Service Learning and Faculty in the Higher Education Institution

© 2004 Tim Scepansky

edited 4/13/14


Service learning has gained popularity among leaders of higher education in recent years. When an administration attempts to implement service learning in the institution the organizational culture influences the acceptance and adoption of the pedagogy at various levels. The success of service learning will depend on the level of its institutionalization and how the faculty accepts, adopts, and implements it within the university. Some of the issues and concerns with respect to faculty, administration, community, as well as the implementation of a service learning initiative will be discussed and presented in this paper.

This paper presents information from the literature on organizational theory and the literature on service learning. Presented within are potential factors for a working model for institutionalizing service learning initiatives with emphasizes on culture, power, authority, and resources.

Service Learning

In recent years service learning has become popular within higher education institutions. Many leaders of higher education believe that implementing service learning into the curriculum will result in not only better-educated students, but also, students becoming better citizens. Institutions of higher education, historically, focused on educating students to become better student citizens. Throughout the 20th century the focus of higher education shifted to a professional and discipline content specific direction. This shift and growth in higher education diminished the perceived importance of community engagement, volunteerism, and service learning. The rational model would suggest that the perceived value of service learning was not worth the resources to implement. Currently there is a renewed interest in the benefits of service learning in the curriculum. These benefits range from pedagogical, citizenship, and social justice issues.

The problem in this renewed interest in service learning is that the factors that foster service-learning initiatives are not clear. It would be helpful to understand why some faculty implement service learning while other faculty do not, cannot, or fail to implement the pedagogy. Why are some faculty successful and others are unsuccessful? Identifying the factors associated with the success or failure would be beneficial in understanding the nature of service learning initiatives. Understanding the organizational structure and the ways in which the organization works is essential to understanding these factors.


There are critical issues associated with institutional structure and service learning. The issue of community engagement is often a cause for confusion. There may be a lack of understanding as to the differences between service learning, community service, and volunteerism. A working definition of service learning: aligning course content by meeting a need of the community through student practice (Campus Compact, 2000, p.15). One of the misunderstandings of service learning is the mixing of definitions for different types of community engagement.

Some consideration as to the important issues in relation to what is service learning must be made. These misunderstandings must be clarified when discussing and examining service learning, due to misconceptions in the definition. Many higher education faculty have not engaged in service learning implementations because they understand service learning to be tantamount to other types of community engagement: volunteerism, internships, student organizations, among others. The definition of service learning is aligning course outcomes with community needs (Campus Compact, 2000, p.15). The key elements are not one or the other, but meeting both components. This is where service learning can become a powerful pedagogy. A strategy that faculty would embrace, but the university faculty must be prepared to implement the strategy into the curriculum. Howard (1998) identifies service learning as primarily a teaching methodology, but also a counter normative pedagogy. Zlotkowski (1996) characterizes service-learning efforts of "socially, morally, and pedagogically concerned academicians" rather than that of "socially, morally concerned activists operating from an academic base" (p.25). Service learning is an academic endeavor, however; being a counter normative pedagogy, faculty may not fully understand the value and how they can apply it to their teaching and discipline. Administration support and structure should address this component.

For the purpose of this paper and its discussions, the theoretical model presented is of a university that has adopted a new mission of engagement, leadership, contribution, social justice, and service learning that empower its students to be educated citizens in the communities they serve and live. An important facet to the university culture is faculty satisfaction, vitality, commitment, as well as creating an atmosphere conducive to student satisfaction and active learning. Service learning is a pedagogy that the faculty must choose to develop and implement into the curriculum. As a relatively new pedagogy, one that is quite different from traditional classroom teaching, faculty development appears to be a very important and appropriate area that could be used in service learning implementations. Furco (2001) reports that a University of California-Berkley study found that the "strongest predictor for institutionalizing service learning on college campuses is faculty involvement in and support for service-learning" (p.69). If the faculty feel as if the service learning is a mandate from administration then conflict as to whom holds the power over the curriculum could ensue. These issues indicate the importance of a well-planned and implemented faculty development plan that emphasizes a service learning initiative.

