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In the private Facebook group The Professor Is Out, faculty members from every stage of faculty life and every kind of institution have discussed their struggles as they actively consider leaving higher education. As a result, according to one survey, higher education has a “shallow and weak” pool of faculty candidates. Even before the pandemic, Troy A. Heffernan and Amanda Heffernan published data that suggested 67 percent of academics would leave their jobs in the next three to five years.
In both the Facebook group and the Heffernan study, college and university instructors have cited multiple barriers to feeling satisfied and doing good work—such as a lack of professional development opportunities, increasing administrative tasks and service demands, and unreasonable teaching and publishing expectations. Yet in a study of faculty motivation that we conducted earlier in the pandemic and repeated again more recently, we found underlying those immediate barriers a more fundamental issue drives a significant proportion of academic departures: a misalignment between stated institutional priorities and actual operational ones.
What causes that mismatch? In an Inside Higher Ed survey, an overwhelming number of provosts (86 percent) said that teaching is more important than research. But what they say in such surveys doesn’t always jibe with the reality that seems to be occurring on the ground. Far more often, the academic reward structures of colleges and universities position teaching and research in opposition to one another and devalue teaching in tenure, promotion and personnel decisions while favoring research instead.
Faculty members who teach, especially those who are contingent faculty, know that to be the case in most instances. Teaching is often treated as a service that people perform, but instructors everywhere know that teaching is intellectual, scholarly and emotional labor—an alternative form of knowledge production. Building a class—thinking through assignments, activities and assessments—requires the use of mental and emotional bandwidth. A large percent of the faculty members whom we have surveyed in depth (81 percent)—from a wide range of disciplines, roles, levels of experience and institution types—have told us that they want their institutions to recognize teaching as intellectual, scholarly labor or to at least demonstrate a deeper understanding of the work that teaching requires.
Teaching in higher education, as a large number of our respondents reported, is indeed hard work. It is not merely repeating the notes that a faculty member produced once many years ago. Nor is teaching repeating material that has been passed to the instructor from the previous instructor. At the same time, teaching is not just a requirement to be completed so that faculty can go do their “real” work. As many as 93 percent of the faculty we surveyed find teaching intellectually interesting. Further, 76 percent acknowledged that teaching helps them to attain work objectives important to them. Those results clearly show that teaching—active engagement with students who bring a variety of needs and challenges into their coursework as well as the desire to learn and to better themselves—is valuable and important to faculty.
Faculty members themselves clearly see the connection between teaching and scholarly labor. When queried about their motives for teaching, 94 percent of our survey respondents indicated that increasing knowledge through teaching excites them. Additionally, 86 percent enjoy improving their teaching by trying new, challenging techniques; many say that they use multiple teaching strategies and work hard to include all their students. Indeed, teaching may lead to research, as classes may connect information in new ways or raise questions for future study—a result to which faculty nod when reporting their motives for choosing an academic career. Many faculty members report that intellectual stimulation, engagement and their passion for education motivated their career choice.
Instructors also know that, at the bottom line, the institution needs butts in seats or faces on laptops. Even public institutions are not funded by public dollars as much as many people might believe. Instead, tuition dollars topped off by grant funds, gifts and endowments, if available, contribute significantly to most institutional budgets. This reliance on money from students and families paying for a good education, however, does not help to align provosts and others’ widespread proclamations about the value of teaching with institutional performance evaluations—which most frequently promote the value of research over teaching.
Yet aligning work expectations with what truly motivates employees is key to helping avoid burnout. And applying that logic to teaching in higher education suggests that taking steps now to reorient operational priorities might reduce some of the personnel challenges that institutions face. Comparing teaching to scholarship and service, widely accepted as the other two-thirds of the faculty job, clarifies the importance of teaching for many faculty members. Eighty-five percent of instructors we surveyed indicated that they find teaching important and pleasant; in comparison, only 66 percent say that scholarship is pleasant. Even fewer, 53 percent of faculty members, report that campus service is pleasant, while 54 percent find service to their profession pleasant.
If higher education has operated this way for decades, even centuries, why does changing it matter now? Because, given the numbers of people actively planning to leave higher education—and, in fact, leaving—and the challenges of filling positions, institutions face new challenges. With a shifting student body with new and growing demands, the need for instructors to be good teachers and remain cutting-edge by participating in professional development is paramount. But when forced to parse time between research, teaching and service, and to take on work due to inadequate staffing, instructors must prioritize what “counts” in their performance evaluations, so professional development must often be pushed aside.
To retain and cultivate top teaching talent, administrators at every level should consider playing the long game. As Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has written, low morale and turnover have resulted from 20-plus years of poor working conditions. Higher education was confronting those challenges long before the pandemic, and addressing them will take more than the short-term acknowledgments of mental health breaks and COVID impact statements that may now be part of merit review materials.
Institutions need to find more ways to acknowledge the labor of teaching and, perhaps most important, its essential role in serving students and ensuring institutional sustainability. As the instructors we surveyed on the front lines indicated to us, genuine acknowledgment of the mental and emotional labor of teaching is key.
Promotion and merit processes must reward excellence in teaching in a way that is commensurate with the essential nature of teaching to our institutions, rather than prioritizing other dimensions of faculty roles. Some potential changes that institutions can make include improving and expanding how teaching is evaluated—for instance, not relying solely on student evaluations—and including course materials in faculty review. Institutions might consider rewarding authoring a class similarly to authoring an article, and paying on a 12-month contract instead of nine-month contracts if they expect their faculty to work on their teaching over a summer break.
Other suggestions for systemic changes include re-examining and redistributing service loads to recognize the disproportionate amounts of work performed by women, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC instructors. Higher education institutions also need to be more transparent in their decision-making so that everyone understands the why behind institutional changes and directions. Ultimately, colleges and universities need to play the long game with intellectual courage to make some quite overdue and necessary changes.