University Service: The History of an Idea

Professors in the United States are socialized to view their jobs as some combination of teaching, research, and service. The tricolon is as familiar as the refrain of an old folk ballad: it feels as though it has always been with us. But that familiarity keeps us from questioning its origins and its meaning. Teaching sometimes leads the tricolon, and sometimes research comes first (as Vanessa L. Ryan notes in her essay in this cluster). But service always comes last. Why?

The Age of the College: All Service, All the Time

To answer that question, we need to go back to the age of the college in the United States, before research universities were founded. Donald Light breaks the work of early-nineteenth-century American professors into a different triadic division: the disciplinary career, the institutional career, and the external career (2).

The external career was once more important than it is now. In the early days of American colleges, professors’ salaries were often insufficient to cover basic needs, so many of them maintained separate careers outside the institution—as clergymen, for example—to make ends meet. Today professors are more likely to have a substantial external career only if they’re already very well known—and, typically, well paid, too. Today’s professors may have the opportunity to do consulting work here and there, but external careers are rarely vital to their well-being. The necessary external career has become a relic—though the unfolding future of contingent academic labor could bring it roaring back.

That leaves the institutional and disciplinary careers, which are still very much with us. The institutional career is made up of the duties we perform at our institutions, while the disciplinary career encompasses the work we do as members of our disciplines. Teaching a course in history is institutional work, for example, while giving a talk at the American Historical Association conference is disciplinary work.

That division between institutional and disciplinary pursuits has animated the profession for many generations, but it didn’t always. The institutional career ruled during the American age of the college, before universities. If you were a faculty member then, you spent your time doing what the institution required—which meant teaching and whatever else that needed doing. Administration wasn’t pervasive because the institutions were small, and those responsibilities fell to the faculty. For example, the tutors (as they were called) at Harvard in those days “were with their pupils almost every hour of the day [that is, in classrooms, study halls, and at meals], and slept in the same chamber with some of them at night.” They were responsible for their students’ intellectual development, but also for their “moral and spiritual development” (Morison 53), like a professor, resident adviser, class dean, and pastor all rolled into one. Even though these tutors were doing service all the time, there was nothing in their jobs that was defined as service.

Service was inseparable from teaching in this scheme. Our familiar teaching-research-service division would have been unrecognizable to a college teacher two hundred years ago.

This brings me to the disciplinary career, which centers on what we today call research. To advance our disciplinary careers, we do specialized things of special interest to a few similarly specialized colleagues at our home institutions—in some extreme cases, to none of them. So instead, we share this work with colleagues at other colleges and universities who have a common interest in our specialties, and that sharing forms the basis for extramural community.

Those research-based communities became structured beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1820 only a few professors at a few colleges had what we would call a disciplinary career at all. Most were not trained in any one discipline. At four of the country’s oldest colleges—Brown, Bowdoin, Harvard, and Yale—only one faculty member was publishing in his field (Finkelstein 15–16).

American professors professionalized in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Many went to Europe to acquire disciplinary training and discipline-related credentials. They came back with newly forged disciplinary identities, and many of these newly credentialed scholars started publishing in their disciplines. This in turn created tension with the old guard, between the new purely academic concerns and the old-time version of 24-7 student care (Finkelstein 23). These prodigals loudly touted the quality and value of their foreign training, and so the first American research universities, created in the wake of postbellum national wealth, were inspired by German models (Veysey 125–33).

Research Culture and the First Incarnation of Service

The research university brought research culture. Research culture, as I refer to it here, is an ethos centered on the value of research not so much in terms of utility but for its own sake, for the value of the search for truth and the glory of the intellect that attended new discoveries in any field. Research culture cemented that sense of value by rooting it in the measurable currency of publication.

The first research universities proliferated in the United States from the 1880s to about 1910.1 Private research universities were joined by public ones to form this country’s distinctive higher educational landscape. The formation of professional societies followed the birth of the American research university. Groups like the MLA institutionalized the value of specialization that research brought. At least two hundred similar groups were formed during the 1870s and 1880s, the decades that coincide with the earliest American research universities (Bledstein 85–86).