It would seem important to assess the needs of faculty members by means of interviews, focus groups, or surveys in order to ascertain what type of development opportunities would be most beneficial. To ensure that program initiatives satisfy faculty and administration needs, an appointment of representatives from among the various stages of faculty members to serve on the university advisory staff development committee. Chopp, Frost, and Jean (2001) affirm "meaningful and lasting faculty development programs are more likely to take hold when the impetus for change emerges directly from faculty at the grassroots level" (p. 45), resulting in a greater possibility of institutionalizing service learning into the university. Zlotkowski (1996) states that there is a need to connect service learning with the "defining constructs of academic life" (p.23). There are few other means of accomplishing this than through faculty acceptance.

Challenging the Power Structure

One of the potential problems with the initiative of service learning, especially a new initiative, one that is very different from a traditional model, in that it may create a challenge to the power structure of the university. The Mathew Principle (Merton, 1973) posits that those faculty that have received recognition, shall continue to receive recognition. Mulkay (1977) presents this principle in such a way; that the more preeminent a professor becomes, the more well known and respected the professor becomes a self-reinforcing elite structure. By creating a very different and new manner for faculty to be recognized challenges the power structure via the manner faculty worked under previously. This challenge to the Mathew effect may create conflict, power shifts and resistance among faculty. The result may be that faculty reject the possibilities of the powerful pedagogy simply because it is not the way the organization worked in the past.

Understanding the organizational culture is vitally important. Since the university recently adopted the new mission that is very different from its previous mission, understanding faculty views and opinions on the new mission is important. Points of investigation may include understanding the constituencies that may oppose the new mission based on values, power, authority, shifting resources, and perception. The real culture of the university is learned "through the grapevine" (Miller & Anderson, 2002, p. 54). The service learning initiative may be in conflict with the traditional culture and experience of the university. This may present conflict in the program goals.

Diffusing Innovation

The Diffusion of Innovations theory (Rogers, 1995) may be examined to help alleviate the problems of the cultural conflict. The Diffusion of innovation theory focuses on five elements: (1) the characteristics of an innovation which may influence its adoption, (2) the decision making process that occurs when individuals consider adopting a new idea, (3) the characteristics of individuals that make them likely to adopt an innovation, (4) the consequences for individuals and society of adopting an innovation, (5) communication channels used in the adoption process. Since the implementation of service learning is a new model, an innovation, at this university, the examination of the theory could shed valuable insight into the way that the faculty accepts the initiative and integrates it into the culture of the university organization.

A normative goal technique could be used as a way of allowing key stakeholders to identify core goals and values with respect to how the service-learning program is accepted by faculty. This is to attempt to ensure a broad perspective of faculty concerns and needs. The selection of faculty should include a range of innovators (Rogers, 1995) early accepters, opinion leaders, and resistors. Through the inclusion of different innovators, the needs and direction of the program can be adapted to the needs of the faculty from a broad spectrum. Middendorf (2000) states "it can be very difficult to get faculty to change without the buy-in of the Opinion Leaders." Since the opinion leaders represent the norms of the group, faculty, it is important to recruit them in the efforts to adopt the service learning initiative for greater rate of success.

Topics for service learning faculty development include mentoring, time constraints, building collaborative relationships among colleagues and community leaders, research and publishing issues, teaching strategies, and the other issues that arise as the stakeholders put forth the normative goals used to find them out. In order to institutionalize service learning, faculty must accept and use the strategy.

Evaluation and Rewards

Some issues to consider is how the university faculty have been evaluated and rewarded. A push for faculty to use service learning may a contradiction to the ways faculty has been expected perform and have been rewarded. The traditional model of teaching, research, and service for faculty measurement and rewards is much different then this new model. This may generate uncertainty, conflict, and confusion on the part of faculty. The alignment and clarity of the rewards and goals must be considered in order to reduce the challenges and meet desired outcomes. A review of a needs assessment and data generated from this should be collected and evaluated. One of the objectives is to increase the number of service learning courses offered at the university. These specific outcomes of the initiative must be stated.

