Faculty members are anxious and burned out. Juggling work and disrupted personal lives in the midst of a pandemic, they need help if they are going to remain — and flourish — in academe. The Chronicle recently released a special report, Burned Out and Overburdened, that explores how colleges can provide support. Here is a condensed excerpt from the report.
A frantic spring. A grueling fall and winter. The past year has not been kind to the faculty. In a survey this past October, conducted by The Chronicle and underwritten by Fidelity Investments, more than 75 percent of the 1,122 faculty respondents said their workload had increased since the start of the year. The majority said their work-life balance had deteriorated. And with the global pandemic still not under control, the next months are uncertain.
Experts worry that without proper intervention, faculty careers could be destabilized for years to come, especially those of women and people of color. In normal times, women were already more likely to perform service work for their departments and rank lower in the academic hierarchy. Faculty of color generally spend more time mentoring students of color and performing other forms of “invisible labor,” or work that isn’t recognized in the typical faculty-reward structure. With the most recent rise of the racial-justice movement, demands on those scholars have only increased.
Those disparities, baked into the system, have been amplified by the pandemic, says Cassidy R. Sugimoto, a professor of informatics at Indiana University at Bloomington who is studying women’s article submissions in the wake of Covid-19. When colleges and K-12 schools went remote, suddenly, child care and other domestic duties were disproportionately shunted onto women’s shoulders. Plus, students now need more support — and teaching takes more time — than ever. As a result, many scholars who were already the emotional glue of their academic communities have had little to no time to produce research, to plant the seeds that normally bear scholarly fruit months or years into the future.
Fortunately, many people are thinking through what changes need to be made to keep women and people of color, especially, in academe. Here are some of them. (Though interventions are needed to support adjunct instructors, many of whom have lost work during the pandemic, these strategies mainly focus on the needs of tenured, tenure-track, and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members.)
Modify Promotion and Evaluation Standards
Last spring, as planned research, grants, and Fulbright fellowships went out the window, dozens of colleges began to offer tenure-clock extensions. But experts have noted that a tenure delay is also a delay in pay, benefits, job security, and authority. And research shows that when tenure-clock extensions are granted, for example during parental leave, women are more likely than men to be “unconsciously penalized” for productivity loss.
There are ways to reckon with those unintended consequences. The provost at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced in March 2020 that upon the award of tenure, faculty members will retroactively earn the salary increase they would have earned without the delay. Faculty-career experts also recommend an automatic, rather than an opt-in, policy. The former, they say, reduces the risk of bias against those who decide they need the pause.
When thinking about how instructors should be evaluated during the pandemic, experts urge colleges to be proactive. Like all employees, professors need clarity, and they need it sooner rather than later.
“You’re trying to offer guidance that people can follow,” says John Bertot, associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park, “without constant upheaval.”
Early on, Bertot and his colleagues began thinking through how faculty members should be assessed in the Covid-19 era. One challenge, he says, was to avoid inadvertently harming professors who haven’t been thrown off course. Because while some haven’t been able to touch their manuscripts in months, others have been, as Bertot puts it, “ridiculously” productive.
Ultimately, Maryland’s faculty-affairs office is allowing departments to send tenure-track and librarian dossiers forward with five external letters instead of six under certain circumstances. It told units to prioritize annual reviews for junior faculty members, and to focus on “formative goal-setting” rather than “summative evaluation.” The office also authorized the temporary suspension of merit reviews, and encouraged departments to be flexible in their promotion criteria for non-tenure-track faculty members, who might be teaching fewer courses.
Administrators at Texas A&M University also wanted to ensure that non-tenure-track faculty members’ experiences aren’t overlooked. “We were hyperaware that those faculty that were really making us successful in our response [to the pandemic] were the faculty that were feeling the least secure,” says Heather H. Wilkinson, an associate dean of faculties.
At A&M, she and a couple colleagues held a workshop for department heads on how to approach faculty evaluations this year. They outlined some of the countless ways that professors have been affected by the pandemic by drawing on real, anonymized interviews with A&M faculty. They encouraged department heads to lead with empathy and consider a “faculty-centered approach” to evaluations, allowing faculty members to rate themselves. The university also made the consideration of data from students’ course evaluations optional for 2020.
