The Long Tail of an Unprecedented Crisis

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Image: Katherine Streeter For The Chronicle

We are nine months into the pandemic. Campuses are teaching remotely and moving interactions online — all of which has had a profound effect not just on students, but on professors as well. Faculty members are stressed. They’re tired. They’re anxious. And they’re finding less enjoyment in teaching. Some have even thought about leaving the academy altogether. Those are some of the results from a national survey The Chronicle and Fidelity Investments conducted in late October.

What can college leaders do to better support faculty members during this difficult time? The Chronicle convened a virtual event to discuss the challenges and possibilities of this harsh new teaching landscape. The panelists were Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College; Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University; Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; and Katherine Rowe, president of William & Mary. The event was hosted by Liz McMillen, executive editor at The Chronicle.

Liz McMillen: Does anything about the survey findings surprise you?

Katherine Rowe: I’m not surprised. We’re managing unprecedented challenges and doing things for the first time with very high stakes. It’s understandable to feel skeptical and fearful. The level of uncertainty has been really, really high for everybody.

Sian Beilock: Faculty are not just faculty. They’re often parents, and they’re often caring for their parents. Something that I’m acutely focused on is that women in the survey tended to feel much more negative about work-life balance. That comes down to child care and who is doing a lot of the tasks in the home. As administrators, but also as faculty looking at tenure dossiers, we’re going to have to think about that, not just this year but well into the future. Frankly, it’s a really hard task.

Jonathan Holloway: The last thing that Sian said is worth emphasizing. We’re going to come out of this, somehow, in about a year’s time, but this is a three- or four-year challenge in terms of faculty job satisfaction, job security, the market, work-life balance, etc. That’s the thing we haven’t fully wrapped our head around yet. I don’t know how we can, but acknowledging that there’s going to be a long tail to this virus is an important thing to point out.

Beilock: Yeah, and the tail will not be uniform for everyone.

McMillen: Like so many things with this pandemic, it’s worse for the already vulnerable. What about the first-year professor who landed on campuses this fall — they’ve only known their colleagues and their students virtually. Jonathan, you were in the same position, in some sense. You started at Rutgers in July, five months into the pandemic. What insight does this give you into what new faculty members are dealing with right now?

Holloway: Rutgers is by and large remote this semester. So the things that, for me, make a campus feel real are not here — foot traffic; being in a classroom; going out and talking to people. So being a president feels like an abstraction in many ways. For new faculty members, I imagine it’s much the same.

The first year or two are about socialization — trying to understand your colleagues. That’s body language, small conversations with the person in the office next door. That’s not available now. What will the effects be in two and three years, when that first-year faculty member is up for a mid-term review? What expectations are we going to have?

Kiernan Mathews: Orientation has traditionally been a one-day affair, if that. They show you where the bathroom is and hand you the keys. But more institutions are seeing an opportunity throughout the whole first year to create opportunities for socialization. The research tells us that the first year is when we create that bonding, that social capital, that stickiness that keeps faculty loyal, committed, engaged. What effect will a year of Zoom meetings have on that stickiness?

Rowe: I want to pick up on a couple of themes — flexibility and the disproportionate labor for women and underrepresented faculty. It’s possible that there are some silver linings here. The kinds of invisible labor that have been so hard to factor into our working lives are visible now. On Zoom, we can see the family members you’re juggling work with. There’s some real benefit, I think, culturally and organizationally, if we attend to that in very intentional ways. A key part of doing that is the imperative of flexibility.

Beilock: There’s a place for higher-education leaders here in terms of not only encouraging that flexibility but thinking about how your campus can be reoriented or rejiggered to support that. For instance, we’ve deployed hundreds of our work-study students to tutor faculty kids, especially while faculty members are teaching. Our students have said that it’s been so amazing to get to know the faculty in such a personal way. And what’s more personal than interacting with someone’s children?

McMillen: We know women are shouldering the burden of caretaking. Their research productivity is declining in this moment. How can your institutions ameliorate those effects long-term?

Beilock: When I was pregnant with my daughter and I was at the University of Chicago, we still didn’t have a policy where both spouses could take leave. If you both worked at the university, only one parent got to take it. That’s changed now, and that’s really important. The research shows that where we thought extending the tenure clock for a childbirth would be really beneficial to women, it turns out that it’s often men who are able to use this time to advance their careers. Women are taking care of the children. These one-size-fits-all policies don’t always work the way they’re intended. You need a tool bag of approaches.

Mathews: The problem with tenure delays right now is that a tenure delay is also a pay delay. It’s a delay in all of the benefits and all of the rewards of being promoted. It’s clear already that women are going to be delaying their clocks a lot longer. People of color, who are more likely to know somebody who has been harmed, if not killed, by this pandemic, are more likely to be delaying their tenure clocks. So the concern that I have is that if we don’t turn to the policies, the structures, the narrow, status quo definitions of excellence that we use to promote people, we’re going to have a whiter, more male academy in the future.

McMillen: Can you give an example of how a tenure and promotion policy would change to reflect different criteria for excellence?

Mathews: All of the service that we ask the faculty to do, particularly women and faculty of color — we expect so much more of them. But so little of that is genuinely recognized in tenure and promotion. A more inclusive definition of excellence would reward faculty members for the labor that we’re actually expecting them to undertake when we hire them. Look at the Faculty Workload and Rewards Project at the University of Maryland. It’s a tool kit, a real hands-on approach.

McMillen: Pandemic conditions might continue for another six or 12 months. What have you learned about how to help faculty members thrive? What would you change next year?

Beilock: We made a decision very early on that deciding how you’re going to teach — online or in person — is part of academic freedom. It’s just like deciding what you teach and where you teach. And so we’ve really left that up to our faculty.

Rowe: We radically expanded the group that consults on decision making. What had been about 20 people has become 80. We meet every other week: administrators, staff, and faculty members from all of our five schools. So one lesson for me was to adapt a kind of nerve hub of problem solving and communication. Also, lean into shared governance.

Holloway: Communication and consistency. The more an administration can be methodical — almost to the point of boredom — when it comes to providing information, the calmer everybody will be. Everybody is stressed, and angry, and scared, and nervous. Communicating openly and being steady is the best way forward.

Mathews: When we looked at our Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey and saw the pre-shutdown and post-shutdown data, the biggest difference was in faculty attitudes on leadership. Faculty members were much more likely to view their leadership favorably because they acted swiftly. They did the right thing. They shut down and were willing to do whatever it took to be safe. If you survey faculty members now, they might say something different. Too many colleges and universities are stringing the faculty along. They are beleaguered. They are exhausted. So my message: Work with your faculty.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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