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"The university’s current expectation," a dean at my university wrote, is that all staff members "should continue to report for work as normal." That message came in midweek — the day the country started to reckon fully with the unprecedented fallout from the new coronavirus.
The dean’s words fell like a blow, seemingly cruel and shortsighted in equal measure. If we’re telling students and faculty members to work remotely — while demanding that staff members come in and share office space with one another — the message is clear about whose health matters to the institution.
I fall on the staff side of the academic house. By the time this essay has been published, I expect we’ll have landed at a more reasonable position, allowing every staff member who can to work remotely in order to maximize the efficacy of social distancing.
But in the past week, we saw the same double standard played on repeat across higher education. Administrators rushed to close campuses and shift to remote learning, yet lagged in admitting that many staff employees — though, clearly, not all — could and should be allowed to work remotely, too. It was a manifestation of two distinct phenomena:
- First, too often, senior administrators refuse to let staff members control their own conditions of employment.
- Second, academe needs to fully abandon aspiring to "normal" for at least the next couple of weeks. We all need to prioritize community and humanity over normality.
The first is significant to me and my fellow staff members because of how we feel about our jobs and our institutions. The second, though, is critical to the whole academic mission as we try to teach, learn, study, and work in this age of pandemic.
I’m not going to forget Wednesday, March 11, 2020, anytime soon. Dramatic events unfolded that day with a dizzying speed, both inside and outside academe. The World Health Organization announced that Covid-19 had reached pandemic status. The NBA shut down its season. Tom Hanks told the world he was sick with the coronavirus. The president delivered a misleading speech that immediately required detailed correction by the White House. Stock-market futures plummeted.
In higher education, Wednesday was also when the shutdowns and shifts to remote learning accelerated rapidly. By midafternoon, The Chronicle’s Twitter thread stopped tracking the closures after reaching 100 institutions. I had been immersed in my own reporting for The Washington Post on the story of vulnerable students — with no homes to return to, with no money for storing or shipping their belongings, and/or with no home access to the internet — who felt abandoned by their colleges.
So I was pleased to see more and more institutions announce, as the day wore on, that such students would be accommodated. My own university president wrote, reassuringly: "We recognize that, for some students, the safest, most secure place" will be on campus.
That excellent message, however, made the seeming indifference to the staff all the more stark.
In recent days, I’ve heard from staff members around the country who do not feel supported by their institutions:
- Several in the University of California system told me the message they were getting was "all hands on deck!" (That phrase evokes images of the Covid-19 cruises, and is perhaps not an ideal metaphor for a campus to use in this moment.)
- A colleague at a public university in Texas told me that the "university has no remote-work policy" and no way for its staff members to be allowed to work from home. (Note: Policy is just that, a guideline, not a law of nature. A campus doesn’t need a policy on this issue to treat its staff members humanely in a crisis.)
- A number of staff members across academe have noted that in the wake of natural disasters — tornadoes, floods, minus-30-degree polar vortexes — students are told to stay home; the staff is told to come in.
Few staff employees feel safe in complaining publicly, though, for fear of retaliation. I’m afraid too.
But I’m also the father of a boy deemed at high risk of respiratory infection due to a Down-syndrome-related immunodeficiency. And so there are things I’m more afraid of than pissing off my bosses. Indeed, my job typically consists of welcoming students, listening to them, answering their questions, helping solve their problems, and (I hope) sending them back out into the world with a little more stability and grace. But over the next few weeks, by fiat, my students will not be coming into my office because we’re trying to promote social distancing via online learning. So I am in a position to work remotely.
After another restless night, I awoke at 5 a.m. on Friday, did two hours of remote work, then drove to campus to report in at 8 a.m., as mandated. Within an hour, I received an email that HR was letting me work remotely due to my son’s vulnerability.
That was a relief. But this isn’t just about me. Everyone deserves flexibility and agency in figuring out how to respond to a pandemic. Moreover, this is not just a story about staff. Everyone will have to give — a lot — to make it through the semester. Faculty members will not be doing their best teaching as they hurl their in-person classes online. Students, too, are likely to turn in work that is not as polished or thoughtful as usual. Tenure files are going to look weird a few years down the road, as are students’ transcripts. Course evaluations should be thrown out the window.
Everyone is going to have to relax, lower standards of excellence and rigor, and just try to support one another as we make it through the next few days and weeks. Administrators have their hands full and no doubt have their own fears about this virus. But some administrators are too often tempted to tighten their grip on the things they can control — including the academic staff — in moments of chaos. Academe in the age of coronavirus, at least for now, requires a loosening instead.
This moment will pass, but for everyone, in all categories of academe, the feelings about our institutions engendered by this moment will linger.
David M. Perry is senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and formerly was a professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. His website is at Davidmperry.com. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.
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