Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Rare Survey of Faculty Morale Shows That the Pandemic’s Effects Continue to Ripple

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Covid-19’s ripple effects continue to place strain on faculty members’ personal and professional lives, according to a new report from the University of New Mexico. It’s a telling portrait of where faculty morale stands today and a rare contemporary comparison to the campus well-being surveys that were in vogue during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

The first year or so of the pandemic saw more research into, and institutional attention to, concerns about the disruption of professors’ scholarship, their struggles to balance work with caregiving responsibilities, and the mental strain of burnout. In response, many institutions started offering tenure-clock stoppages, recalibrating promotion standards, and offering workload reductions. But as campuses have returned to in-person instruction and Covid-19 enters its third year, that attention has waned, perhaps because of hopes that things might return to business as usual.

Those hopes turned out to be at least somewhat misguided at New Mexico, where leaders of the campus Advance program, a National Science Foundation-funded effort to increase female representation in science and engineering, were hearing from scholars — particularly assistant professors, women, and those with children — who were still struggling, more than two years into the pandemic. At the same time, some deans and department chairs were “feeling like it’s time to move on,” said Julia Fulghum, director of Advance. “We knew that reporting what we’re hearing wasn’t going to be sufficiently compelling” to inspire major changes in policy or practice and that data would offer a clearer picture. So the Advance team surveyed full-time faculty members at the university’s main campus in Albuquerque at the end of the spring 2022 semester, including questions about their day-to-day duties alongside validated measures of burnout and job satisfaction.

What they found was resounding evidence of the pandemic’s ripple effect on scholars’ lives even now. A third of New Mexico’s full-time faculty responded — 343 people — and 96 percent said their professional networking had been disrupted in the spring semester because of Covid-19. Ninety percent reported it had been more difficult to foster new research collaborations, and nearly 80 percent said the pandemic had affected their performance or productivity that semester. Around three-quarters said their progress toward promotion — either to associate professor, with tenure, or to full professor — had been impeded. “That was a percentage that was larger, I think, than some of the leadership were expecting,” Fulghum said. The team’s data also illustrate that all types of research, from bench science to field and archival work, had slowed.

“The level of disruptions people were still experiencing in the spring wasn’t a surprise to me because I’ve been hearing from people, but it was a surprise to other people reading the report,” said Fulghum, who is also the associate dean of faculty development in New Mexico’s College of Arts & Sciences. “That’s the sort of thing that’s been really important to demonstrate,” given the competing desires for on-campus community and for flexibility in remote and hybrid work.

Large proportions of faculty members reported spending increased time on teaching (41 percent), mentoring (49 percent), and service (52 percent) in the spring, relative to their pre-pandemic workloads. The pandemic also proved detrimental to 82 percent of respondents’ relationships with their students and to 79 percent of respondents’ ability to mentor graduate students.

There were significant personal impacts, too. Two-thirds of faculty respondents said they’d taken on more caregiving responsibilities in the spring than they had before the pandemic. Many felt taxed physically and psychologically — and, in turn, less connected to their jobs. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that the pandemic had diminished their satisfaction with work in the spring, and 83 percent agreed it had negatively affected their motivation at work. Nearly half said they’d considered leaving the university, and a similar number reported being unable to think deeply about their scholarship.

“To everyone around me, I look like I am successful and managing to balance work and life. I feel, on the other hand, like crying most days, and I think about leaving this university more and more often lately,” one survey respondent wrote. Another described being able to “cover” well: “I did not let anyone down and completed all the duties of my position plus providing emotional and other support to students, staff, and faculty at the expense of my own work and well-being. But it comes at a cost, and my own emotional well is just about dry.”

‘Still trying to catch up’

The ripple effects of Covid fell disproportionally on underrepresented minority faculty members and women in the New Mexico survey, a finding that’s been mirrored in other institutional and national surveys in recent years. In a 2020 Chronicle survey, conducted with the support of Fidelity Investments, 74 percent of women reported that their work-life balance had deteriorated that year, compared with 63 percent of men. Eighty-two percent of female professors said their workloads increased, compared with 70 percent of male professors. And in 2021, the second annual College + University Teaching Environment, or CUTE, survey at Indiana University at Bloomington found lower degrees of satisfaction with work-life balance among nonwhite faculty members and among assistant professors, as opposed to their tenured colleagues, said Allison BrckaLorenz, director of CUTE.

But there’s generally not much data on faculty well-being, which was part of the impetus for starting the CUTE project, BrckaLorenz said. “Schools have always done some internal things, but they’ve maybe left it at course evaluations or just kind of quick check-ins,” she said. “The amount of assessment that they do for their undergraduates is huge compared to the kinds of assessments they do for graduate students or faculty.” The institutional and national surveys that did exist, she said, focused on measures like work satisfaction and teaching behaviors, as opposed to the questions the CUTE instrument posed about faculty members’ work environment and the types of support mechanisms they have.

That began to change during the pandemic, she said, with more institutions asking faculty members, formally and informally, about how they were faring. Even then, there are obstacles: Faculty members aren’t used to being the objects of study, and in some cases might be uncomfortable with that, said BrckaLorenz, an associate research scientist at Indiana University. Still, getting faculty buy-in for such work is key: “There’s no way for us to change the culture if we don’t have information on the culture.”

At New Mexico, Fulghum said, faculty members seemed open to sharing their experiences; the spring survey received more open-ended responses than the Advance team customarily sees in its work. The team that prepared the report — Lisa Marchiondo, Shannon Sanchez-Youngman, Teagan Mullins, and Naila deCruz-Dixon — also offered a set of 13 recommendations for administrators based on their data. Among those suggestions are offering more training and placing a greater emphasis on mentorship, instituting a menu of options for adjusting the tenure clock, and promoting “work-work balance” by easing administrative burdens to prioritize scholarship and creative work during the work week.

Those recommendations, and the survey as a whole, have been well received, Fulghum said. Recently, administrators announced the extension of its pandemic-era Faculty Scholarship Time program, which lets scholars apply for either a course release for one course or 10 hours a week of support from a graduate student during a given semester to focus on work that was interrupted by the pandemic. The fact that the program will now continue through fall 2023, Fulghum said, is “an official acknowledgment that people are still trying to catch up, or get back on track, or make progress, depending on what their situation is.”

Such an acknowledgement, she hopes, is what the Advance survey provides. “People trusted us and were honest about how they were doing,” she said. “I’m hoping that one of the things we’ve done is help people feel seen and know that other people are worried about them and trying to figure out how to help them be successful.”

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