Why College Professors Have Had It

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S1: I still love education like I think teaching is is great. It’s amazing.

S2: James Tierney is an associate professor of economics at Penn State, but not for long. He submitted his resignation in August.

S1: Me resigning, or at the very least, like leaving for another job, has been on my mind for a while.

S2: There’s a lot that’s eating at James right now. But his biggest complaint is that his school, Penn State, is not requiring people on campus to be vaccinated this fall, even though the school is requiring a return to in-person teaching. Penn State leadership says most students are vaccinated, but James isn’t comforted by that.

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S1: We don’t know who is vaccinated, even if they give us the numbers like they have, that it’s around 80 percent in a classroom with 300 students. That’s still 60 unvaccinated students that are there. I don’t want to say, Hey, walk with your neighbors if they don’t know who they are or if they are or are not vaccinated, and if they’re wearing a mask correctly. And I’m not going to lie that it is frustrating to have to be policing the man to every time a student doesn’t wear their mask. I have to talk to them, say, Hey, don’t forget, you have to wear a mask if you’re inside.

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S2: If Penn State is so against a vaccine mandate, why can’t they let professors teach classes online again like they did last year? This is one question James has, and he can guess the answer. It’s because the students want to go back to campus and the students tuition money is what keeps the school running.

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S1: So all of these things, just like clearly to me, point to the university, does not care about the educational product that they are putting out. They just care about what a few loud people say, like we need in-person classes.

S2: James Tierney’s resignation will be effective at the end of the fall semester. He would have left right away, but he says that would have saddled his colleagues with an impossible workload. There’s only one other intro macroeconomics professor, so James is sticking it out for one more term, even though he’s practically seething about the situation.

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S1: I don’t feel as safe right now. You don’t know who’s vaccinated because Penn State has decided to bow to the Legislature of Pennsylvania and not follow. Nine other Big Ten universities and having a vaccine mandate. Sorry, that was a rant, and I apologize.

S2: James is not unique in higher ED. If you were paying attention, you might have seen the seeds of this frustration coming years ago because a lot of the things bothering James Tierney at Penn State, they don’t start and end with the pandemic. They go back much earlier,

S3: you know, work life balance, compensation burnout. The pandemic laid a lot of that bare.

S2: Lindsay Ellis is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She put out a call a little while ago for university employees. We’re looking for the exits. She couldn’t believe the response.

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S3: I don’t think I’ve ever seen my inbox like that. I would get off the phone with a source and have three or four or more emails from other people who wanted to talk. And when you see that kind of outpouring and feel sort of the degree of desperation and that need for something to change. I sort of knew this is the place I need to dig in and just talk to as many people as I can.

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S2: What was their prevailing mood?

S3: Oof, not a great one. I think there was a lot of anger. There was a lot of fear and there was a lot of sadness. 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 a pandemic.

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S2: Today on the show, what’s it like to work on a campus right now with fights over masks and vaccines, with workers feeling exploited and students feeling confused and depressed? Lindsay Ellis tells us what might come out of this moment of reckoning for higher ed. I’m Seth Stevenson filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. It’s funny because I’ve always thought of academia as being kind of a cushy place to hang your hat, but it sounds like people are seeking refuge in other kinds of places.

S3: You know, I don’t think you’re alone in that perception, and I think 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 last few decades has changed in ways that don’t normally break through to the public perception. I would say less than half of many faculties are tenured. Other people are contingent, you know, are 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 sort of an underlying issue before the pandemic, and COVID really showed that the lows can can be even lower than what people had anticipated. I talked to people who worked in residence halls and they were sort of trapped in in a dorm room over the course of the pandemic with evidence of clusters, and they couldn’t visit their families for long stretches of time. The theme to these moments of this breaking point moment to me is when campuses were asking their employees to really give up their own personal lives to put their health in jeopardy during the pandemic without really acknowledging what that took and what they were sacrificing.

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S2: Yeah, as these schools reopen, what kind of friction are you hearing about around mask mandates and vaccine mandates and teaching virtually as opposed to in-person? What kind of discussion are you hearing around those policies?

S3: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moment in which where you go to college, what state, whether it’s public or private, has such a significant impact on the experience that you’re going to have if you’re at a public institution? The policy is that your school can adopt. You have always been sort of in line with what the state allows, but because masks and vaccines have become so politicized. You know, it’s a good chance that in Republican leaning states, you’re not going to have a mask mandate, you’re not going to have a vaccine mandate 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 know you’re going to have a lot more flexibility that the campus leaders there are far more likely to mandate masks and vaccines. And, you know, schools in states that voted for President Biden, they are also more likely to allow for such mandates. So there’s a real anger, particularly in public schools, in red states of people, you know, not feeling like their health, their safety, the health and safety of their family members is being valued.

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S2: The people in charge of these schools, the administrations, they’re in kind of a tough spot. They’ve got a pretty complicated challenge to deal with. And I wonder if you heard any sympathy from the workers you talked to for the people at the at the top and what they’re dealing with.

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S3: I think that there is an acknowledgement that especially at state institutions, to some degree, their hands are tied. I think that acknowledgement is far overshadowed by a sense of, Wow, this institution, my employer. There’s a lot of hypocrisy here. One of my colleagues really dug into the University of Florida, whose scientists were were sort of tapped as the experts for when a public school county decided to defy the governor’s banning of of mandates. So University of Florida researchers were sort of the Go-To experts for why a school district would flout these government rules. And yet the university itself didn’t feel like it could do the same thing. And I think there was a degree of frustration. I mean, people on that campus saw the leadership as as spineless. If the local school district can stand up to the governor, why can’t we when it’s when it’s our scientists who have shown why this is right?

