Academia: Bridging Over Troubled Waters
Thursday's Child Has Far to Go
As higher education in the United States shifts into a messy, protracted, contradictory transition out of the pandemic, it’s also dealing with what’s been labelled “the Great Resignation”—a wave of people leaving jobs that either pay too little or involve being subjected to mismanagement, or both.
This is so far most pronounced in the U.S., though the UK and the EU have seen higher rates of workers leaving jobs as well, and a sign of just how much thirty years of neoliberal policies and management culture have eroded the well-being and living standard of many American communities.
In higher education (and maybe other professions, but I’m going to speak to what I know experientially and observationally), I suspect that a wave of sudden retirements and resignations at many institutions is just the visible tip of a vast iceberg of resignation in another sense of that word. Not resignation as in “I quit”, but resignation as in “I am so sick of this”, as in burnout and alienation and barely repressed anguish. As in giving up without walking out.
Faculty and staff in many institutions have been feeling that way for a while (faculty in many universities and colleges haven’t been shy about saying so). The pandemic intensified the feeling because it destroyed most of the sociality that a small number of faculty and staff (mostly women) labor to maintain. (Labor that is famously uncredited, uncompensated and unacknowledged.) My gut sense listening to the undertow of sentiments across social media in spaces and conversations heavily inhabited by faculty, librarians, educational designers, student life professionals and others is that this has left many people feeling just raw, despairing, ignored, adrift, helpless—and more and more disconnected from their institutions and their leadership.
The pandemic may be responsible for taking away the compensating influence of professional sociality and the often-invigorating sense of responsibility to and connection with students that many higher education professionals draw upon for motivation. The wellsprings of demoralization lie far deeper in the restructuring of higher education’s workplace hierarchies and structures.
Reversing those trends is not a quick project for an idle moment. But there is something that can be done now.
What really strikes me at this moment is the resounding silence about how people are feeling from higher education’s leaders: presidents, deans of faculty, trustees, the leadership teams of major professional associations. On most campuses, there’s been some pro forma “thanks so much for your dedication” communication that parallels signs about the heroism of medical professionals in the driveways of nursing homes and the verges outside hospitals. That’s it, though.
Not the kind of knowing, galvanizing, heart-to-heart, connective, sociality-generating, authentic speech that doesn’t arrive as an email written by a communications professional or an assistant administrator but from speech that shows an everyday demonstration of awareness and empathy and genuine encouragement between leaders and their workforces. A fair amount of higher education still has administrative leadership that rose out of faculty ranks or through successive moves up within a particular area of professional staff expertise, but one of the things that has changed in the last thirty years is that such leaders seem more and more reluctant to call upon their own working histories to forge some form of connected empathy or to inform some kind of genuine expression of enthusiasm for the work that people do. My working surmise about that reluctance is because it flattens the hierarchy—but also because the professionals at the top of higher education leadership hierarchies deem that kind of regular, high-bandwidth investment in connected sociality to be a bad use of precious time.
Maybe so. Funds don’t raise themselves, donors need to be courted, vice-presidents need to report, trustees need to be flattered, strategies need planning. However, feelings of resignation plainly can flash into actual failures of what is now being called “talent management” and thus the loss of important personnel right when you need them, but equally into a kind of rot behind the drywall and in the foundations. That seems worth some time. It is the kind of devotion of time that can’t feel as if you’re checking your smartphone clock every two minutes, either.
Faculty and staff at many universities and colleges need to feel that what they are feeling right now is understood at a deep level, that leaders have genuine empathy about it. They need to feel encouraged in terms that are authentic to the work that they do. They need to not feel patronized or gaslit. You cheer on scholarship best by showing respect for what it is trying to do in its own terms, by showing you’ve engaged it and care about its goals and sensibilities and methods and significance. You cheer on faculty in their teaching and management of the curriculum by appreciating what they are doing in a knowing way, with an insiders’ grasp of its importance. You cheer on professional staff by genuinely demonstrating knowledge of the problems they’re facing in the wider landscape of compliance and institutional trends and knowing the ethos underlying their expertise.
Like social labor at all levels and scales, this kind of enthusiastic and honest engagement will be uncompensated and often unacknowledged. However, I think that the one compensation that this kind of social labor by leaders might bring is that it could restart and fuel a cycle of reciprocity. Meaning it is easier to lead a workplace community that feels connected, heard, respected and genuinely known in human terms (rather than known from an antiseptic distance through metrics and reports and hearsay).
Image credit: "Bridge over troubled water" by stopherjones is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Another factor I would note here is an increase in the number of administrators who are hired externally, rather than promoted from within, at least in the category of institutions where you and (barely) I work. I think you're right that "such leaders seem more and more reluctant to call upon their own working histories to forge some form of connected empathy," but a big piece of that reluctance is probably due to their own working histories being at other institutions, with different norms and traditions. It can get kind of tiresome to hear "Well, at my former institution, the way we handled this was..." over and over again, in a way that undermines the empathy you would otherwise be able to generate from that history. My sense is that in the past it was much more common for people to rise through the ranks, as it were, without changing institutions, but more and more that's looked down upon, because it's more prestigious (in a "US News Academic Reputation" sort of sense) to hire a rising star from elsewhere than to promote one of your own. That acts to widen the gap between faculty and administration even more.
(Promoting from within doesn't completely avoid this problem, of course, but it probably helps at least a little bit...)
Word, Tim. I am leaving and will not be looking back, because this crisis seems to have opened the doors to a re-modeling of my liberal arts college that will rip away most of what I spent the past 27 years trying to build. You are too right about the anomie stalking academia, as well.I call my Durkheim as I see him.)