The creation of these disciplinary societies shows how the pursuit and organization of knowledge joined the emergent academic professionalism in the United States to form a newly professionalized ideology of higher education. Advocates of academic professionalization—like the philosopher John Dewey—believed that “the influence of institutional imitation and rivalry” and “the informal exchange of experience and ideas” helped sustain the very institution of democracy (148).2

The consolidation of professional identity in disciplinary associations marked a shift and laid out a template for the university to grow and complicate its workings. A great deal has been said about this development, but I want to mark one particularly important change: the professionalization of the university helped plant the prestige economy and give it deep roots. We all know how the prestige economy works: universities and faculty members mark their professional positions by the amount of knowledge that they create. The more publication, the more prestige; the more prestige, the greater the possibility of a move up the food chain.

This professionalization of the professoriat led to a consideration of what a professor’s job should look like. The founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915 is rightly seen as a watershed in the history of academic freedom, but the association was likewise dedicated, said Dewey, its first president, to “developing professional standards” (qtd. in Schrecker 17). The AAUP sought not just “independence” for its members but also “dignity” in the university workplace (American Association of University Professors 294).

Such professionalization contributed to the conditions that link the idea of service to administrative work, but not right away. For one thing, the new research universities remained relatively small. It’s easy to imagine them as behemoths because we’re so used to seeing large research enterprises, but Princeton, for example, enrolled 1,374 students in 1904. Stanford had 1,568. Columbia and Yale were bigger, but tiny by today’s standards. Public universities were proportionately larger, but their numbers were also puny compared to now: Berkeley had 2,699 students in 1904, Illinois 3,222 (Geiger 270). Mostly because the university still operated on a small scale, teaching and service were still folded together in concept.

But service did emerge during this period as an idea that was opposed to research. It centered principally on public service: what role the university ought to play in society at large. This question was galvanized at the turn of the twentieth century by the founding of numerous state universities. Given that the public was funding these institutions, it seemed fair to ask what they were going to do for the public—and these early discussions centered on that idea. Indeed, the Morrill Act of 1862 that authorized land-grant institutions focused on their mission to serve the public by providing “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” This idea of public service was linked at first to teaching, especially in “agriculture and the mechanic arts” (7 USC sec. 304).3 Land-grant colleges would also serve the public directly through cooperative extensions and continuing education courses (Christy and Williamson 108).

The founder of one such land-grant institution, Ezra Cornell, asserted in 1868 a democratic—and notably utility-minded—ideal of the university as a place “where any person can find instruction in any study” (qtd. in Veysey 68). This idea that no one subject is better than any other provides the background for the most important version of public service of this period, which arose at the University of Wisconsin at the turn of the century. It came to be called simply the Wisconsin Idea, which, in Lincoln Steffens’s much-quoted 1909 articulation, was that the university should “teach anybody—anything—anywhere” (qtd. in Veysey 107). This was one of the most expansive ideals of higher education as a public service, in which the university reaches out into the community at large.4

This idea also resounded outside Wisconsin. The president of the University of Illinois, Edmund J. James, wrote in 1906 that the state university should be “a great civil service academy, preparing the young men and women of the state for the civil service of the state, the country, the municipality, and the township.” He called this “an ethical crusade” (qtd. in Veysey 79).

The coming of the American research university brought with it the idea of service as a distinct aim, then—distinct, that is, from research. But this new thing called service was still bound up with teaching.

The Coming of Teaching-Research-Service

The teaching-research-service triad first appeared in the 1920s. A 1927 article in the University of Michigan alumni magazine reported on a speech by the recently deceased president of the university, Marion Leroy Burton, in which Burton said that “teaching, research, and service were concrete examples of the things that a university should make its chief aim” (“President Burton”). This early invocation of service as an “aim”—and these early instances to the triad tend to refer to it that way—still points service outward, as something aimed at the community in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.

