As colleges and universities reopen this fall, more doubts and concerns about the viability of those plans seem to surface. No doubt the preference is to be on campus and return to “normal.” However, that “normal” is not what it once was. In fact, some of my faculty colleagues have asked among ourselves: Is it time to mourn what once was, knowing we may not experience that for a long time (if ever again)?
As faculty members, we must re-envision how to do our jobs, account for public health protocols, ensure the well-being of our students and deliver expected educational experiences. Those of us with school-aged children must also manage K-12 schedules and other needs, and those with elderly parents and neighbors must also provide extra help and care. And if we have time, we all must somehow maintain our health and well-being. Whew!
In short, we are on the front lines in the educational re-envisioning process. We are the ones who need to weigh the pros and cons of online versus in-person versus hybrid versus HyFlex educational delivery models. Faculty members have been tasked with drafting multiple versions of our syllabi and preparing -- and communicating -- contingency plans about how we plan to bob and weave through various versions of our courses throughout the semester pending the particular trajectory COVID-19 takes on our respective campuses.
Yet despite all this, as I engage in conversations with colleagues from other institutions, one constant remains: budget cuts to faculty development funds are running rampant across colleges and universities in the United States.
Now is definitely not the time, however, to cut faculty development funds and associated resources. In fact, the opposite should be happening. While faculty members probably won’t use development funds in the same way we did pre-COVID-19, such support can still help us develop new skills and competencies to maneuver through our growing tasks and responsibilities.
Academic administrators can provide development funds that benefit both faculty members and their institutions in four key ways. Such funds can help faculty members to:
Attend virtual conferences and workshops. While travel restrictions and health-related challenges mean canceled conferences, many organizers are looking at ways to move to a fully virtual conference experience. Professional associations often survive off revenue generated through conferences -- or at least use it to cover the costs of hosting a conference -- and therefore charge some nominal fee. As faculty, we will need funds to cover our registration, participate in conference-hosted workshops and have access to restricted content. Such conference attendance and participation are vitally important to our professional development.
Engage in professional communities. A sense of community is one of the most important aspects of the academic profession. The move to online and remote work in response to COVID-19 all but eliminated the notion of community -- at least in the ways we are accustomed to. Look no further than social media memes and discussion boards to see faculty members lamenting the lack of opportunities for engagement with one another -- and the rise of virtual social and happy hours to compensate.
Having functioning technology is important for supporting this sense of community among faculty members, but not all institutions provide it. Faculty development funds can help us secure the technology we need to engage in and foster our own virtual communities through tools such as Zoom.
Strengthen online teaching. If online teaching has revealed anything, it is the importance of the needed tools to deliver an online education. That means acceptable Wi-Fi service and a computer with the capabilities to keep up with the needed technology, as well as supplementary materials, such as classroom supplies and subscriptions. Given travel is less likely to happen, perhaps colleges and universities can reallocate travel funds to support computer and Wi-Fi upgrades for faculty members. They can also help support faculty participation in online teaching webinars and related training as well as for subscriptions to online resources.
For example, during an internal online training session, a colleague introduced the faculty to Padlet, an online bulletin board system, and explained how he uses it in his classroom to foster discussion and sharing of course materials. Faculty development funds could help faculty members purchase a subscription to such services.
Be recognized for their efforts. No doubt, due to the pandemic, everyone in higher education has been forced to shift, adapt and respond in ways that are outside our norms. And faculty members and administrators are asked to do so while weathering pay cuts, reductions to health benefits and changes to retirement contributions during a time when everyone is in overdrive as they begin the fall semester.
I will share an example of the value of recognizing faculty effort during difficult times as demonstrated by a response from my institution, Albion College. In an email that our newly appointed interim provost sent to the faculty, he stated, “To acknowledge the extra course development and pedagogical training faculty members are undertaking this summer, all returning full-time faculty members will receive a $250 one-time summer stipend.”
The amount does not cover all losses, but it does send an important message from the administration to the faculty members: we see you, and we know how much effort you are putting in to help us be as successful as possible this coming fall. The takeaway: never underestimate the power of such gestures in creating community and colleagueship in times of crisis.
Higher education is an interesting place. Colleges and universities are evolving at a rapid pace, and part of that evolution must be ensuring that faculty members receive the support they need. The extent to which institutions support their faculty members during times of crisis is a measure of their priorities and the value they ascribe to those who play a critical role in their ultimate success. If institutions fail to support faculty members now, how can they ensure a prosperous higher education system in the future?