Some colleges, like West Virginia University, are urging evaluation committees and department heads to give greater weight to the “quality and impact” of published research rather than quantity. West Virginia is also allowing faculty members to request a redistribution of effort to reflect the increased time that they’re spending on teaching and mentoring, as well as any change in service loads.
It’s important to remember that many have long advocated for a broader definition of “academic excellence” in faculty evaluations, one that hews less closely to publishing research in select journals. Covid-19 just pushed these continuing discussions to the fore. Kimberly A. Griffin, associate dean of graduate studies and faculty affairs at Maryland, says she’s interested to see if these changes allow the university to better support its faculty in general, regardless of the pandemic.
Document the Pandemic’s Impact
Remember March 2020? By now, that chaotic month feels like it happened eternities ago. That’s partly why Laurel Smith-Doerr, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, thinks it’s important for instructors to document Covid-19’s impact. If they don’t, she says, “we’re going to forget about this.”
Smith-Doerr is the principal investigator for the university’s Advance program, part of a national project funded by the National Science Foundation that focuses on faculty equity and success. Advance issued guidance for how faculty members should track the pandemic’s influence on their work and home lives, both through their annual faculty reviews and through “impact statements.”
The guidance recommends accounting for obvious obstacles, like canceled seminars, and not-so-obvious ones, like the work it took to close and reopen laboratories. North Carolina State University, which is allowing impact statements to be submitted in the annual review, post-tenure review, and in reappointment, tenure, and promotion dossiers, told faculty members to consider documenting the “invisible” service they did to sustain departmental operations.
Mangala Subramaniam, director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University, says she’s been approached by worried faculty members since the end of spring 2020 who’ve described specific obstacles. But assistant professors, especially women and women of color, were more hesitant to name those challenges, for fear of being seen as less competent, Subramaniam says.
So Subramaniam developed a guide for tenured, tenure-track, and clinical faculty members to systematically chronicle Covid-19’s influence in a careful, but not exaggerated, way. Not having a record, Subramaniam says, could hurt you down the line.
Experts also say it’s not enough to just tell instructors to catalog consequences. Their evaluators must also engage with these issues. Amherst held workshops for department chairs and for personnel committee members on how to evaluate people fairly, because “the last thing we would want is for those statements to then activate bias against people,” says Joya Misra, a co-principal investigator with the Amherst Advance program.
Right now, everyone’s workload is in overdrive. One faculty member who responded to The Chronicle’s October survey reported feeling “exploited” because there is “so much additional uncompensated work that must be done to teach remotely that I’[m] overwhelmed (another emotion that frames my everyday).”
And that person was “disappointed in the institution’s lack of understanding of this added work.”
Universities need to realize that not every task must be completed immediately, Misra says. Equity should not be back-burned, for example, but curricular reform can probably wait.
The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Advance program told academic leaders to consider postponing certain activities, like internal reviews or events, and temporarily reduce or waive formal service requirements for faculty members who are caregivers while making sure that those who aren’t do not inherit more work. It also recommended that, after the pandemic, academic leaders evaluate if some committees should be disbanded.
“We tend to just add new committees, but we don’t think about which ones to sunset, right? It’s just more and more service and more and more work,” says Isis Settles, a professor of psychology and Afroamerican and African studies and associate director of Ann Arbor’s Advance program.
At Indiana University, the Care Caucus, a collective of faculty members that formed during the pandemic to focus on child-care, elder-care, and student-care issues, has been advocating for what it calls a “real and meaningful” labor reduction. Among the caucus’s many recommendations is to eliminate letters of recommendation for small internal funding and awards — a policy that the university has adopted widely — and to encourage department chairs and deans to eliminate meetings when they could send emails instead.
Faculty members at community colleges, especially, need flexibility because they’re serving such a diverse student population, says Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at North Carolina State University. Those students are more likely to be frontline workers, to have limited access to the internet, and to have their own child-care needs and hurdles, she says.
She’s heard of instructors dropping off assignments at students’ doors, buying books, sharing Wi-Fi — basically doing whatever it takes to keep them on track throughout the pandemic.
Leaders can also think about how to show appreciation for, and how to compensate, all of the extra labor that is necessary to maintain a functioning college. At Amherst, the faculty and librarians union negotiated to get a “workload adjustment” to repay faculty members for their additional effort this summer. Those who created a high-quality online course will be able to get either a future course release, a year of sabbatical credit, or a year of credit toward continuous appointment.