The early accepters, especially the early accepter/opinion leader, of service learning should be identified and asked to communicate to other faculty the ways that they have incorporated service learning into their courses. Rogers (1995) explains that there are individuals, early accepters, who adopt early on an innovation through their interest in the benefits that the innovation can add to their work. Since early accepters have been using service learning prior to the adoption of the new mission, these early adopters can communicate the benefits they have observed in an unbiased forum. The implementation of this communication should be on a multiple tiered approach: formal, informal, and models of practice roundtable discussions. By giving ample opportunity to explore the benefits and possibility of implementing service learning. Faculty must have the time to reflect on how service learning can benefit teaching and learning. The organization needs to structure events and programs to meet the multi-tiered approach.

Of some importance is administrative support in the transfer of learning for faculty. This support can be represented by way of money, time, resources, financial compensation, promotion and tenure, among others. Without this support the success of the institutionalizing of service learning will be lacking or fail. Examples of support include: faculty development grants, release time, recognition, tenure and promotion consideration, increase in salary, additional resources.

Faculty development grants aid faculty in providing much needed resources such as time, money, and support. This support allows faculty the ability to develop a service-learning course that other wise would be difficult to accomplish. Release time allowing faculty to refrain from teaching a traditional classroom course in order to develop a service learning course which will be taught in a following semester. This tool would ease the time pressures faculty face with restricted time constraints. This support would make it more possible. Also, traditional university service demands may be lowered in order to accomplish the service learning goal. Such as relinquishing demands that faculty serve on university committees, advising, as well as other time consuming demands.

Promoting the service-learning program informally and formally through newsletters, via e-mail, and with reminders posted in prominent areas where participants will view them is essential for faculty acceptance. The announcements may also state and clarify for participants the connection between the professional initiative and the university's reward system. Brancato (2003) emphasizes the importance of this step: "Publishing a composite schedule of service learning development activities, an index of resources and services that highlights faculty development can lead to greater campus awareness of upcoming development events" (p. 63). The creation of a service learning monthly newsletter distributed to the university community will attempt to give faculty that implement service learning initiative some recognition of their efforts. A second result would be to communicate good models of practice of service learning to the rest of the university community and share ideas.

Tenure and Promotion Guidelines

Integrating service learning application into the official faculty tenure and promotion guidelines is important in order to officially reward faculty for implementing the pedagogy. The rationale for this is not to punish faculty that fail to implement service learning, but to reward the efforts of faculty that choose to use it. Without the formal structure of the rewards, faculty may find the effort better spent on an activity that serves their career in a more direct manner. If the traditional reward system is changed too quickly or drastically altered the culture of the university may be augmented too quickly. The augmentation could take the form of faculty feeling disconnected; unsatisfied, and possibly leaving the university they no longer feel serves their belief system.

At this point an evaluation of the effectiveness and implementation should begin. Reflection on the stated goals of the program and if the goals are being accomplished. A measure of the number of faculty developing service learning courses, the number of service learning courses currently offered, the number of faculty using the resources offered in the development plan can give data on the effectiveness of the current offerings. This measure can also give valuable information about how service-learning initiatives are affecting the institution. A survey of the faculty as to how they feel the university is meeting the needs of the mission, and can give information as to if the program will meet the goals and be successful. Since, by definition, service learning requires meeting a community need, community leaders, organizations, and partners should be surveyed for their input on how the plan is meeting these needs.

Regarding the program, it is imperative that the administration staff developer incorporate adult learning principles throughout the program, "a learner-centered program will address the needs of the faculty, utilize their knowledge and experience, and emphasize application to their professional duties" (Lawler and King, 2000, p. 92). The presenter can communicate a value of service learning and circumvent some of the cultural issues by demonstrating how it has benefited their teaching. There must be respect and value of the participants' expertise and invite them to share their experiences during the program. Wlodkowski (2002) claims "the program is relevant when learning reflects the personal, communal, and cultural meanings of the learners in a manner that shows a respectful awareness of their perspective" (p. 43). He maintains that when participants feel they have a voice and their opinions are respected, then intrinsic motivation emerges (p. 41).

By addressing these questions and concerns, the university is charged with attempting to aid implementation of service learning initiatives in the university organization. For faculty who strive use innovative teaching strategies in their course delivery in order to meet the needs of today's students, and who enjoy collaborating with colleagues, taking advantage of staff development opportunities is another avenue for achieving job satisfaction in the academy and for achieving the mission of the university. The organization must consider the ways in which the faculty accept the service learning initiative in order to bring about its institutionalization.


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