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The biggest problem facing higher education right now is not right-wing political pressure, student protests, free speech, exploitation of adjunct faculty or the inability of many campuses to balance their budgets. The biggest problem is that we, the higher education community, are not having any fun.

What do I mean? Think back, for a moment, to why we all got involved in higher education in the first place. Was it just to pay the bills, to express our own egos or to struggle for power and influence? Of course not. It was to do things that are inherently inspiring. We wanted to research new problems and advance the cause of human reason, to help young students transform themselves into awesome adults, and to assist awesome adults to find new and more rewarding paths in life. And our goal was not just to help individuals. Most of us got into this work to help create loving and supportive communities of care and concern.

These, the core functions of higher education, are inspiring human endeavors. Done properly, they should bring great joy. It is fun to write and research. It is fun to teach. It is fun to mentor the next generation of leaders. We should love our work, love our colleagues and feel grateful that we can pursue such an inspiring profession.

But right now, are we having any fun? Are you? Are you going to work with a gleam in your eye and a bounce in your step? The answer is probably no. When I talk with friends in higher education, one constant theme emerges: right now, my work life kind of sucks.

Here’s the rub: this is a self-inflected wound. We, the higher education community, cannot control everything that impacts our work. We cannot improve K-12 education so students are better prepared for us, alter the market economy so students have better employment prospects or change a political context charged with polarization and conflict. But we can bring our best selves to work every day and strive to be positive forces for fun and joy in our communities. If we want to have more fun at work, we have to try.

But why, you might ask, is having fun so important? Why does it matter more than vitally important issues like free speech, campus protests or the strength of our business model? I am tempted to say, along with the utilitarians and Epicureans, that in the end all that matters is happiness. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with this somewhat recondite point. And my real reason is different: I do not believe we can ever do our best work, for our students or in our research, unless we approach our work with joy. Indeed, I am confident that if we do not learn to work together with joy, not anger and frustration, we will never make progress on the other vital issues we care so much about. And if we are angry, sullen, discontented and at each other’s throats, we cannot model the type of life—a life of excellence and commitment—that is essential we model for our students.

So how do we begin to put the joy back in our work in higher education? Scholars, take some time to assess your current research project. Is it bringing you joy? Does your current project lend a sense of meaning and purpose to your daily life? If not, now would be a perfect time to go back to basics: to reflect on your life project as a scholar, the impact you hope to have on the world of knowledge and the kinds of problems and work products that bring you satisfaction. Maybe, just maybe, you should work on what you love, regardless of what anyone else thinks. And if you are working on the right set of research problems, take some time to celebrate that. Round up some colleagues, go to lunch and share your enthusiasm for your scholarly work. Reach out to other scholars at other institutions working on similar problems, schedule a call or Zoom and begin to create a more connected community of shared purpose. And if you are a senior colleague, take a junior professor out to lunch, ask about their work, share your own enthusiasms and help them to enjoy what they do.

If you are an administrator, get in touch with fundamental goals. Think about why you do this work, why it matters to your students and the positive impact you have had on the lives of people with whom you interact. If you work in financial aid, think about the hundreds or thousands of lives you have transformed. If you work in student affairs, think about the ways your work has formed leaders and thinkers having a real impact in their communities. If you are a tutor or a career counselor, think about the lives you have elevated and changed for the better. Then, take a half-day retreat with your colleagues. But, instead of using that time to focus on challenges or roadblocks, focus on moments of joy, meaning and purpose. Share stories of the times when you loved your work most and when you felt most fulfilled. Get back in touch with inspiration.

And what about leaders, the presidents, provosts and deans? I know your lives are stressful and that you encounter a lot of tension and anger in your daily interactions right now. But you have a great opportunity to help bring some joy back into your community. Try two things.

First, you cannot be a joyful leader if you are not having any fun at work, so identify three things that are fun and do them. Schedule time to tour your art museum or to visit baseball or softball practice. Set up agenda-free lunches with your favorite board members and get to know them better. Throw a party for faculty, because god knows higher education needs more parties. Identify the researchers doing work you think is interesting and tour their labs or sit in on their classes. Or teach a class yourself, to remind yourself what this entire endeavor is all about.

And second, work on your response to anger in your community. People are going to be angry at times with you and the institutions you lead. How you respond to these moments sets a tone for your entire community. Try, as best you can, never to meet anger with anger or to express negativity and frustration. Express empathy, but don’t try to match outrage with your own expression of outrage, which just fuels the fires of tension and stress. Instead, model positive engagement, a desire to listen and a sense of optimism. Keep cool, maintain your composure and be your true self. Try to avoid your fight-or-flight instincts. This is, I know, easier said than done, and god knows I have failed to follow my own advice at times, but that is your responsibility. And when a meeting goes poorly, as some inevitably will, go out and have a glass of wine, read a good book or watch a film that makes you smile.

For some readers, my assertion that we should return a sense of joy to the higher education workplace may resonate deeply. To others, it may seem Pollyannaish, even clueless or an expression of privilege. I can imagine these people recoiling from my argument with outrage. “We live in a world filled with selfishness, racism and violence. We have to address those things with anger and protest of our own.” To which I would say … maybe.

There are times, of course, when we must respond to injustice with righteous anger. At some moments, protest is the only path forward. But I have to ask, does it not seem like we, members of the higher education community, have used anger and protest so often that it has become counterproductive? Does it not seem like our anger is just fueling more anger and frustration rather than leading to progress? Our response to every problem cannot be to call other people out, to express outrage and to blame. That is not the path to a blessed, righteous community. Maybe we should try more often to call people in, to invite them to engage with us in an atmosphere of positivity and joy. Sometimes, yes, you can bully people into compliance with your goals in the short term by expressing anger and vitriol. But I have to ask, is that really our model of social change?

In higher education, we hold our destiny in our own hands. Each campus, each one of us, has the ability to grow together, to promote a great community and to create and share joy. So let me ask again: Are you currently having fun? If not, maybe you should give it a try.

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