By Kevin Carlsten, SVP, US Higher Ed Institutional, Cengage Group
The past few years have been rife with challenges for institutional leaders. From changing health guidelines to quarantines to critical racial justice issues being raised on campus, administrators and professors have been in a constant state of heightened alert. The toll on faculty is increasingly clear. Burnout. Compassion fatigue. Unmet mental health needs for students and staff. As the General Manager of Cengage’s Institutional Group, I hear every day from our partners and customers about the challenges, complexities and pain educators are feeling in the trenches of higher education. We share your frustrations, and hope to once again be able to live and work without the shadow of a pandemic looming over us and interrupting critical progress.
Despite that hope, the reality is that we are now in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s abundantly clear that many working in higher education are exhausted, confused and concerned about what comes next. Many are opting out of their career path altogether. Even going back to February of 2021, 55% of U.S. college faculty said they were either considering retiring early or changing careers. Big, existential questions about the future of the workforce and higher education as we know it desperately need answering, as does the question: “If there’s an end to this crisis, will we go back to the normal we once knew, or is our existence permanently altered?” To pretend we have the answer to any of those questions would not only be premature, it would be projecting a future based on an incomplete data set. Right now, higher education professionals everywhere are having to fly planes full of incredibly stressed-out passengers without a flight plan, clear destination or refueling stop. They’ve got to keep the plane aloft, navigate endless unknowns, tackle clear air turbulence (looking at you, endless new virus variants that keep disrupting plans) and still maintain a calm demeanor. The fact that 500 new educators joined our All Access online community in December to participate in our Winter Wellness Series, seeking tips and information about maintaining and improving their own professional wellbeing, is a testament to a vastly unmet need among educators. Yet, perhaps second only to health care practitioners, it is educators who most need to be heard, supported and represented in the national dialogue. And during this time of so much uncertainty, while we can’t offer answers to the intractable questions swirling around this pandemic, we can lean in, listen intently and pay close attention to what’s being said.
So, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve used our network and resources to conduct research and ask specific questions of our customers about their hardships and about their new reality. It’s in that spirit that we opted to launch a new survey this year—the first of its kind—to take the pulse of faculty around the country. Through our new Faces of Faculty research and our ongoing work with the Digital Pulse Survey we are able to confidently offer an emerging sense of some of the biggest changes afoot. While our quantitative research is still ongoing, we can see clearly that expectations of what higher education is, who it serves and what it delivers are rapidly changing. Here’s a glimpse of two macro themes we’ve uncovered so far, along with a little advice to institutional leaders hoping to support educators through the sea of change:
The Theme: The digital shift has blurred professional expectations.
The Finding: With online learning rapidly becoming ubiquitous, something else is happening: students’ expectation of faculty is tacitly shifting from, “I can contact you during set workday hours,” to “You are always online and always available when I need you.” With that shift, faculty say that the personal/professional waters have become murky and they don’t necessarily appreciate the new expectations. An always-on work life can quickly lead to burnout, particularly when educators may be dealing with challenges in their own home lives. On the flip side, some may fear that not being available at all hours will negatively impact their performance evaluations and student reviews. Lack of clarity around HED leaders’ expectations, and differing standards from one course or educator to another, can lead to inconsistent student experiences (not to mention student performance) and a sense of imbalance and unfairness on campus and in the virtual classroom.
The Takeaway: The “all or nothing” ultimatum (whether perceived or real) can be hugely damaging to faculty morale, performance and ultimately to an institution’s retention of both educators and students. Giving faculty permission to set their own reasonable boundaries is absolutely critical. Educators need to know they are valued and respected professionals who are held to high standards, but who also have permission to switch off and have a life. Giving them that permission could be the difference between retaining them or watching them become part of The Great Resignation.
The Theme: A seemingly endless mental health crisis is unfolding in higher education. Who’s at the helm?
The Finding: Faculty are playing the unexpected role of mental health counselor to students, as a nationwide mental health crisis persists with no end in sight. Across faculty, students and administrators we have spoken to, “feelings of stress” was ranked the number one most pressing challenge impacting higher education. Student mental health crises are at an all-time high, with suicide a deeply concerning and frequent campus reality. Educators are being asked to train in critical—but not always widely comprehended—topics like inclusivity, racism and student wellness that may never before have crossed their professional radar. One instructor we spoke to in a recent focus group told us that “keeping students alive” is her primary goal and explained that playing the role of counselor is taxing to her own mental health. Educators and administrators are being looked to for leadership during these difficult times, with little room for error or misjudgment. Add to that a paradigm in which institutions are now wide open to vocal criticism on social media following any kind of crisis, and it’s easy to see where stress and anxiety are rampant among education professionals.
The Takeaway: Students expecting institutional leadership during a crisis is nothing new, and clearly most educators feel a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the students they serve. But the bigger and more frequent those crises become, the more challenging it may be for educators and administrators to develop a response and a plan of action that is supportive, safe and appropriate. Beyond the clear need for sufficient mental health services for both students and faculty, there is no easy answer to the mental health challenges facing higher education. However, implementing targeted upskilling for educators in this critical area can be a core part of that solution. While “yet another training” is usually an unwelcome ask of busy educators, it seems that this is one area where they may make an exception. A recent Boston University study uncovered that just 30% of faculty said they had received training in the area of mental health and wellbeing, yet 70% said they are eager to strengthen their support for students experiencing mental or emotional health challenges through such training.
I fully expect that our research over the next few months will uncover much more about the challenges and opportunities facing higher education professionals in 2022, both on campuses and in the online learning realm. For now, it’s critical that we all continue listening to our colleagues, extend authentic support and keep an open mind about how we as a sector get through what has been one of the most protracted global crises in recent history.
In the meantime, and with a goal of not just identifying problems, but offering viable solutions, consider reading these two free eBooks: