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How Can Colleges Break Out of the Funk of Low Morale?

Low morale of professors and college leaders is turning out to be one of the biggest issues in higher ed this year.

Just look at the “most read” list here at EdSurge over the past few months, and you’ll notice that the top headlines involve demoralization and burnout. And social-media chatter about these articles—and similar stories in other publications—shows an increasing sense of being fed up by working conditions on the nation’s campuses nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic is a part of the story, many say that the underlying issues predate the global health crisis. Colleges were already relying more and more on lower-paid adjuncts who have precarious employment situations. Fewer and fewer professors’ jobs grant the security of tenure. And the romanticized notion of getting into deep discussions with students about big ideas doesn’t always actually happen.

“‘Normal’ prior to this probably wasn’t working that well for very many people, and the pandemic made it worse,” notes Kevin R. McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. McClure is a columnist for EdSurge, and he has written some of the stories that have gone viral about low morale at colleges.

But despite the many frustrated voices he’s hearing, McClure believes there’s a way to learn from this moment. Perhaps deep-seated problems of campus life be solved to get higher ed out of this funk.

We connected with McClure for this week’s EdSurge Podcast, to hear more about what he’s found as he’s dug deeper into the issue of fed-up-ness in academe.

EdSurge: What is demoralization, and how is it different from burnout?

Kevin McClure: This is a relatively new term for me as well, and so I’ve relied on the writings of several other folks that have been talking about demoralization, especially in K-12 education. And the way that they have described it is, demoralization happens when you feel as if the values that brought you to the profession are harder to enact. And part of that is because there’s a conflict of values between you and your employer.

And so I tend to think of demoralization or low morale as being something that’s group-based or collective—where a group of people have reached a point where they feel not just depleted or tired, but really fed up, exasperated and in some cases willing to act on that type of feeling in a different way.

And so I think that there is a pretty clear tie between demoralization and the “great resignation” national conversation that we see happening in many industries—including education. And the demoralization has led people … to step away from this career entirely or to shift into a new organization or a different job.

What makes the demoralization that you described in your columns so pointed in higher education?

This is a question that I actually put to the individuals that I interviewed as part of the piece, because there isn’t a ton of research that I was able to find on what’s driving demoralization specifically in higher education. The things that came up over and over again … is we’ve had a compensation problem in higher education for a long time. Many jobs within higher education have not seen significant salary increases in a long time.

Another big problem that people mentioned is this feeling as if leaders were just not doing a particularly good job of listening and not showing a willingness to listen and to learn. I heard stories of town hall meetings where leaders were disabling the chat feature because they didn’t want to see or to hear some of the things that were being mentioned in the chat.

And part of this manifested in this idea that many leaders were just pushing ahead with a normal fall, irrespective of what was required to do so and what was happening around us. And that struck people as being a prime example of not really listening to what people were trying to tell them.

Another big issue connected to this idea of the great resignation is understaffing or offices that are just too lean in their staffing. What’s happened is you’ve got some institutions that, through budget cuts and austerity, have just not never hired enough people to do the work well, even if it’s the case that, for example, enrollment is growing or expectations are increasing. So you’ve got people taking on more and more work at the same time.

The most disheartening thing for me as someone who’s invested my whole career in higher education is how frequently within the last six months I’ve been in conversation with people and they’ve said, ‘I just don’t know if this place where I’m working really cares about me. If I were to leave, if I were to step away from this job, would anybody stop and ask me why? Or would they just say ‘have a nice day’ and then post the job the next day. I came to this profession myself with a commitment to care for people, and yet the place where I’m working isn’t extending that type of care to me. So what does that say about the way in which they value or appreciate me?’

How does this low morale of professors impact students?

Basically college itself is a function of the working conditions of faculty and staff. We do a disservice if we focus so exclusively on student experience and student success that we lose sight of the fact that in order to get to that positive experience and success, we need to have good people working at colleges and universities.

Parents and students and anybody that’s invested in higher education ought to be thinking about how we can be doing a better job of improving the academic workplace. Otherwise, I fear it is the case that folks are going to be feeling as if they are working very hard to get to college, making a lot, sacrifice, paying a lot of money, and then what they get on the other end, are the folks that have made it [there to teach] not necessarily the best people that we would want, but the people who have just managed to hold on for long enough that they’re still there?

Hear the entire conversation on the EdSurge Podcast (If you want to jump to this part of the episode, it’s at around 12:30.)


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