty and students on how such initiatives could be pursued at UB. According to Shibley, the faculty said public service requires "top-down support," meaning monetary recognition for professors whose research enriches their community.

"If you're going down the road less traveled, there ought to be some compensation for that," he said.

Professor of philosophy William Baumer objected to making public service a factor when considering whether professors obtain tenure, on the grounds that in certain disciplines, such as classics, it would be next to impossible to connect research with community service.

Baumer said junior faculty members are already inundated with tenure requirements, and the added component of public service would simply amount to an unnecessary burden.

"The attitude in my department, which I have legally promoted along with my senior colleagues, is that you keep your junior faculty protected," said Baumer.

"You don't put them on committees, you don't give them administrative assignments and you don't expect them to be inherently involved in the community. You do expect them to get their courses out, to get research done and to meet the requirements for tenure."

Charles Fourtner, director of biological sciences, agreed. He took issue with Shibley's recommendation of "top-down support" which would involve administrators in tenure decisions.

From his experience in the sciences, Fourtner said the opinions of faculty in a department are more important than those of chairs and deans, because if an associate professor receives a large number of votes and strong recommendations they will receive tenure and do well in the department.

"You have to have some mechanism which I can go back to my colleagues and say "this is important," not because some bloody administrator said it was important but it's important to the discipline," Fourtner said. "That's where the problem arises."

Shibley said that any department can contribute to public service. He described a regeneration project for the Niagara region requiring the expertise of humanities professors in issues of international border relations.

Although the current academic system emphasizes individual work and research, Shibley maintained that most real-world projects involve a wide range of disciplines.

"The demands of service in the world require more than one discipline to resolve a problem," he said. "It usually requires them to work and solve a problem in relation to one another."

The issue is of particular significance because it is the grounds on which UB deans turned down a 1995 Faculty Senate resolution. The resolution established the Committee on Public Service and Urban Affairs' agenda with the suggestion that community service be a key consideration for tenure and promotion. Deans rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would be difficult to establish a standard method of determining which research projects were valuable as public service.

"All the top-down support in the world isn't going to do anything without some kind of method of evaluation and assessment," Shibley said.

To overcome these hurdles, Shibley suggested UB examine other universities with successful and productive public service research projects, as well as ways for such projects to gain the academic recognition they deserve from the university and scholarly community.

FSEC Chair Michael Cohen was receptive to Shibley's proposal and said public service should be an integral part of the university vision and structure.

"I think everyone should have some obligation to the community they live in," he said.



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