Print sources might be considered a trailing indicator in this case. The grouping of teaching, research, and service probably started appearing in academic conversation before the triad made it into print. We might hypothesize that the tricolon made its appearance in academic culture during the years leading up to the 1920s, in sources that may be found in university archives. That hypothesis gets some support when we search Google Books using what is called an N-gram, which graphs the frequency of the appearance of words or phrases in millions of books. Figure 1 presents a 4-gram that traces the four words teaching, research, service, and university as they appear together. It’s quite a striking picture.

Fig. 1: Google 4-gram for “teaching+research+service+university” from 1800 to 2000.
Fig. 1: Google 4-gram for “teaching+research+service+university” from 1800 to 2000.

Two big jumps in this graph need interpretation: one from 1900 to 1920, and the other from around 1958 to 1975 or so. That first jump correlates with the creation and rise of departments and the institution of the credit-hour system.

The rise of the credit hour marked the growing bureaucratization of higher education. As universities grew, administrations needed a way to quantify the work that was being done. Colleges and universities borrowed the idea of the credit hour from the rapidly growing system of public high schools—which developed the system in part to enable colleges to efficiently evaluate high school students’ work. Research funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching during the 1900s sought “to measure productivity in higher education.” The result was called the student hour. As an “administrative, reporting, and external monitoring device,” the student hour affected the development of the higher educational bureaucracy that defines not just student work but also the work of their teachers (Shedd 8, 9).5 Put simply, the rise of the credit system in the early twentieth century enabled a standardization consistent with dividing professors’ work into categories.

The rise of departments contributed similarly to this new bureaucracy. Before about 1890, all faculty members reported directly to the university president. As universities in this country found their shape, discipline-based departments formed. “The history of academic departments before 1920 has few fixed points,” as historian Roger L. Geiger puts it, but we know that “by about 1910 most appointments of junior faculty members at research universities were made on the recommendation of academic departments” (36, 37). That jump in the graph coincides with a time when departments were gaining controlling authority over the areas of their expertise: teaching, research, and personnel—and when they became sizable structures within a growing bureaucracy.

Departments altered the nature of academic society because they became worlds unto themselves. They offered a space in which individual professors might exercise their ambition to rise, and they also drew the lines of competition for control of resources in the university. Which department would statistics belong to? or the study of Middle Eastern culture? The departments that won such turf wars got more support. And the departments also became units in the prestige economy: being the best in one discipline or another created a new basis for competition among universities. The consequence of all these pressures, says the historian Laurence R. Veysey, was “continual department expansion”—which went along with a steady rise in student enrollment as well (323).

The teaching-research-service triad became visible at the same time that departments were contesting the landscape of a growing, diversifying, and standardizing university. It seems fair to assume that the triad answered some need created by this new organizational structure—and it’s pretty easy to identify such a need. Once the department became its own workplace, it had to meet its own structural needs. The new departments were run in their early days by autocratic heads, who were like mini college presidents with nearly absolute authority in their domains. The heads needed administrators just as university presidents did.

So we can say that the category of service came into being because service was needed by department heads to make departments run—and because the new bureaucratized system encouraged the creation of such neat category divisions. But that didn’t mean that the need for service was met smoothly. In 1939 a group of faculty members in the AAUP chapter at the University of Michigan reported their views of how they should be judged for tenure and promotion. “Since a university should be a co-operative organization,” they said, “it is recommended that faculty members be given proper credit for performance of necessary administrative duties” (qtd. in Wilson 103). This call to recognize service by faculty members has a familiar ring. So does the writers’ observation that extramural service is “of secondary importance” compared with “services [provided] directly to the university.” We see these faculty members identifying a palpable need for intramural service work—and we see them privileging it over the community work that was originally given the name of service.

The need for service—and the invocation of the teaching-research-service triad— expanded along with the university. Enriched by foundation money (as opposed to government money, which became a major player later on), universities continued to grow between the world wars. “The dominance of the graduate research model,” says historian Martin Finkelstein, “was clearly established” by the mid-1940s. As a result, “specialized expertise” became the definition of professorial authority (25; see also Ward). The Cerberus model of the professor as the three-headed performer of teaching, research, and service firmly buttressed this authority.

