How They Leave

When forced to furlough or lay off faculty, college leaders must avoid an overly procedural process and instead take three steps to follow an ethic of care, write Kiernan Mathews and Mai Hu Vang.

October 20, 2020

COVID-19 and its financial fallout are drastically altering higher education. Already lurching from decades of declining state support and downward enrollment trends, the academy is experiencing a new fiscal reality that is reshaping its workforce, from student workers to staff to contingent and even tenure-stream faculty. Through furloughs and layoffs, college and university leaders are making crucial and controversial choices: Who among the faculty is “essential” in the years to come? With cuts already underway at public and private institutions, we offer some recommendations for doing less harm in the layoff process.

For more than five years, the COACHE Faculty Retention & Exit Survey has invited full-time faculty members -- mostly pretenure and tenured -- to tell us why and how they left or decided to stay at their colleges or universities. Originally, our project’s goal was to bridge gaps between institutional ideals and the reality that these faculty experience during the search, negotiation and departure processes. Institutions that join our collaborative are mainly interested in the causes and costs of departure, but they also discover how changes in conduct can help deans and chairs be more supportive of faculty during separations. We have learned through COACHE data that a supportive separation process is characterized by an ethic of care whereby actions are carried out with transparency, humanity and a holistic understanding of faculty life.

We never expected that these findings could inform crucial and difficult employment decisions set against the backdrop of a pandemic and existential uncertainties for the future of some institutions. As colleges and universities take the extraordinary steps of terminating even tenured professors, findings from the COACHE survey can shed light on how an overly procedural termination process leads to unnecessary distress and disempowerment of faculty. Furthermore, these findings reveal that transitions impact an interconnected academic community, making shared decision making and transparency essential values.

Below are three related changes that university leaders can make to follow an ethic of care for departing faculty members during the time of COVID-19.

Make the process clear. Survey participants appreciated knowing what steps happen when, so department chairs who telegraph the entire process at the outset can help with avoiding unnecessary and unpleasant surprises. A faculty member noted that it was helpful to have a review of “things to do before leaving” with the department manager. Based on our analysis of other survey responses, that list should include working with human resources professionals to provide clarity around benefits; discussing a mutually acceptable transition timeline; permitting access to laptops and other technology until, and perhaps even beyond, the separation date; and time off from other duties for faculty members to pack and conduct other business. As one professor shared, a supportive transition process should include the department providing clear transition instructions rather than making people rely on former faculty for guidance.

We also learned from the COACHE results that thoughtful chairs and deans made the departure less difficult by offering negotiable propositions that promoted openness and trust. How and when should the news be shared with students, research and teaching assistants, postdocs and colleagues? Would a farewell event be appropriate? How could colleagues be supportive? In making the process collaborative and transparent, chairs and deans demonstrated genuine concern for the individual faculty member’s experience.

Humanize the process. To humanize the transition process through an ethic of care means to consider the faculty member’s needs, not just the institution’s. A narrow focus on logistical changes can leave the person feeling valued only for their transferrable work product -- as if their years-long contributions toward the institution and the profession didn’t count. As a woman from an underrepresented ethnicity indicated, “During my whole time there, nobody ever cared about how much work I was doing, and once I informed them that I’m leaving, several people came and asked me to share lecture notes, course materials, etc. that I developed with no support from them. I felt they only care about what they need and view me as a working object.”

Academic leaders who practice an ethic of care treat departing faculty as colleagues within a larger, interconnected community. More than ever, academe has come to rely on collaborative relationships in order to meet the challenges of diverse educational needs, public accountability and financial austerity.

The study’s participants echo this emphasis on the long view of community mindedness. One respondent described the upside of being treated as an important member of the department throughout the transition: “[Because my university] was very understanding and supportive of my transition, I will continue several research collaborations with my former colleagues.” Another appreciated the steps their department chair and dean took that allowed them “to continue to work and collaborate with [university] colleagues and graduate students employed on active research contracts.”

We also found that faculty members often mentioned exit interviews as humanizing opportunities for academic leaders to respect the departing person’s perspective. Especially when the individual was given a choice of interviewer (for example, the vice provost for faculty or trained exit interview officers on the faculty), these meetings left the faculty member feeling more empowered to be a voice for change at their institution. (Of course, the college must subsequently, and publicly, act on the results for exit interviews to be credible.) In one case when an exit interview was not offered, the professor confronted the chair only to learn that interviews were conducted just to get an accounting of any teaching responsibilities that had to be covered -- reflecting a disappointing lack of curiosity as to what else could be learned from a departing faculty member.

Put your community before your bureaucracy. Faculty members revealed to COACHE the many ways in which their departures impacted every corner of the campus involved in teaching, learning, citizenship and research. Therefore, chairs, deans and provosts must also see beyond the individual departure to the professional and psychological disruptions wrought within a community when faculty members depart.

We learned that some department chairs coordinate with other offices to create a transition plan that supports continuity for all who may be affected by the departure. A faculty member wrote that having colleagues who were helpful and understanding of the transition process minimized the challenges of transferring materials and clearing out lab space. As a result, this professor was able to move their collection of research and decommission labs more efficiently. It is especially important to invite and honor faculty voices throughout the transition process, as comments in our survey suggested that the existing power structure often leaves faculty members feeling helpless.

Academic leaders can also demonstrate continuity of care for the community by disrupting overly managerial practices. They should rethink the mind-set default of rigid HR and IT scripts by, for example, extending temporary access to emails and databases. (At our institution, that can be accomplished with a simple “person of interest” form sent to IT.)

One faculty member told us that a little flexibility in addressing simple logistical matters, like negotiating a transition timeline and extending work laptop loans, resulted in them feeling that administrators had been “very supportive, both emotionally and practically.” Another faculty member noted how extending their laptop loan beyond the separation date helped provide a smooth transition while they were waiting for a new computer to arrive. Finally, several faculty members shared that granting “affiliate” status helped them to continue collaborating with colleagues, serve on nearly complete dissertation committees and advise graduate students on late-stage research projects.

An Ethic of Care Beyond COVID-19

Survey participants pointed out that when the transition process lacks transparency, humanity and community, everyone at the university senses a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” mentality from academic leaders. One pretenure woman wrote that she left with a newfound “grudge” against administrators after being pressured to leave prematurely to make way for the department to find her replacement. How do you think she will describe that department to prospective students and faculty members as a place to learn and to work?

COACHE found, in contrast, that a transition process where respect is demonstrated through words and in action can make a lasting positive difference in how faculty members feel about the institution and its community members -- and in how that community feels about leadership. Enlighted leaders see faculty who leave as people, not as lines to be filled, or worse, as damage to be controlled.

As the pandemic continues, many faculty members, especially contingent faculty, are feeling increasingly vulnerable. When institutions -- rightly or wrongly -- choose to make layoffs, chairs, deans and provosts can still demonstrate care for all who are asked to leave. Doing so is necessary for the vitality and resilience of higher education in the COVID-19 era.


Mai Hu Vang is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and qualitative research analyst at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Kiernan Mathews is the executive director and principal investigator at COACHE and education chair of the Seminars on Leadership of the Faculty at the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education.

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