A few weeks ago, Deborah K. Fitzgerald, a former dean and current faculty member at MIT, wrote a nuanced piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education mourning the apparent end of noisy academic hallways–places where colleagues would meet, chat, generate new ideas, and sometimes snub each other over slights so small they can only be seen with electron scanning microscopes. “Our Hallways Are Too Quiet” suggests that two changes in particular–more family-friendly policies and technology that allows you to work remotely–may bear some responsibility. She doesn’t argue that these are bad policies, of course, just that they may have resulted in this Bowling Alone at work.
I think it’s notable that what Fitzgerald and the senior colleagues who commented on the piece don’t notice. As a junior in the field, here are some other possible sources of this problem that I see:
The R-1 Creep.Just as a college degree now gets you the job that a high school degree used to get you, the research required of faculty even at mid-tier state schools and small liberal arts has increased. What it took for the professors a few generations ago to get hired (“a pulse, being a white man”–the words of one of my own senior mentors) isn’t enough. Next time you are at your discipline’s major conference, note how many of the bio statements on the back of the newest books indicate that the author is a VAP or an instructor. Once upon a time, R-1s required a book for tenure; now, a book won’t even guarantee a job. Everyone is working more.
Assessment, Signature Assignments, High Touch Advising, Data, Data, Data! Some of this (frequent contact with advisees, checking in with students who have missed assignments) matters. Some of it probably doesn’t. But none of these new demands has ever been paired with a reduction in another duty. I’d vote for a Trump-style “repeal 2 for every new 1” strategy here.
“Early Retirement.” Fitzgerald suggests that this shift is among the junior faculty, but I see (or, rather, don’t see) plenty of senior faculty on campus. I definitely know of folks who schedule their work week to be only T-Th so that they can head to their retirement cottage at the lake or back at the farm every long weekend, which is to say every weekend. I don’t mind that–in fact, I think it’s kind of awesome–, as long as they get their work done. The problem is when they refuse to attend meetings or fulfill job obligations only tenured folks can do (serving as a senator) that happen on days they prefer not to be on campus. And, uh, yes, if they have the highly desirable T/Th teaching schedule, it should be because they need the MWF for research and writing, not fishing. And, no, you can’t create your own 2-day workweek by inventing “Blackboard Fridays.”
Better priorities among newer scholars. Millennials get a lot of flak for being too attached to their parents, but it’s actually nice to like the people you are related to. Also, friendships are good things. Rather than seeing Millennials as entitled folks who refuse to show up to work on time, take a lesson: work when you are productive, meet your obligations, and enjoy the things that make life worthwhile, which are people.
Internal competition. In a lesson I suppose they learned from Microsoft, my university has turned all support for our work into something we have to compete for. This makes me colleagues my competitors. That’s a recipe for resentment and deteriorating ties. The university should encourage collaboration, not competition. I made the deliberate choice to stop competing for it and turn to outside funds–which, of course, makes my university even happier. But that means I’m investing outside my university, in grants that make me a more attractive candidate to other employers.
Guns. Faculty largely oppose them on campuses. When you force them on campus, you force me off.
The entrepreneurial professor. Guess what happens when you tell faculty to focus on the return on investment? To be entrepreneurial? To monetize their work? They divest from you and invest in themselves.
And the big one, the one so obvious that it’s amazing to me that it didn’t become the focus of the article…
You don’t hire people, not really. Most teaching is no longer done by tenured faculty. Many students will not encounter a tenured or even tenure-track educator until their second or third year in college. Take a look at your own department: How many of the last 10 hires have been for permanent, full-time, tenured or tenure-track positions? If you hire me as a casual worker, I will still bust my ass, but my goal isn’t to serve you: it’s to serve my own interests.Most universities do not care about the majority of their educators; please don’t expect those educators to be so gullible as to care about the institution.
Above, a chart from Cengage, a publisher of textbooks. The survey asked adjuncts to identify the challenges they faced and to name the “very biggest challenge.” The top problems: poor compensation and benefits, job stability, and not being offered enough courses. The concern most often identified as their biggest problem? Job stability, with 27% of respondents saying it was their primary concern. Just 6% said that being connected to their colleagues and institution was their primary concern, and most did not consider it a concern at all.
If you don’t invest in your employees–and that is your intention when you hire people in insecure jobs–of course they won’t invest in you. Years ago, I took a job as a VAP; the tenured faculty person had left a few years prior, and the job had been done by VAPs ever since. At the end of the year, I asked if this was going to turn TT. My dean encouraged me to “work at it like it’s a tenure track job” so that, eventually, they would turn it into a tenure track job. I asked a mentor what he thought. “Invest in your discipline, not in your institution” was his advice.
Above, a lovely Holstein cow in a field. I’m not a cow, and I don’t give milk for free. If what I have is valuable enough for you to charge students for it, then it’s valuable enough for you to pay me a fair wage for it. For me to invest in you, you will need to invest in me. That’s what “ROI” means, after all.
I’m not saying that this is great advice. It’s cynical advice. It’s the advice that gives us empty hallways. But it was the right advice for that situation. Universities create that situation for a huge percent of their educators, and I share it freely with anyone who will listen.
If empty hallways bother you, ask if your institution is investing in finding, hiring, supporting, rewarding, promoting, and cultivating the very best talent it can find. (Hint: It’s probably not.) A measure: Look at your spring schedule. How many people on it have to be on the job market each year in because they don’t know for sure if you will rehire them? When they aren’t on campus, it’s because they are already working that other job or because they are doing what it takes to get a secure position. You want them to show up? Then give them the option to do so.
***********************************************************************All of this might make me sound cynical or uncommitted to my job or my institution. Not at all! I love my job and I love my students and want to stay in this position forever. I currently work remotely, but when I worked on campus, I maintained a traditional M-F schedule, knocking off early some afternoons in exchange for returning in the evenings to meet with students or work on campus on other projects. Now that my work is fully online, I’m in near constant contact with my students. And I’m highly energized by the mission of my institution and actively supportive of my peers in practical ways. I promote my university at every opportunity. And some of the concerns I share above are gleaned from experiences beyond my own current employer. I share them because I’m invested in higher ed and want it to do better.
I saw what Fitzgerald talks about. (I recall coming to campus one particular Friday morning and wondering if my building had had a bomb threat it was so empty.) I think it’s a serious problem because it shrinks opportunities for conversation, serendipitous encounters, and informal learning across generations of scholars. These losses–which contribute to turnover, low morale, and compounding disinvestment–cost a university. The question is whether those costs are high enough for universities to change.