Coming Together in Crisis Times

The pandemic has deepened the divide between the faculty and administration on most campuses, but if ever there were a time to give one another the benefit of the doubt, it is now, write Carolyn Dever and George Justice.

March 27, 2020
 
 
Istockphoto.com/sorbetto

The COVID-19 crisis has deepened the divide between the faculty and administration on most campuses. Though this is a time when we need to come together, we live in a culture of mutual mistrust. Unity is much easier to describe than it is to achieve.

A faculty member recently singled out another for praise on social media for his vituperative response to a finance administrator’s pandemic-related decision. In that response, the other faculty member had accused the administrator, a senior staff member at his institution with decades of experience, with having made a “snap judgment” out of ignorance and mendacity.

In fact, unbeknownst to his critical faculty colleague, the administrator had made a tough call in the context of the best, albeit limited, information, and extensive contingency planning. His decision -- unthinkable even as recently as a week or two ago -- was pretty much identical to those made by his counterparts on campuses across the country. Among his concerns was the health and safety of the staff members working in his public-facing area. Those staff members are now working remotely, as are many of us and many of our students.

The professor’s angry outburst was an unfortunate exchange between colleagues who are typically cordial. It stands as an index of the frustration, anxiety, grief and anger that most of us feel as we grapple with the deadly serious challenges of a pandemic. The stakes could not be higher, yet the way forward is unclear.

Friends, if ever there were a time to give one another the benefit of the doubt, it is now.

There’s not a lot of mutual trust on our campuses, but today, we need to embrace the idea that we are all on the same team.

Across the country, faculty members are scrambling to reverse engineer our courses for remote delivery. At the same time, the students in those courses are scattered and vulnerable. Every aspect of our personal and professional lives, including job security for many of us, is upended, with no clear sense of when -- if -- normal might return.

Our colleagues in administration, attempting to make important decisions quickly and with limited information and serious implications, often find themselves accused of doing not enough, too much, too slowly, too quickly. How could you? How couldn’t you? How dare you?

Campus faculty are particularly worried about the “too much” and “too quickly,” especially when they hear provosts and presidents telling them, “Nothing will ever be the same again.” Faculty remember what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. The students kept coming, but there were fewer tenure-line faculty to teach these students and less time and fewer resources dedicated to world-changing research. Faculty worry that their centuries-old institutions will be ruined by administrators obsessed with becoming financially “nimble.”

Taking a step back, the COVID-19 crisis highlights the baroque complexity of American colleges and universities. It also demonstrates the extreme degree to which our roles are opaque, even to one another. Each faculty member approaches teaching differently, which means there’s no “one size fits all” or even “one size fits most” as we contemplate massive changes to how we do our work. Every wheel must be invented anew -- or invented in an ed-tech office for an impossibly standardized adoption.

Similarly, the factors that contribute to an administrative leader’s decision may be unseen to many of her stakeholders. But there’s certainly no time right now to stop and share the insights of our respective processes.

Remember: whatever gap between the faculty and administration exists, mutual antagonism right now will only shake the confidence of the people we can’t afford to lose, including students, families and our communities.

Our constituents depend on us for their security in the future. As lost a semester as this seems to us, our aspirations for research and teaching swallowed in the gulf of social distance, it’s worse for them. Students are worried about graduating -- and what kind of jobs await them. Undergraduates facing a deep recession and mounting unemployment fear their dreams and ambitions are dissolving before their eyes. Similarly, a terrified tweet is making the rounds of graduate students: “there will be no more tenure-track jobs.” Communities dependent on colleges and universities for jobs, education, culture, entertainment -- it’s all gone overnight and unclear when it will return.

This is a time for pulling together in the short term. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging differences, and now is certainly not the time to pretend that trust is rebuilt. Perhaps, when things are better, our experiences and insights can provide a reference point for faculty and administration to work more closely together. But it would be false, and ultimately destructive, to pretend that this crisis has created a bridge to “the dark side.”

So let’s come together to serve our students with optimism and energy. To help that important task, we present here a short list of dos and don’ts. (In the past few weeks, we’ve cringed at the don’ts we’ve witnessed from both the faculty and administration, and we’ve occasionally pined for some of these dos.) It’s not an exhaustive list, but merely a set of concrete actions to take, or avoid, in the hope of focusing on mission.

Suggestions for Administrators

Do provide technical and pedagogical support for faculty members who will inevitably struggle with putting their face-to-face courses online.

Don’t track faculty in their use of particular technologies and shame them if they aren’t up to a standard you’d like to enforce. Now is a time to trust their expertise.

Do things transparently.

Don’t treat faculty members with contempt for wanting to know what’s going on.

Do let students know that their education comes first.

Don’t kick them out of the dorms, shut your dining halls -- and keep their money.

Do ensure that all university staff -- even those ordered away from campus and unable to work from home -- continue to receive their salary and benefits.

Don’t rely on the fact that many campus services have been outsourced to wash your hands of responsibility.

Suggestions for Faculty Members

Do your very best to teach compassionately in a new mode to distracted and scared students. Strict deadlines aren’t going to cut it.

Don’t make flippant statements like “my students all deserve A’s” or “they should get full credit for the semester for work they’ve already done.” We owe them more. They want more.

Do understand and accommodate changes in processes involved with travel reimbursements, graduate admissions, internal grant deadlines and so forth.

Don’t hold up faculty hiring, important curriculum changes or other departmental processes because you can’t have the same voice in decision making that you’re accustomed to.

Do use this as a time to try out new technologies and new pedagogies in a spirit of creativity and fun.

Don’t clog up Listservs, the office hours of technology support staff or university purchasing with comments or complaints that can wait until another day.

A crisis like this can bring out the best in us, or the worst. For good reason, administrators will be taking shortcuts to preserve as much of the students experience as possible and to keep their campuses functioning. Faculty members, having experienced emergency measures that become permanent, will be skeptical of some of those shortcuts. Take note, for sure. Keep lists. When -- or if -- this crisis passes, there needs to be a reckoning, and faculty must be on board and part of the decision making before “things are changed forever.”

For now, however, the eyes of the public are on us. And the situation we face isn’t just dire in the short term. A number of our institutions may not even continue to exist, at least in their current form. This is a big deal, and administrators and faculty alike are right to be concerned.

Yet if we can keep mission central in all our work, we have a shot at emerging strong and focused. We might just make the best of a tragic era in our history. We might have a chance to not only survive but also come out ahead. So save the vituperation for later.

Bio

Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, where she served most recently as provost. George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Together, they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

 
Back to Top