That message grew even louder this past year as universities waded into unchartered territory during the coronavirus pandemic. Institutions across the country went to heroic lengths to ensure that some semblance of “the student experience” was maintained as campuses transitioned to virtual learning. Far less consideration was given to understanding the supports, changes, and accommodations needed in order to fully support faculty and staff in this transition. In the wake of an all-consuming, student-oriented focus, the personal well-being and professional success of faculty and staff were often marginalized. And their personal and professional struggles, frustrations, and sacrifices went unseen (often played out behind closed bedroom doors, in makeshift home offices, within residence halls and campus offices with no clientele).
The Inside Higher Education article, “Student Affairs Staff Challenged by Pandemic Demands,” features an interview with Chris Moody, executive director of the American College Personnel Association. Moody offers a perfect summary of the collective energy level among front-line student affairs staff: “Student affairs folks are really exhausted right now. They’re heading into this new year really, really tired …” (Anderson, 2020). Written at the start of the official pandemic academic year, this description continues to hold true as faculty and staff approach the 2021-2022, (supposed) post-pandemic academic year. In fact, the cumulative impact of the global health and racial events of this past year have been significant on the mental health, job moral, career trajectory, and personal priorities of faculty and staff. In her blog post, “Other Duties as Assigned: Surviving a Pandemic as a Student Affairs Practitioner,” Amanda Morales (2020) of Texas A&M University Corpus Christi explains the impact on student affairs staff:
Throughout this pandemic we have all done a lot of work. Sometimes this work has been outside of the purview of our normal job functions. We’ve removed or rearranged furniture and limited or outlawed guest visitation. Masks and social distancing are campus mandates everyone has to enforce. We have updated policies and procedures throughout the past six months. Classes and trainings have been pushed online in the blink of an eye. Faculty and staff across campus have been asked to recreate entire programs that took months, if not years, to hone into great student experiences. We’ve spent hours/days/months on the phone with upset parents and students (I’ve literally lost my voice several times). Some of us have been laid off, furloughed, or had our job searches halted as budgets across the country crash and burn... Not to mention being worried about catching—and potentially dying from—an unbridled, proliferating virus with no cure that has spread faster than glitter in a student work room and caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people in the US and almost a million worldwide. “Other duties as assigned.” Well sh*t, y’all (in my best Leslie Jordan impression).
Because many junior staff members in particular don’t have the security of tenure, the backing of campus senate bodies or shared governance policies, and are often younger and in the earlier stages of their careers, they are often left extremely vulnerable and unwilling to speak out and advocate for their professional interests and needs (Stoller, 2020; Anderson, 2020 ). And even among senior staff members, the pressure to be present has presented a conflict for professionals with pre-existing health problems or those parenting young or vulnerable children. Campus staff members have faced unexpected home-schooling, job-loss among spouses, increased student trauma needs, and the stress of campus crisis plan execution.
College faculty have also been overwhelmed by the quick instructional pivot, assisting with student stress and accommodation needs, and the same home-life stresses mentioned earlier. A recent study by Course Hero of more than 570 full and part-time faculty at both two and four year colleges and universities found that half of the faculty who participated in the study are experiencing symptoms of workplace burnout (Course Hero, 2020). In an interview for the Inside Higher Education article, “Faculty Pandemic Stress is Now Chronic” (2020) Karen Costa, a faculty developer specializing in online pedagogy and trauma awareness, affirmed the presence of burnout among faculty with little to no response from college leadership. “Faculty are asking me where their presidents are and how to get campus leaders information about the impacts of stress and trauma. They report feeling largely ignored and unsupported (para 33).” Finally, the recent study, “On the Verge of Burnout: Covid-19’s impact on faculty well-being and career plans,” shared the alarming results that 55% of current faculty members were considering retiring or changing careers. In an article concerning faculty evaluation after the pandemic, Kevin Gannon (2021) offers the following advice to the field of higher education:
Acknowledge that the past 14 months have been riddled with grief and loss for many academics. A rush to resume pre-pandemic operations erases those people and their experiences. Whether it was a general sense of loss after the shift from in-person teaching to remote instruction, or the sharper and more specific pain of losing a loved one, everyone has been dealing with grief, stress, and loss. The only humane option is to acknowledge that reality, affirm that we support our colleagues in the healing process, and make that support tangible. As seductive as “back to normal” sounds, we cannot pretend that trauma isn’t part of the institutional landscape that we all now occupy (para 13-14).
A Visual Call to Remember
In the late spring of 2021, as vaccine dissemination began in earnest, the dominant narrative in institutions of higher education shifted to the importance of “getting back to work” - as if all of us had spent the last 12 months doing something other than working. This summer, with vaccines widely available to all adults and youth, universities are preparing for a “return to normal” this fall. We contend that, in the quest for “normalcy”, institutions run the risk of returning in ways that completely ignore valuable lessons learn by faculty and staff during the coronavirus pandemic – lessons that have important implications for how we wish to live our lives as scholars and educational professionals. The magnitude of what we have experienced calls us to question a current desire to behave as though this past year did not happen. The extraordinary amount of labor engaged during the pandemic and the job-related stress with which we grappled, largely occurred behind closed doors. The hidden nature of our struggle will make it all too easy to forget that the coronavirus pandemic is not just a moment in history, it is a time period that we survived. We lived through it and those memories have made a lasting imprint on our lives. As such we need a means of remembrance that encourages an acknowledgement of what we experienced, extended conversations about the ways in which we’ve changed and discussions about how institutions need to reorient themselves to honor those changes. Our hope is that, in creating a visual reminder of what was experienced, what was won, what was lost, and what was sacrificed, we contribute to a conversation that urges campuses to take better care of faculty and staff. When we make efforts to at least see faculty and staff as human beings (not titles and positions) that matter, the better our entire campuses will be.