The past year, for many people, has been one of pain and loss. Over half a million Americans have died of COVID-19. Countless others have died of other causes, but because of safety restrictions, their loved ones haven’t been able to gather to celebrate their lives.
In a year like this, college leaders -- from faculty chairs to supervisors to presidents -- have important roles to play. When an employee or student dies, grief, listlessness and anomie can take over the community.
Leaders at an institution can help by recognizing grief as a process and allowing people to express emotions and recognize loss, said Jim Martin, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College who writes about grief leadership. Leading through grief can also mean allowing for a sense of hope and celebration, a sense that there will be a moving forward, he said.
At some colleges and universities, that leadership may include memorializing the lives of employees who have passed away and making an announcement to the public.
But public announcements and memorials aren’t always provided to employees equally.
For example, an analysis of deaths and memorials at seven public universities in Florida found that while some types of employees are likely to get public memorial announcements or tributes, others are not.
Out of the 58 deaths that Inside Higher Ed analyzed, only 22 were the subject of a public-facing memorial or announcement. But professors and others who teach were the most likely to be the subject of such public tributes. Out of people who died with the job titles professor, lecturer, instructor or scholar, 14 out of 18 had public-facing announcements released about their passing. Out of the 11 people who died with jobs in custodial services, facilities, IT and mechanics, only one received a public-facing announcement about their death.
Such a breakdown also means that there is a difference in salary between who gets publicly memorialized and who does not. Of the people who were the subject of a public announcement, the median salary -- using the most recent publicly available salary data -- was $78,214. Those who were not the subject of an announcement had a median annual salary of $46,850.
Such an analysis doesn’t mean that university administrations aren’t memorializing their nonacademic staff members in other ways. In some cases, there may be a community announcement that isn’t public. In others, a family might not want their loved one's death publicized. In a large university, different sectors may have different traditions around employee deaths. For example, some academic departments or schools within a university have traditions around memorializing all faculty members who pass away. Other departments, like facilities or IT, may not maintain public-facing communications or have any tradition of making an announcement outside their circle.
Different departments may have different customs, but problems can arise when an administration uses the institutional voice to memorialize some deaths but not others, said Susan Bartel, a professor at Maryville University who studies both grief counseling and higher education leadership.
“It's important for institutions to look at what are going to be their policies and practices around announcing and dealing with the deaths of individuals in their community,” she said. “That’s the consistency that’s important to demonstrate that all people equally matter who work here or go to school here.”
Institutions will sometimes react differently to deaths depending on an employee’s time served or how well-known the employee is, she said. But that can still create negative feelings from faculty and staff if not done carefully.
“I understand why it could happen. You’ve got a beloved faculty member who’s worked there 40 years or you had a staff member who’s been there 18 months. But it should not matter, in my opinion, when we’re dealing with the death of a current member of the community or retired member,” she said. “It’s not easy for campus climate to be positive if I feel like my particular place in the institution doesn’t have the same value as another person’s place in the institution.”
Leaders of any department who know their employees were close with the deceased should check in, Bartel said. And institutions generally should evaluate their bereavement policies to recognize how affecting loss can be.
Allowing space for grief, loss and remembrance is still important if a person in the community died of a stigmatized cause, such as suicide, drunk driving or a drug overdose, Martin said.
“It’s important that it be normalized in a way that doesn’t pathologize the individual or the individual’s family,” he said.
Some colleges and universities of different sizes have chosen to create pages where every employee death can be memorialized. For example, the University of North Florida this year chose to dedicate a page to “Fallen Ospreys” on campus. The page lists the names of every employee who passed this year and plays a video of several university and interfaith leaders paying tribute, lighting candles and pausing for a moment of silence.
“With such a very sensitive topic, we wanted to recognize all individuals who have passed away,” said Andrea Adams-Manning, dean of students at UNF. “Each person, each soul means something to someone.”
UNF gets permission from every family to post names and is exploring ways to continue the tradition of memorializing employees in person in coming years.
The City University of New York also put up a memorial page this year, to commemorate all the lives the institution lost to COVID-19. Every employee who died has their own page where colleagues can post comments and tributes.
“We’ve been just extremely surprised and humbled by the interactions, the comments people have made on the page,” said Félix Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of CUNY. “People were just really ready for it.”
New York City was heavily affected by the first wave of the virus, and the CUNY system lost many beloved faculty and staff. While individual campuses were doing a few things themselves, it was important to do something systemwide, Matos Rodríguez said.
“When you talk about community, you want to bring in all the voices that are part of that community,” he said.
Amherst College is a much smaller institution than CUNY or UNF, and it too maintains a memorial page for all current employees, as well as publishes obituaries in the alumni magazine. Amherst’s small size means losses are acutely felt, said Emily Gold Boutilier, editorial director at the college.
“An alum actually wrote to me a couple of months ago after reading the obituary for a custodian he remembered really well at Amherst. And he took the time to write to me to say how much he appreciated that we included staff obituaries in the magazine,” she said. “At Amherst, inclusivity and respect for others are core values. And that’s true for Amherst as an institution and also for our editorial decision making.”
Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, employees are still going to die, and leaders will have to choose how to memorialize their lives, give space for grief and support the employees left behind.
“Human feelings,” said Martin, “are a challenge for all of us.”