How to Bridge the Mutual Distrust Between Leaders and Professors Amid Covid-19

Full vitae how to bridge the mutual distrust

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By Carolyn Dever and George Justice

"You never let a serious crisis go to waste," said Rahm Emanuel in 2008, reacting to the financial downturn in his role as chief of staff for Barack Obama. "It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." That perspective — which Emanuel has reprised in response to the Covid-19 pandemic — strikes fear in the heart of faculty members. It did so in 2008. And it’s doing so again in 2020.

We were senior administrators at our respective universities back in 2008. We have both returned to faculty roles. Having seen these transformational moments from both sides of the faculty-administrative divide, we believe we have a unique perspective on the crisis — and, yes, on the opportunities it provides academe.

At times like this, what faculty members imagine lurking in the administrative amygdala is this: "Bwahahaha! Now is a chance for us to do all the nefarious things that the faculty oppose."

What administrators typically mean: "Our colleges and universities rely on outdated processes that are failing in this time of emergency. How can we create permanent fixes instead of applying Band-Aids to get us through the crisis?" And what some campus leaders are thinking in the Covid-19 crisis is even more simple: "How can we survive this?"

The disconnect between what’s meant and what’s imagined stems from legitimate — and potentially productive — differences in perspective.

The administrative perspective. The global pandemic has incited a flurry of activity in every area of academic administration:

  • College presidents are trying to provide leadership in a time of chaos, and meet their obligations to their governing boards.
  • Admissions deans and leaders in enrollment management are figuring out how large (or maybe how small) the tuition-paying incoming class will be for the fall.
  • Vice provosts for research, especially at the most research-active institutions with medical schools or other biomedical research, are figuring out how to meet the current needs while supporting faculty members across the institution.
  • Chief financial officers and those responsible for facilities, student life, and international partnerships are all seeing their worlds overturned.
  • Those in educational technology would be celebrating — except that throwing thousands of classes online, with predictably variable results, might not be the best advertisement for digitally engaged education.
  • Finally, school deans and department chairs are scrambling to make the numbers work while also delivering on their research and educational missions.

The faculty perspective. Professors are most concerned with what’s happening on the academic side of things. There is almost a Gothic horror to the fears that faculty members have about the future of the institutions to which many of them have dedicated their professional lives:

  • Professors are waiting for deans and provosts to provide a road map — with faculty consultation — for the future of academic programs, including what happens to their classes in the fall, how their departments will maintain academic integrity in their curricula, and how they will be able to recruit for research and educational excellence.
  • Behind those broad concerns are more tangible, personal worries: Will they be furloughed or subject to further pay cuts? Will their teaching loads increase, perhaps permanently, changing the very nature of their employment? Will their graduate students ever find academic work? Will contingent and even tenured faculty members have jobs in the fall?

Given the very complicated context of this crisis, how can professors and administrators focus on the potentially productive part of their varying perspectives and avoid getting trapped in trench warfare? At a time when we need to work well together, retreating to our separate corners and preparing to battle it out will only undercut our students’ welfare, damage our campuses, and endanger our livelihoods — perhaps permanently.

What we have here is failure to communicate. It is time — right now — for better communication from campus administrations about what’s happening at this very moment, for the summer, and in preparation for the fall.

We need better two-way and one-way communication. There is an imperative to inform the faculty — as clearly and openly as possible — about what is happening in the realms outside of faculty purview. In the context of that information, campus leaders need to be consulting — right now — with faculty members about the implications of this crisis.

The shared-governance system should not be suspended, but its timelines and conventional processes might need to adapt for this moment. Faculty members are the experts in figuring out how to deal with curriculum, hiring, teaching responsibilities, and research support in light of the pandemic, and should continue to have the major role in those areas. Any major changes this crisis brings to things like salaries and benefits, office space, research infrastructure, educational technology, libraries, and student-support services, to name just a few, will affect the conditions of faculty employment. Which is why it’s critical for every campus administration to consider the faculty’s views and avoid unilateral decision-making.

How to fix our one-way and two-way communication. Here are our ideas for distinguishing and developing these dual lines of communication, appropriate to the present crisis and the future of our colleges and universities.

  • Campus administration must figure out who is in charge of communicating what to whom. Then respect those roles. Urban legend is not our friend right now; nor is gossip, nor speculation. Make it clear what the president communicates, how, and to whom. What comes from the provost, from the dean, from the department chair? How? And to whom?
  • From the faculty perspective, we need to know: What are the reliable avenues to advance important questions and concerns? And to filter information back? Then it’s up to professors to use those channels.
  • When those channels break down — and they will — re-establish them.
  • To the best of our ability, both faculty members and administrators must check our politics, biases, and suspicions at the door. The academic house is under siege. People across the campus are moving quickly, in unforeseen circumstances and against remarkable challenges, to do their best — to teach to the best of their ability; to squeeze fiscal viability from the lemon of lost revenues; to respect governance processes unanticipated by even the most elaborate organizational charts. Whatever your knee-jerk tendency in campus politics, resist it and assume goodwill.
  • Ask important questions. Listen very hard to the answers. This is not the moment to score points off one another. It is a moment to engage respectfully.
  • Perhaps most important, remember that we are all on the same team. We are here to provide education, research, and service to our communities. Although our roles differ widely, we are all part of something greater. At the end of the day, we all serve in some of the most hopeful, future-oriented, and durable of human institutions.

As the pandemic has already made clear, our campuses are not in a bubble, protected from the world. Only a dedication to mission will take us forward.

We are all right to be worried not only about our colleges and universities but about the long-term viability of our institutions as we know them, and of our jobs. Balancing short-term institutional survival with improvement will require faculty members to put as much energy and thought into our lives as academic citizens as we have put into remote instruction in the past few months. It will require administrators to do their work with integrity, not only "on behalf of" but "in partnership with" faculty members and students.

We need to listen, to respect each other, and to dedicate our work to the common good. In subsequent columns we will zero in on some of the major issues that faculty and administration will need to resolve together in the coming year, including, among others, online learning, graduate education, basic and applied research, hiring, promotion and tenure, and curriculum design.

There are no easy answers to any of this, but if we seize upon this crisis as an opportunity to work together, our institutions can emerge stronger and more effective than they are right now.

Carolyn Dever is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College and formerly its provost. George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University and formerly the university’s dean of humanities.

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