Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Third Leg

FWFimage_20170728Following up on posts earlier this summer about university teaching and research, I thought this week I would write a few lines about the third piece in the academic triumvirate – service.

Teaching, research, and service are often listed together as the responsibilities of a university faculty member. Research is all about the discovery of new knowledge and teaching is all about sharing that knowledge with the next generation. Service, in this context, refers to all the things that we do to maintain a healthy community and an environment where those first two activities can thrive.

Service activities are normally divided into two broad categories – university service and professional service. University service includes all the things that we do for our own institutions, beyond teaching courses and carrying out research projects. Professional service are all those things we do to maintain the professional communities outside of the university, often but not always centered around a shared interest in a particular area of research or scholarship.

University service is closely connected with the concept of shared governance, a principle which maintains that the faculty have an important voice in the academic programs and policies of the institution. Since we have a voice in those policies and programs, it is incumbent upon the faculty to exercise that right through participation in a myriad of committees and other governance bodies that either make recommendations to the university administration (in the case of policy) or have the authority to make decisions (in the case of academic programs and requirements). This can happen at multiple levels. In the department, we have faculty committees that oversee our undergraduate and graduate academic programs, organize seminars, manage our various communication activities, ensure compliance with accreditation requirements, maintain our laboratories and other departmental facilities. The faculty as a whole has the authority to vote on any changes to our academic programs, provided they are consistent with university-wide standards.

At the university level, at Michigan Tech we have a governance body, comprising both faculty and staff, called the University Senate. Each academic department has one representative, chosen by the departmental faculty, and there are some at-large members as well. The primary responsibility of the Senate is the oversight of academic programs: all new academic programs at Michigan Tech have to go through a rigorous Senate vetting process that the proposing departments consider onerous at the time but in the end plays an important and valuable role in quality control. The Senate also makes recommendations on non-academic matters that have an impact on faculty, staff, and students, such as the sabbaticals, benefits, and compensation. Most of the Senate meetings I have been to (usually because the ECE Department has some proposal up for a vote) are pretty boring but I am first to admit that the work is important and I thank all the representatives for their service. Saeid Nooshabadi has been the ECE rep for several years, and now that Saeid is off on sabbatical Chris Middlebrook is taking over this year.

Most faculty members are involved in some form of professional service outside the university, most often but not always related to technical areas of interest. Everyone on the ECE faculty (I’m pretty sure) is a member of the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which incidentally is the largest technical organization in the world. The IEEE has a ton of activities related to the dissemination of technical information, including journals, conferences, and workshops. There are all sorts of ways to participate in those activities, such as being on technical committees, organizing workshops or sessions at conferences, or serving as an editor or associate editor for a journal. Generally speaking, I consider reviewing papers for journals and conferences as research activity and not service activity; something moves into the service category when there is more of an administrative function involved, such as being a conference organizer or a journal editor. That’s a subtle distinction and probably not all that important, although I do keep it in mind when doing faculty performance reviews.

There are lots of other professional organizations out there besides the IEEE, such as the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and no end of opportunities to serve. Volunteers are rarely compensated for their time, but such service is expected of academic personnel, which in effect means that the universities that pay faculty salaries are footing the bill for all these professional organizations. That’s not meant to be a complaint; the organizations and the universities have consistent missions and as such, one could view the professional organizations as extensions of the entire university system taken as a whole. The system works as long as everyone does their part.

I often take advantage of this blog to brag on someone in the ECE Department, and today is no exception. One of ECE faculty members most active in professional service over the past couple of years is Prof. Shiyan Hu. Shiyan is an associate professor on the computer engineering side of the department, with interests in design automation and cyber-physical systems. He led the establishment of the new IEEE Technical Committee on Cyber-Physical Systems, whose membership includes 21 IEEE Fellows and 12 current or former Editors-in-Chief for IEEE or ACM Transactions. He is the co-Editor-in-Chief for the new journal IET Cyber-Physical Systems: Theory and Applications, and has established two new IEEE workshops, Cross-Layer Cyber-Physical System Security and Design Automation for Cyber-Physical Systems. Over the years he has been an associate editor for three different IEEE Transactions, and he has been a special issue guest editor for the five others, including an upcoming special issue of the IEEE Proceedings, on Design Automation for Cyber-Physical Systems (watch for it in 2018.) Shiyan is bringing a lot of visibility to ECE at Michigan Tech and we certainly appreciate it.

In these past few columns I have attempted to emphasize not only what we do in academics, but why we do it. In the case of service, I see service as being all about building communities. In many aspects of academics, there is an element of competition: departments compete against each other within universities, individuals compete nationally and internationally for priority and respect in their research, and universities compete with one another for prestige, with the most visible example of the latter being the rankings put forth by U.S. News and World Report. Competition is healthy for spurring innovation and motivating us to be the best that we can be, but it also has the unhealthy side effect of building walls and turning us against one another. Through our service activity, whether internal or external to the university, we have the opportunity to build communities of like-minded individuals who agree to support each other, and maybe even set the rules of engagement for orderly and fair competition. It gives us the chance to reflect on the fact that, at the end of the day, we really are all in this together. I believe that the balance between striving to be our best individually, while supporting each other to be our best collectively, is a beautiful thing about being in academics and one of the reasons that we stay in these positions for as long as we do.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Michigan Technological University

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