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Nonfaculty Educators, COVID-19 and the Faculty/Staff Divide

A counterintuitively positive reflection on Jeff Selingo’s new Atlantic article on academic staff.

August 2, 2020
 
 

The latest must-read Jeff Selingo piece is his Aug. 1 Atlantic article, "Colleges Are Deeply Unequal Workplaces." The subtitle of the article is: as universities plan to reopen, they continue to overlook the concerns of campus staff.

Selingo points out that staff have been largely left out of the conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on higher ed. While staff makes up about half of all higher ed employees, they have constituted the majority of those working in academia who have been laid off or furloughed.

Citing data from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, Selingo relates two-thirds of the 250 colleges and universities that have initiated furloughs due to COVID-19 have done so only for staff. Another data point is that of the 900 schools with remote working policies in place during the pandemic, 300 have extended this benefit only to faculty.

In summarizing the existing higher education caste system, Selingo writes,

Over the past few months, the pandemic has exposed long-standing fissures in the campus workplace. Faculty and staff occupy two very different worlds -- a chasm like few others in the American economy. Though they work for the same employer, faculty, by definition, enjoy more job security and power to shape how the university runs, while campus staff continue to be far more vulnerable.

Selingo’s article illuminates one part of the story about the dynamics of the postsecondary workforce under COVID-19. There is another part of the faculty/staff story, however, that Selingo’s article does not address. That story is the growing influence, status and maybe even job security for a specific group of nonfaculty educators. We call these staff instructional (or learning) designers.

As Selingo points out, the term "staff" is amorphous. It includes both instructional designers and maintenance workers. Librarians (sometimes librarians have faculty status) and athletic coaches. Network administrators and student life professionals.

When it comes to teaching and learning, rather than talking about staff, I like to talk about nonfaculty educators. (Which is a term that I think I invented, or if I stole it from somewhere else, I have no memory of doing so. Email me if I'm wrong.)

While nonfaculty educators do not enjoy the academic freedom and job protections of tenure-track faculty, their roles at colleges and universities resemble little the traditional conception of higher ed staff.

Nonfaculty educators, inclusive of instructional designers and other academic professionals that work directly in activities related to teaching and learning, are increasingly essential in the core academic operations of the colleges and universities that they work.

During COVID-19, instructional designers and other nonfaculty educators have emerged as the indispensable people, alongside the professors they partner with, in enabling academic continuity.

Today, every college and university wishes that they had more instructional designers working on their campuses.

During COVID-19, I’d bet that the last category of employee that a college or university would eliminate to save money would be an instructional designer or other digital learning professional.

Perhaps one positive result of COVID-19 might be to begin to break down the boundaries between faculty and staff roles.

Is it so unimaginable that schools may begin to offer learning designers some level of academic freedom?

In an age where higher education has all but abandoned a commitment to tenure, some brilliant institution will figure out that they can recruit the country’s best instructional designers by offering them a tenure-track role.

To be clear, most of the remote teaching that had to occur during the COVID-19 pivot from residential instruction did not benefit from the contributions of nonfaculty educators. For the most part, in most schools, faculty had to figure things out mostly on their own.

For colleges and universities with either the resources or the foresight to invest in creating a critical mass of instructional designers, the COVID-19-necessitated pivot to remote learning was more manageable.

While instructional designers were unable to play their customary role of high-intensity collaboration with faculty that they normally follow for traditional online courses and programs, they were able to scale their impact through training and the creation of just-in-time digital resources.

This observation about the role nonfaculty educators during COVID-19 does not invalidate Selingo’s observations about structural inequalities that staff face in the broader academic caste system.

The hope is that having the (ongoing) experience of trying to ensure academic continuity during a pandemic, that colleges and universities will begin to rethink the efficacy and wisdom of maintaining the existing faculty/staff divide.

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