But that model was not comfortably in place. As the sociologist Logan Wilson observed in a 1942 study of academia that was widely cited at the time, “Teaching, research, miscellaneous administrative and public service functions are recognized everywhere as essential parts of the academic man’s work” (106). But if we close-read this quotation, we see a glaring tension: service is seen as “miscellaneous” but also “everywhere as essential.” How can something be ubiquitous, essential, and miscellaneous at the same time?

We still feel this discomfort today. Wilson went on to observe that “the most critical problem confronted in the social organization of the university is the proper evaluation of faculty services” (112). Cerberus, you could say, had one lagging head—and he still does.

The Cold War Research University and Its Value System

It gets worse. Let’s put service aside for a moment and look just at research. The 2-gram shown in figure 2 tracks the frequency of the word research as it appears in the same source with the word professor:

Fig. 2: Google 2-gram for “research+professor.”
Fig. 2: Google 2-gram for “research+professor.”

We see a sharp uptick around the 1940s. This increase coincides with the onset in 1947 of the Cold War, which transformed academia for both better and worse. It also roughly coincides with that second sharp upward turn on the earlier graph that includes service—and that’s no coincidence.

This result points to the effects of the Cold War on the academic profession. The culture of intervention and paranoia that the Cold War spawned has been well documented. It included loyalty oaths, hearings, and the dismissal of more tenured professors than at any time since academic tenure became a feature of the academic landscape (see Schrecker). But even as the Cold War interfered with the workings of academia, it also led to huge increases in university funding—and the mushrooming of research.

The exponential growth of research in our time was essentially a Cold War bargain: the university became the research and development lab for the Department of Defense and, indeed, for the whole country. The government started funding all kinds of academic research, with special emphasis on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Professors in those fields were given extra money to do research and were allowed to teach less. To prevent intramural rivalries and tensions, and also because research culture had always encompassed all fields, other disciplines were given the same deal: teach less and publish more (Lewontin).

This change was both gradual and inexorable. For example, the teaching load at Stanford during the 1950s was four courses per term, at least twice what it is now. Government investment in the university changed our value system within a generation. Research, which was already king of our world, was given an even higher throne, and it continued to rise. Both professors and universities are now measured according to what is sometimes called knowledge creation or productivity, both of which equal publication.

The system is top-heavy now, and its lack of proportion deforms a lot of lives—including those of graduate students, who have to train to be everything to every possible employer. Even though the Cold War has been over for a generation, we are who we are today because of it. As David Shumway notes in his essay in this cluster, professor and researcher are substantially overlapping identities, and universities fight for their places in ranking systems driven by that fact.

The expectation that professors do more and more research—that they work harder and harder on their disciplinary careers, while maintaining their traditional institutional careers―mirrors the traditional bind faced by many working women. Indeed, some commentators have noticed how institutional service is a feminized form of labor in academia (see Massé and Hogan). Academics are still better rewarded for the research that they do.6 The intramural call to service stands at distinct odds with the value system that surrounds not only the faculty but also their institutions—and not just research universities.7

So why teaching-research-service? We might look at the order of the terms. In the 1920s, teaching appeared first—but it’s obvious from what I’ve been saying that it does not rank first. Why put teaching first, and why put service there at all? Because the triad elevates subordinate items to a semblance of parity. It’s a rhetorical ruse that denies that teaching, research, and service are in competition—and that research has a big lead. Christopher S. Jencks, coauthor of The Academic Revolution, a still-quoted 1968 sociological study of academia, points out that “[s]uch three-word descriptions tend to imply equal importance and hence that they should get equal time―a fabulous rationale for expanding faculty time committed to administrative work, as has indeed happened.”

This value system is with us until a seismic higher educational event occurs. But let’s be honest with each other. If institutional service needs to be done—and it does—let us not pretend that it’s equivalent to research. The university promotes research for many reasons: that’s the nature of the world in which we live. But the institution, and all of us in it, can reward service, too, if we’re up front about it, and fair. Priorities may contradict in ways that are difficult to reconcile—but we need to discuss them openly if we are to meet our own needs as professionals, teachers, and cohabitants of the same institutional house. Let us honor the work that we do by treating it transparently and truthfully.