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S2: Besides these faculties and these administrations, the other perspective here is the students. Did you hear any sympathy about the students just wanting to get back to a normal college experience and forget about all these protocols?

S3: Oh my gosh. I mean. Yes, absolutely. And I think I also heard just a lot of sympathy for what students are going through in general right now. A lot of students across the country haven’t had a regular school year since what the 2018 to 2019 semester or school year. I mean, I think there is such an acknowledgement that students have really been through the wringer, the idea of a normal semester. I can understand emotionally, right, like why one would want to sort of snap back into that.

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S2: A lot of the problems we’re talking about are specific to this moment. But has higher education always been a tough career path in some ways?

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S3: It depends on sort of what what sector within higher ED we’re talking about. I mean, I think one area where there’s been significant churn over the years is in the student affairs field. You know, the guidance counselor, the academic advisor, career services. One woman I interviewed, I think this was like month two of the pandemic, right? Early on, one of her students was in New York and had to get back to Minnesota, and he had lost his driver’s license so he couldn’t get airplane tickets. And so basically, she bought him a bus ticket and was like, OK, well, here’s how you get to the terminal and here’s the bus you have to take. And was basically coordinating, you know, his crisis return at the beginning of the pandemic back home. And then as they were talking, she sort of had to ask, like, when’s the last time you had something to eat? And he was like, I have no money left. She basically then had to ask her boss, You know, can I buy this student visa gift card so that he can put something in his stomach? These are students really trying to figure out basic needs, issues and student affairs staffers are really on the front lines of responding to that type of crisis.

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S2: This sounds like a lot of hand-holding of the students by the college staff, and I wonder if that’s always been the expectation or if that has shifted over time.

S3: I think since the Great Recession, when a lot of states stopped supporting higher ED to the degree they had before campuses really had to compete for students in a way that they hadn’t before because they were more dependent financially on their tuition dollars. That means that a lot of student services really rose to the occasion. And, you know, the dynamic of in loco parentis, a campus really stepping up to sort of be the, you know, de facto parent for a student. I think the expectation of what college means to an individual student and you know what students are quote-unquote paying for that very much changed the vision of college from a place where you learn to sort of a consumer good that are, you know, competing for your business through offering sort of these types of. Of services over the years.

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S2: More with Lindsay Ellis in a minute. We hear a lot about adjunct professors are lecturers who seem to be doing a ton of work without a ton of compensation and if they are being exploited, why do they stick around anyway?

S3: I think higher ED is one of those jobs where people see it as part of their identities. When I talk to professors, the adjunct tenure track tenured, it’s a role where people have sort of envisioned their whole future being in. And so I think sticking around through those circumstances that had made sense for a lot of contingent faculty. I think the other piece of this, too, is there are so many graduate students who hit that faculty job market every year, and there might be a sense of, OK, I’ll do one more postdoc or all sort of take one more contingent role and then try again in a future job cycle. There’s perhaps especially early in the career, kind of a degree of hope there as well.

S2: Are you seeing fault lines between different kinds of faculty, like between teaching faculty versus research faculty are tenured faculty versus non tenured faculty?

S3: I think one thing that has surprised me here is that before the pandemic, those fault lines, I think, were very apparent that tenured and tenure track faculty, you know, could could coast if they wanted to and not think much about the experience of an adjunct professor or a contingent faculty member over the course of the pandemic, when many departments across the country reorganized, leading to cuts of of even tenured faculty members. There was a lot more organization and activism among tenured and tenure track faculty that I don’t think we had seen at such a large scale before. And I believe 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. There is, you know, anecdotally, a lot more participation in faculty Senate meetings and faculty organizational committees. So I think that points to just a greater awareness of the labor dynamics within the campus.

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S2: Is this reckoning that seems to be happening now inevitable? Is it something that was overdue?

S3: I think on a lot of these issues, 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 in this academic year is a real mismatch between the needs of students and what the college workforce is able to provide, both in terms of staffing levels and also engagement and dedication levels of a lot of faculty and staff. When we came up with our our headline for the story I had worked on, we called it the great disillusionment. And I think that really reflects the fact that a lot of people who work on campuses really want distance and space between themselves and their own personal lives and the work they do. They no longer want to be in a work environment that has to be a calling or that has to be part of their identity. Some people just want a job that’s a job. And having that shift take place at a moment when students are presenting such high needs is something that I will have my eye out for to see if that if the dynamics get worse or sort of get better in the year ahead.

S2: Did you get any sense that the people running the universities are starting to hear the dissatisfaction and pay attention to it? And are there any omens that things are going to change?

S3: I do think they hear it. I have. I have not seen any omen that things are going to change. There’s a real incentive in higher ED to revert to the status quo. There are financial reasons for that. I mean, student tuition dollars are very much a key source of revenue for universities, even public schools. There’s a real incentive to sort of snap back to the residential college experience. I have not seen any omens that that college leaders are going to bend over backwards to mitigate that.

S2: Lindsay Ellis, thanks for being with us.

S3: Thank you so much for having me.

S2: Lindsay Ellis is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s the show. What next is produced by Davis Land, Danielle, Hewitt, Carmel, Delshad Mary Wilson and Elena Schwartz, who spoke to James Tierney in that interview. You heard at the top of the show. Thanks, Alina. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Seth Stevenson in for Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you back here tomorrow.