And at the College of Southern Maryland, nearly 500 employees received an extra $500 in December. The college, while not a wealthy institution, has seen some savings this year, says Maureen Murphy, the president. So she asked the board of trustees if they would distribute some of those savings among employees, to thank them for their hard work.
“Our most valuable and precious asset,” Murphy says, “is our people.”
Account for Caregiving
This fall has been particularly difficult for caregivers. Many faculty parents had to mind and teach their young children while also performing their own jobs from home. Elder care became another crisis, as many instructors have been responsible for tending to their aging parents who are more at risk.
Those circumstances, equity scholars have pointed out, have been especially difficult for single parents, parents of young children, and Black, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic faculty members, as the virus, according to a November Washington Post analysis, has disproportionately devastated those racial and ethnic groups.
To assist faculty and staff parents, Barnard College established a virtual-tutoring program. Parents of children between ages 5 and 16 could submit requests and were then matched with Barnard work-study students who provided up to four hours of virtual tutoring a week in a range of subjects.
“This is an obvious win-win for institutions that are looking to ensure that students on financial aid have access to meaningful jobs, and that staff and faculty get relief,” says A-J Aronstein, dean of the college’s student and alumni career center.
At Indiana University, the Care Caucus has recommended a broad range of support measures for caregivers, including post-pandemic sabbaticals, internal research grants, and teaching releases for caregivers. Without proper support, in time, the university will lose internal leaders, says Sarah Knott, a professor of history.
Reducing everyone’s teaching load is not possible, says Lauren Robel, the provost, but she’s told deans to be “as flexible as you can possibly be” by giving caregivers their preferred teaching times, allowing faculty members to bank their deferred courses, and considering team-teaching or combining multiple sections into one.
Among other things, after convening a task force to study gender inequities in research, the vice president for research allotted $400,000 to be doled out through awards of up to $2,500 for expenses like caregiving and food delivery for pre-tenure and pre-promotion faculty members, and to help them hire research personnel.
The university also offers employees membership to care.com — a benefit that comes with 15 days of subsidized backup care a year — and announced an Initiative for the Advancement of Women Faculty, which is meant to improve the retention of female faculty members and offer leadership development.
Amid all the tumult, Robel, who once started along the tenure-track in law with a 2-month-old baby, sees a silver lining. “To the extent we can sensitize people more broadly across the campuses about caregiving issues, then it stops being invisible,” she says. “That’s helpful.”
Study the Pandemic’s Influence Into the Future
The coronavirus pandemic will have a long tail, and colleges that want to support their faculty in targeted ways will need to continually study and survey how Covid-19 is leaving its mark.
At Massachusetts, the Advance program and an Amherst sociologist are proposing a de-identified study of the Covid-19-impact feedback submitted by faculty members. That way they can pinpoint faculty needs, at an aggregate level, and what the campus should be attending to, says Smith-Doerr.
At Maryland, the faculty-affairs office worked with the Division of Research to set up a process by which metrics related to sponsored research, like grant applications and grants received, can be analyzed based on faculty demographics, says Bertot, the associate provost for faculty affairs. “We’re trying to get a handle on who’s been impacted,” he says.
But of course, metrics are not, and should not be, the only way to gauge what faculty members need. Beth Mitchneck, a professor emerita at the University of Arizona who has had a long career in administration, says there’s a number of ways to get feedback. If an institution has a strong tradition of shared governance, she says, then leaders should activate those organizations. If an institution wants to hear from a diverse group of faculty relatively quickly, holding focus groups is a good option.
For colleges, the stakes over faculty success have perhaps never been higher. If institutions don’t offer meaningful support, if they don’t grapple with the seen and unseen implications of Covid-19, they will lose vulnerable faculty members as teachers, mentors, community citizens, and groundbreaking researchers. Previous gains in recruiting and retaining faculty of color could be wiped out.
Sugimoto, the Indiana informatics professor, hopes that institutions won’t just offer solutions that are like “scaffolding” but will focus on “actually rebuilding better institutions.” Because academe has an archetype of the “ideal worker” — someone who, for example, doesn’t have dependents, who doesn’t breastfeed, who doesn’t need to take breaks throughout the day, she says. And that needs to change.