Thanks to A. W. Strouse for his research support and sage counsel during the composition of this essay and to my MLA copanelists, Vanessa L. Ryan, David Shumway, and Sidonie Smith.

  1. The first was Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876.
  2. For an insightful overview of the evolution of the professoriat in the light of these ideas, see Katz.
  3. Ward notes that at the new land-grant universities service could also be tied to agriculture (27).
  4. Recent controversies surrounding Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to revise the university charter show that the Wisconsin Idea still echoes in the Wisconsin system and in the community at large. For more on the Wisconsin Idea and the tradition of academic public service, see Cassuto 234–36.
  5. Universities began to measure the teaching of a subject in terms of credit hours in the late nineteenth century, and the Carnegie Foundation firmly established uniform standards for the credit hour in 1906. The foundation offered a pension to faculty whose colleges conformed to their standards (see Levine 159–60)
  6. This does not apply only to research universities. According to Bok, “Faculty salaries have been increasingly linked to publication at all types of four-year colleges” (329).
  7. Lee argues that “service can be scholarly,” but notwithstanding her own optimistic institutional narrative, this position has generally failed to gain traction (34). In 1996 the MLA sponsored a commission that produced a report called “Making Faculty Work Visible: Reinterpreting Professional Service, Teaching, and Research in the Fields of Language and Literature.” The commission proposed that we employ the categories of “intellectual work” and “academic and professional citizenship,” which cut across teaching, research, and service (162). This attempt to nudge the prestige economy to make room for service created not a ripple.

Works Cited

American Association of University Professors. 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. W. W. Norton & Co., 1976.

Bok, Derek. Higher Education in America. Princeton UP, 2013.

Cassuto, Leonard. The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. Harvard UP, 2015.

Christy, Ralph D., and Lionel Williamson. A Century of Service: Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, 1890–1990. Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Dewey, John. “The American Association of University Professors: Introductory Address.” Science, vol. 41, no. 1048, 1915, pp. 147–51.

Finkelstein, Norman. The American Academic Profession: A Synthesis of Social Scientific Inquiry since World War II. Ohio State UP, 1983.

Geiger, Roger L. To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900–1940. Oxford UP, 1986.

Jencks, Christopher S. E-mail message to the author, 2014.

Katz, Stanley N. “What Has Happened to the Professoriate?” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 53, no. 7, 6 Oct. 2006, p. B8,

Lee, E. Suzanne. “Scholarly Service and the Scholarship of Service.” Academe, vol. 95, no. 3, 2009, pp. 34–35.

Levine, Arthur. Handbook on Undergraduate Curriculum. Jossey-Bass, 1978.

Lewontin, R. C. “The Cold War and the Transformation of the Academy.” The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, edited by Noam Chomsky, New Press, 1997, pp. 1–34.

Light, Donald, et al. The Impact of the Academic Revolution on Faculty Careers. American Association for Higher Education, 1972. ERIC-AAHE Research Reports 10.

Massé, Michelle A., and Katie J. Hogan, editors. Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces. SUNY P, 2010.

MLA Commission on Professional Service. “Making Faculty Work Visible: Reinterpreting Professional Service, Teaching, and Research in the Fields of Language and Literature.” Profession, 1996, pp. 161–216.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. Harvard UP, 1936.

The Morrill Act of 1862. 7 USC, secs. 301–09.

“President Burton on State and University.” Michigan Alumnus, vol. 34, 1927, p. 151.

Schrecker, Ellen W. No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. Oxford UP, 1986.

Shedd, Jessica M. “The History of the Student Credit Hour.” New Directions for Higher Education, vol. 122, no. 32003, pp. 5–12.

Veysey, Laurence R. The Emergence of the American University. U of Chicago P, 1965.

Ward, Kelly. Faculty Service Roles and the Scholarship of Engagement. Jossey-Bass, 2003. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 29.5.

Wilson, Logan. The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession. 1942. Octagon Books, 1964.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and a columnist on graduate education for The Chronicle of Higher Education. A version of this essay was presented at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver.


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