When people ask me what I do and I tell them I am a professor, the next questions are always, “Oh, what do you teach? What do you study?” When I share with them that I study the experiences and outcomes of college and university professors, most are puzzled and want to know why I would choose to dedicate my career to this topic.
My answer is nearly the same today as it was in 2006 when I launched my research agenda in graduate school: I study faculty careers and work because we constitute a fascinating and influential profession. We teach, research and engage with local, national and sometimes international communities. In each of these capacities we interact with the next generation of leaders—people who go on to lead schools, provide healthcare to patients, manage businesses and build communities. For these reasons, it is critical to document the composition of our profession and (always changing) nature of our work. Moreover, underlying my research interests is a commitment to ensuring that academia is an equitable place where diverse work and a diverse faculty are not only welcome but valued.
While I have always been committed to studying inequities in the academy, I can say that the realities of these inequities have never been more apparent than when the pandemic began sweeping through our universities and our lives. COVID-19 has brought more changes, more quickly, than ever before. Since we switched to working from home, we have been forced to adapt our teaching, research and service responsibilities, many while raising children or caring for other family members, on top of the emotional and mental toll associated with the pandemic. For some, especially faculty of color, we have been juggling all of the above while coping with the fact that the illness has touched our families or friends.
Colleges and universities have strived to respond, and I have been both hopeful and disappointed by these institutional responses. We have an opportunity now, and when we emerge from this difficult period, to create more supportive academic environments for all faculty members. To do so, though, we must understand the nature and landscape of the academic profession.
UNDERSTANDING THE LANDSCAPE
In recent years (probably the last 15 or so), we have seen improvements in racial and gender diversity within the academy, but it is critical to point out that many of these gains are located in the least stable—and thus most vulnerable—segments of the profession. In other words, research shows that the most senior, secure and well-paid positions tend to be held by white men, followed by white women (Finkelstein et al., 2015). People of color, especially Black, Indigenous and Latina women, tend to enter the profession via the least stable positions (e.g., part-time positions) in the most economically vulnerable of institutions (Cardozo, 2017). The nature of one’s employment in the academic profession matters in concrete ways—influencing salary potential, access to health care and benefits and access to institutional and professional development resources (Kezar et al., 2020). It can also shape the extent to which one is centered in institutional leaders’ thinking and problem solving. For example, the academic profession can be divided into three categories:
- Already tenured faculty, whose salaries, benefits and access to institutional resources are established and secure
- Pre-tenure, tenure-track professors, whose livelihood and career are contingent on their ability to produce peer-reviewed scholarship, teach, mentor and support students’ graduation, and demonstrate various forms of engagement
- Non-tenure-eligible faculty, who hold short-term (typically 1-3 year potentially renewable contracts) or no contract at all, whose access to benefits and resources are inconsistent and sometimes even non-existent (Kezar et al., 2020)
In fact, a recent study found that a quarter of part-time contingent faculty receive some form of public assistance (Center for Labor Research and Education, UC Berkeley). With this information alone, it is possible to see how inequities in the academic profession are racialized, gendered and tied to one’s employment category.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequities. The demand for “can-do” attitudes about shifting teaching to an online space from home is based on the assumption that instructors have consistent access to technology, Wi-Fi and stable housing. However, higher education reporters have found that non-tenure-track faculty, especially part-time instructors, are sometimes housing- and food-insecure (Petit, 2020; 2021). In the early days of campus shutdowns, contingent faculty all around the country noted they did not have access to consistent Wi-Fi or technology resources.
Moreover, many institutions adopted “tenure-extension policies,” framing them as powerful solutions, but these extensions do little for faculty who work on semesterly contracts. Indeed, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education showed hundreds of colleges introduced some sort of employment action, such as layoffs, contract non-renewals and pay cuts to cope with COVID-19’s economic fallout. Many of the layoffs and contract non-renewals targeted contingent employees. Although the initial report did not disaggregate data between faculty or staff, subsequent reporting has revealed that contingent professors—among other low-paid staff—have suffered a disproportionate number of layoffs. It is also critical to note that tenure extensions do little for caregivers or for people’s mental health and well-being. In some ways, tenure extensions merely allow institutions to kick the can down the road.
Instead of reproducing inequities and valuing productivity over the well-being of faculty who conduct research, teach and engage with students and carry out service, I want to outline three ideas that higher education leaders, as well as more empowered (e.g., tenured) members of the academic profession, might consider.
HOW SHOULD HIGHER EDUCATION LEADERS HELP?
- Ground yourselves in equity. Equity is different from equality in that equality offers the same resources and solutions to everyone. Equity, however, demands that leaders learn and recognize how people’s situations and conditions vary, particularly in connection with racism, genderism, ableism and classism, and then provide context-informed support. In the case of supporting faculty in the context of COVID, equity grounded leadership requires recognizing people have experienced this pandemic in wildly different ways. Before adopting a new policy solution, consider how the solution honors the experience and conditions of those located in the margins of the academy. For example, before applying pay cuts, examine institutional data to understand how different categories of faculty will be differently impacted.
- Recognize that COVID-19’s disparate impact on communities of color is real. It is very likely that faculty (and staff) of color are navigating not only the stress of working from home, but also coping with the loss of loved ones, and they should be supported accordingly. Contingent faculty are doing all of this with fewer resources. Consider (re)allocating resources to ensure that culturally relevant counseling services and programmatic efforts are a part of your efforts. This may mean developing new partnerships with counselors or agencies that have specific expertise for working with communities of color.
- And finally, because it is key to maintain the diversity gains that have been made among tenure-track faculty, institutional leaders should work with academic leaders throughout their institution but also across scholarly and institutional associations to broaden definitions of worthy work, with special attention to the kinds of scholarship that racially minoritized faculty often (not always) take on (e.g., community engagement, public scholarship). COVID-19 has forced institutions to have conversations about productivity and tenure-worthy work profiles. This is a perfect opportunity for institutions and faculties to work together to support future portfolios that may look different than portfolios of the past.
COVID-19 is a crisis to which higher education leaders can respond with old ideas and approaches that will only reinforce inequities, or we can choose equity.
This article was modified from an essay by Leslie D. Gonzales that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Gonzales co-authored a national report, with Kimberly A. Griffin of the University of Maryland, that provided guidance on what institutions can do to support scholars with a focus on equity and inclusion. “Supporting Faculty During and After COVID-19” was published by Aspire: The National Alliance for Inclusive & Diverse STEM Faculty in spring 2020. Visit aspirealliance.org
Listen to Gonzales’s guest lecture on the academic job market during COVID on the Acadames Podcast.
Gonzales has also shared her expertise to address equity and COVID-19-related faculty issues by serving on various task forces at Michigan State University. In addition, as part of her appointed role as Faculty Excellence Advocate in the College of Education, she provided a report in summer 2020—following conversations and surveys with colleagues—that provided recommendations to support and evaluate faculty during and after the pandemic.