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Lindsay Ellis, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, put out a call a little while ago for university employees who were looking to quit their jobs. She couldn’t believe the response. “There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of fear, and there was a lot of sadness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my inbox like that,” Ellis says. “The last 18 months have left a lot of college employees feeling, frankly, disillusioned with the work that they do and unsure of whether the leaders of these institutions are going to sufficiently have their backs in in a pandemic.” You can see one example of this in James Tierney, an assistant teaching professor of economics at Penn State who submitted his resignation in August. His biggest complaint: that his school is not requiring people on campus to be vaccinated this fall, even though it’s requiring a return to in-person teaching. Penn State leadership says most students are vaccinated, but Tierney isn’t comforted by that. He thinks professors aren’t allowed to teach classes online again, like they did last year, because students want to go back to campus, and the students’ tuition money is what keeps the school running. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ellis about what’s it like to work on a campus right now, with workers like Tierney feeling exploited and students feeling confused and depressed, and what might come out of this moment of reckoning for higher ed. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lindsay Ellis: A lot of people get into higher ed because they feel like this is a stable profession. So much of the higher ed workforce over the past few decades has changed in ways that don’t normally break through to public perception. I would say less than half of many faculties are tenured. Other people are contingent, hired every year, every semester. And the workload in a lot of student-facing positions is totally overwhelming for people too. These are people who are working really long hours, often on the weekend. The pay isn’t great, and they don’t really see an opportunity for professional advancement. That was an underlying issue before the pandemic, but COVID showed that the lows can be even lower than what people had anticipated.
To me, the theme of these breaking-point moments is when campuses were asking their employees to give up their own personal lives, to put their health in jeopardy during the pandemic without really acknowledging what that took and what the workers were sacrificing.
Seth Stevenson: As these schools reopen, what kind of reactions are you hearing about mask and vaccine mandates, and teaching virtually as opposed to in person?
If you’re at a public institution, the policies your school can adopt have always been in line with what the state allows. But because masks and vaccines have become so politicized, it’s a good chance that, in Republican-leaning states, you’re not going to have mandates, and people might not even be tested regularly. A lot of schools don’t put up the resources for that. If you’re at a private institution, you’re going to have a lot more flexibility. The campus leaders there are far more likely to mandate masks and vaccines and schools in states that voted for President Joe Biden. So there’s a real anger, particularly in red-state public schools, of people not feeling like the health and safety of their family members is being valued.
The people in charge of these schools are kind of a tough spot, right? They’ve got a pretty complicated challenge to deal with.
I think there is an acknowledgment that, especially at state institutions, to some degree their hands are tied. And I think that acknowledgment is far overshadowed by a sense of, Wow, this institution, my employer, there’s a lot of hypocrisy here.
We hear a lot about adjunct professors or lecturers who seem to be doing a ton of work without a ton of compensation. If they are being exploited, why do they stick around?
I think higher ed is one of those jobs where people see it as part of their identity. When I talk to professors—adjunct, tenure-track, tenured— they see it as a role where people have envisioned their whole future. So sticking around through those circumstances made sense for a lot of contingent faculty. The other piece of this is that there are so many graduate students who hit the faculty job market every year. I think, perhaps especially early in the career, there’s a degree of hope there as well.
Are you seeing fault lines between different kinds of faculty? Like, between teaching faculty versus research faculty or tenured faculty versus nontenured faculty?
I think one surprising thing is that, before the pandemic, those fault lines were very apparent, but over the course of the pandemic—when many departments across the country reorganized, leading to cuts of even tenured faculty members—there was a level of organization and activism among tenured and tenure-track faculty that I don’t think we’d seen at such a large scale before. There certainly still are divisions between these groups, but I think there is a greater awareness that everybody is vulnerable here and it makes a lot more sense to band together. Faculty members have unionized.
Was this reckoning inevitable? Is it something that was overdue?
I think the pandemic did serve as an accelerant of some of the underlying dynamics that had predated it. One thing I have my eye out for this year is a mismatch between the needs of students and what the college workforce is able to provide, in terms of staffing levels and engagement and dedication levels. A lot of people who work on campuses really want distance and space between themselves and their own personal lives. And they no longer want to be in a work environment that has to be a calling or has to be part of their identity. Some people just want a job that’s a job.
This piece has been updated to clarify James Tierney’s official job title.