In his latest post, Douglas Natelson at Nanoscale Views bravely attempts to explain to the rest of us what a “conflict of commitment” is. At most research universities, faculty have to make formal yearly disclosure of any activity in which they engage (during working hours, I presume), not directly related to their immediate academic duties, possibly negatively affecting (conflicting with) their scholarly performance.
In turn, Universities set up elaborate policies on how best to “regulate” such activities. What should be permitted ? Where is the line to be drawn ? What kind of action should be required, on the part of the University administration, to curb any instance of faculty committing excessive time to “extracurricular” endeavours, to the detriment of their productivity ?
I wish I had some useful suggestion for Doug, or any other academic who has (had) the misfortune of being tied up for a week, a term or even more time, arguing over this subject (or one of the many similar others that administrations are fond of inflicting upon their faculty).
Alas, I don’t. In fact, whenever I find myself in the vicinity of colleagues or administrators debating issues such as this one, I quickly think of a pretext to excuse myself, and look for the nearest exit. In those cases in which this is not a viable proposition, if I am supposed to contribute to such a discussion, I try for the most part to sit quietly through it, without getting upset, ignoring as much as possible the inherent futility and ridiculousness of the whole situation.
What remedy can I possibly suggest, for what is essentially a non-existent problem ? To me, this is another case of “administrators gone wild” (maybe we should make a video about it, sometime… possibly even a special Spring Break edition). What we have here, are individuals supposedly charged with ensuring the smooth, efficient day-to-day operations of an institution of higher learning, attempting to shove unneeded regulations, committees, paperwork, red tape down the collective throat of the faculty.
And, while it may be sold to the greater public as an exercise in “accountability’, its actual, subtle, subliminal goal is that of establishing a hierarchy, instilling academic faculty (namely individuals who elected to pursue their profession mainly, if not exclusively for the purpose of exercising freely their creativity) with a sense that they are being closely monitored and scrutinized, that there are higher authorities whose permission must be obtained and to which explanations must be provided whenever requested.
In short, it is an operation whose motivation and aim are purely ideological — they have absolutely nothing to do with ensuring accountability, much less efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars. The actual, not so mysterious goal, is that of chipping away at academic freedom, a notion with which many (mainly right-wing) politicians have a problem.
The notion of “conflict of commitment” implies that time spent doing “other things” is taken away from a person’s main activity. But, academia can not be regarded as another nine-to-five job. By its own nature, scholarly work does not exclusively take place inside an office or a laboratory, and attempting to quantify it in terme of hours spent at specific places, is silly and misguided. And, it is not necessary. Much easier it is simply to look at how much a person has delivered, regardless of when and where she did the work. Yes, it is that straightforward.
OK, wait a minute, now, Massimo: is the evaluation of the performance of a human by another human not always going to be “subjective”, to a degree ? Yes, there is no arguing over that. However, perhaps no other profession such as mine allows for a more direct, unambiguous, quantitative and (reasonably) objective assessment of the performance on the job of one of its practitioners.
It is worth pointing out one important difference between the private sector and academia. In the former, e.g., at a high-tech firm, typically only a few individuals come in direct contact with any given employee on a regular basis, and can thus provide a first hand opinion on the person’s ability. Whatever written record is kept (if any) of the evaluation of the worker, remains strictly confidential — it is property of the firm and will usually not be disclosed to the outside world. For example, no one at, say, Microsoft, will ever compare the code written by one of their programmers, to similar code written by an equivalent programmer at, say, Apple (not that I know of, anyway).
Finally, one will be normally working within a large team, making the zeroing in on a single employee’s individual contribution a very difficult proposition (but, since I know nothing of the private sector, I shall let the expert speak more authoritatively about it).
What about academia ? Well, here things tend to be, how shall I put it… pretty brutal ?
Scholarly research is subjected to the rigorous, formal vetting process represented by publication, whether that be in the form of peer reviewed articles in specialized journals, books, edited book chapters, literature review or other forms of publication, depending on the field of inquiry.
The impact of publications can in turn also be quantified — directly by means of metrics such as the number of citations, the impact factor of the journal, as well as by indirect measures such as invitations to speak, prizes, as well as research grants.
Naturally, there are also the opinions expressed by senior colleagues, often requested by university administration to provide a candid, objective, blunt assessment of the contribution of a junior colleague.
And in academia, virtually all record is public, and can be accessed by anyone with a web browser. Consequently, the scholarly output of an individual academic is constantly compared to that of her peers, not just in her department, but also in her college, school, as well as at competing institutions.
What about teaching ? Well, that is even more brutal. Seriously, I doubt if I need to tell anyone about student evaluations. And yes, those are largely public too, either the formal ones, administered by the institution, or the informal ones (RateMyProfessor, anyone ?).
Finally, academic service (which is not as important as research and teaching) can also be quantified, this one rather easily, for one is mainly talking about committee assignments, also part of the official departmental record.
My point is, it is impossible in academia for anyone obviously, egregiously under-performing, to “fly under the radar”. The administration may or not elect to take action against them, but that these individuals will be spotted, is simply not up for discussion. No one can go for a long time without publishing, doing a bad job at teaching, not showing up for class etc., without someone else (typically a lot of people) noticing it .
So, given that it is possible to measure fairly objectively the performance of any one of us, I am going to venture to state the following, which expresses my “philosophy” on this subject:
There is no such thing as “conflict of commitment” — only satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance.
Academic freedom means that faculty can elect to organize their time and activity (work and leisure) as they please, as long as classroom teaching and office hours obligations be met, and that scholarly output be regarded as sufficient. Measuring the performance of an academic faculty using accepted scholarly metrics, is the one and only thing that administrators should content themselves with doing. If it be resolved that a faculty’s academic performance is seriously deficient, and no extenuating circumstances can be invoked (e.g., health or family reasons), then disciplinary action against said faculty is warranted, regardless of the worthiness of any other “commitment” that may have kept the person from doing her job.
Conversely, if it be established that the person’s performance is altogether satisfactory; that all that is expected of her is being delivered; that no obvious shortcomings can be found and/or serious complaints have been raised; in that case, how the person has spent her time; how many coffee breaks she has taken; when and where she has done the work; whatever else she has “committed to” that may or not have some impact on her academic performance; how many charity events she has organized; how many fussball tournaments she has attended/won; how many ridiculous blog posts she has written; and, how much time all of that may have taken away from to the person’s scholarly work — all of that should be regarded as nobody’s business but hers (or, possibly, of the tax collection agency).
Any attempt on the part of a university administration to
stick its nose investigate, regulate or manage all of that is unjustified, unnecessary, arrogant, intrusive and wasteful.
I think that is pretty much all I have to say about this. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fill out my annual “conflict of commitment” form.
 It is worth clarifying that, in order for a faculty to be granted significant relief from teaching, or in any case to spend significant amounts of time doing something other than teaching, research or academic service, she must have submitted a specific request to the university administration to that effect, a request that the administration must have approved, or it would not be happening. Obviously, by signing off on the request the administration explicitly endorses whatever extracurricular activity in which the faculty engages.