The past few years have presented many challenges to institutional leaders. Administrators and professors are constantly on alert, with everything from changing health guidelines to quarantines to pressing racial justice questions being raised on campus. It is becoming more apparent that faculty are suffering. Burnout. Compassion fatigue. Unmet mental health needs of students and staff. Every day, we hear from our customers and partners about the difficulties, complexities, and pain educators feel in higher education. We understand your frustrations and we hope to be able once again to live and work without the threat of a pandemic interrupting our critical progress.
Despite this hope, we are now in the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear that many higher education workers are confused, exhausted, and anxious about the future. Many are leaving their current career path. 55% of U.S. college professors said that they are considering changing careers or retiring early. This was even back in February 2021. Big, existential questions about the future workforce and higher education need to be answered. Higher education professionals all over the world are being forced to fly planes with a lot of stressed-out passengers, without a flight plan, clear destination, or refueling stop. They have to keep the plane in flight, navigate through endless unknowns, deal with clear air turbulence (and look at you, endless virus variants that keep disrupting plans), and maintain a calm demeanor. It is clear that educators have a huge need. In December, 500 educators joined our All Access online community to learn tips and information about improving their professional wellbeing. It is educators, second only to health care professionals, who need to be heard, supported, and represented in the national dialog. During this time of uncertainty, even though we cannot offer answers to the many unanswered questions surrounding this pandemic, it is possible to lean in, listen intently, and pay attention to what’s being spoken.
That’s what we did. We used our network and resources for research and asked specific questions to our customers about their hardships as well as their new realities. We launched a new survey this year, the first of its kind, to get the pulse of faculty across the country. We are confident that we can offer a sense of the most significant changes in the country through our Faces of Faculty research as well as our ongoing work with Digital Pulse Survey. Although our quantitative research is still ongoing we can clearly see that higher education expectations, its service and the outcomes it delivers are changing rapidly. Here are two macro themes that we have identified so far. We also offer some advice for institutional leaders who want to help educators navigate the sea of change.
The Theme: Professional expectations have been blurred by the digital shift.
The Finding: With online learning rapidly becoming ubiquitous, something else is happening: students’ expectation of faculty is tacitly shifting from, “I can contact you during set workday hours,” to “You are always online and always available when I need you.” With that shift, faculty say that the personal/professional waters have become murky and they don’t necessarily appreciate the new expectations. A busy work life can lead to burnout, especially when educators are dealing with personal challenges. Some may worry that not being available at all times will negatively impact their performance evaluations or student reviews. Inconsistency in student experiences, as well as student performance, can be caused by a lack of clarity from HED leaders and differing standards between educators and courses.
The takeaway: Faculty morale, performance, and ultimately retention can all be affected by the “all or nothing” rule. It is crucial to allow faculty to set reasonable boundaries. It is crucial for educators to feel respected and valued. They must also know that they are respected and valued professionals who can set their own reasonable boundaries. It could be a boon for them to have that permission.