”A glimmer of light in this dark time in higher education is that 50 percent of faculty members say their enjoyment of teaching has stayed the same or increased this year. The bad news, of course, is that 50 percent don’t feel that way.They are worried about financial and job insecurity, as well as their health and safety — on top of their teaching and research challenges.These issues are not new but intensified — at times greatly so — by the pandemic. After all, in 2019, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University conducted a pilot survey of 550 staff instructors at four community colleges and one university; the survey found that 38 percent said they have some form of basic needs insecurity, such as food and/or housing. Perhaps most worrisome are the feelings of despondency the Chronicle survey uncovered. In response to a question about feeling hopeful, about 55 percent of those surveyed say they felt little or no hope over the past month, compared with a nearly quarter of faculty members who say they felt that way in 2019. And that 55 percent only dipped to 46 percent when asked if they expect to feel this way for the rest of 2020.Even given that these times are taxing for just about everyone, these percentages stand out, says Debra Frey, vice president for analytics and marketing for Fidelity Investments, which conducted a survey of the general population around the same time as the Chronicle survey.
The Fidelity survey (Fidelity is also the underwriter for this report) asked similar questions about emotions; 34 percent of the general population said they were feeling “very” or “extremely” hopeful, versus 13 percent of faculty members, Frey says. And 69 percent of faculty members reported feeling highly stressed, compared with 35 percent of the general population, she adds.That striking statistic may reflect the multitude of challenges professors are facing at the same time: worrying about the economic black cloud hanging over much of higher education and the ensuring job insecurity; handling their own fears and trauma as well as their students; losing a certain amount of autonomy and collaboration; and “the stress of learning a lot of new technology rapidly, and knowing that this technology is literally the way in which we will connect with, or fail to connect with, students who are themselves feeling so disconnected,” says Louisa Mackenzie, an associate professor of French at the University of Washington.
That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t teaching well. Barbara Anderson, a professor and head of the department of interior design and fashion studies at Kansas State University, says her faculty are doing a wonderful job. But they don’t necessarily feel that way, largely because of the difficulties their students have with the technology of remote learning.“Everyone is expressing a psychological exhaustion, a mental exhaustion, from not being able to do as well as you would like to do in teaching,” Anderson says. “I see a tremendous level of frustration.”Tenured faculty who have the most stability in this very unstable time would appear to be the least affected, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. A Chronicle survey question asked this of all ranks of faculty: “Since the start of 2020, have you seriously considered: changing careers and leaving higher education; changing jobs within higher education; retiring; or none of the above?”“ I’m simultaneously teaching in-person and distance-learning students; each requires vastly different techniques. I feel like if I address one group properly, the other group suffers.”– Anonymous survey response
”Over all, the respondents say they felt worse or about the same in all the categories. How-ever, when broken down by gender, women professors felt slightly better than men in all areas except one: research and publication. In this last category, the divide was most striking among tenured and tenure-track faculty; 66 percent of tenured women professors and 69 percent of tenure-track women professors responded that they feel they have done a worse job meeting their responsibilities in research and publication, compared with 58 percent and 61 percent respectively of male professors.That is not surprising to Joya Misra, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “My research shows that women tend to take time out of their own hides,” she says, “for example, putting as much time into their mentoring, service, teaching, but less into their research when they are pressed, such as when they have small kids, while men protect that re-search time.”She notes that a recent study, “No Tickets for Women in the Covid-19 Race?” showed that women were submitting proportionally fewer manuscripts to scholarly journals during the pandemic than men but continued to accept peer-review invitations around the same rate as men.“Our findings indicate that the pandemic has already created cumulative advantages for men,” say the authors of the study. On the other hand, some faculty members, without smaller children at home and with a topic that can continue to be pursued, may actually have more time to focus on research and publishing. That’s why institutions need to acknowledge the unequal ways that faculty members have experienced the pandemic.One of the initial steps universities took — 259, according to the latest update of a crowdsourced Google doc — was to quickly extend tenure bids, typically by one year. Some allow professors to opt-in to the delays and some to opt-out.
While this early action was welcomed by many, a tenure delay raises its own problems, leading many to question what the next step could be. “The instant reaction in the immediate aftermath of Covid was to grant tenure-clock extensions,” Mathews says. Research has shown, however, “that gender-neutral — and you could argue race-neutral — policies such as ‘stop the clock’ benefit both men and women, but men benefit more. Black faculty and white faculty both benefit, but white faculty benefit more.” That’s because women and faculty of color will continue to face discrimination, and, in some cases, more difficult economic situations, that don’t stop when the tenure clock stops — on top of the extra burdens they shouldered during the pandemic.The second problem is that a tenure delay is also a pay and promotion delay. “By saying every-one is going to get another year, we’re further delaying — for pre-tenure faculty in particular — citizenship in the full rights and responsibilities of the university,” Mathews says.Some universities have taken specific steps to address the pay issue. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example, will backdate the tenure pay bump — if the candidate is successful — to when he or she should have received tenure if the pandemic hadn’t interfered, Misra says As of July, a “pandemic impact statement” was also made part of the annual faculty review at her university. Professors don’t have to fill it out, Misra says, but it gives them the opportunity to say how the pandemic affected all aspects of their work.“Our sense is, two years from now people will forget,” she says, “but if we document it now, it will be in their record forever.” Misra created a two-page tool the university distributed to assist faculty members in writing up their statements.This is particularly important when thinking about the tenure-promotion process, Gonzales says, because a person’s narrative becomes a key part of their document. She also suggests that institutions provide written guidance and direction for college deans, department chairs, review committees, and external reviewers to remind them that portfolios will likely look different. These initial moves are necessary, many say, but not enough. Now is the time, they argue, not just to tweak processes, such as tenure, that they find unfair, but revamp them completely. And a number of colleges and universities are in the midst of studying that option. If changes aren’t made, Misra says, the fear is that five years from now there will be fewer women and people of color in tenured positions, because they have been hit harder by the pandemic, adding that “if we continue to use the same strategies to evaluate, that’s likely what we will see.
Anna Clemens says
These figures are extremely worrying. I wanted to write that we are steering towards an academic mental health crisis but actually we are in the middle of it. Departments need to take this seriously and the working conditions for faculty need to be significantly improved.
Karen Kelsky says
Yes – faculty and students both.