The Post-Virus Professoriate: Retrenched, or Reinvented?

by Kiernan Mathews

Harvard University gates with ivyThe Chronicle Review recently published a forum on the future of the academic work force. I found it to be a grim look at trends in the professoriate. Even the thought leaders I have always counted on for optimism had only some scraps of it to share. Although urgent priorities at COACHE kept me from meeting the editor’s deadline, I decided to share here my hope for tomorrow’s faculty—in the hands of today’s faculty.

Creativity and invention are the professor’s stock in trade, yet we are seeing very little of their ingenuity being tapped in the plexiglass response to COVID-19. Instead, both despite the pandemic and because of it, we are asking faculty to conduct business more or less as usual: to keep teaching their courses (in a completely different modality), to keep advising students (who are suffering multiple traumas), to keep producing research (disrupted by childcare and eldercare needs), all at the same time.

In recognition of these efforts, faculty are invited to extend their tenure and promotion clocks—to take a mulligan and delay full citizenship at their institutions—assuming they will make it that far.

We are witnessing in real time the fracture between what we ask our faculty to do on a day-to-day basis and what we actually reward them to do. If this discontinuity feels unfamiliar and unfair, then consider the longtime experience of minoritized faculty in the academy.

Faculty of color, women in STEM, LGBTQ+ faculty and others are invited to enjoy the full privileges of the professoriate only by “dancing backwards in high heels.” While meeting performance thresholds beyond what those evaluating them met, under more hostile and competitive conditions, they are asked to do the “invisible labor” of recruiting students “like them” and then mentoring them, even if they are someone else’s advisee. Minoritized faculty serve on more committees, and lately, bear the emotional tax of educating their colleagues about how to be antiracist, antisexist, antitrans, antiableist, and so on. All the while, many of these professors must manage through the accumulation of personal indignities and unseen biases from colleagues and students. In large part due to these hurdles, the only impressive gains in faculty diversity over twenty years have been made off the tenure track.

If the gulf between rhetoric and reward was the professoriate’s pre-existing condition, then the COVID-19 era is pulling even more faculty in, from those compelled to serve on COVID and racial justice task forces to those spending their energies raising valid concerns about reopening plans. More faculty than ever will realize that what they did to save their institutions and support their communities will not count in tenure or promotion. The post-virus professoriate will be less diverse, less engaged, and less relevant to the post-virus world.

Stopping this decay can be within the power of faculty. Right now, their challenge is not of productivity, but of purpose; not to do more work, but to do better work. It is a challenge of governance, by faculty and inclusive of all faculties, to reframe faculty work, reward what their institutions claim to value, and redeem higher education’s legacy for future generations. This meaningful and consequential work of engagement blurs the distinctions between research, teaching, and service, and it is as necessary at Brown and Bates as at Broward and Brockport.

Faculty can do this. Those at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have already reformed their promotion guidelines with more inclusive and inspiring standards of excellence, resulting in a more diversely talented cohort of full professors than the university has ever seen. Harvey Mudd College is weaving a campaign of “healthy excellence” into their mission so that for faculty as well as students, wellbeing and success are not exclusive states of being.

There is no capital-F ‘Faculty’, but campus by campus, faculties are imbued with collective powers--not necessarily collectively bargained, but a historically latent energy that is poised to become kinetic. By channeling their collective ingenuity into generative thinking on governance, tenure, and promotion, faculty can redefine the purpose of the professoriate and change their institutions’ trajectories. Let them invent the post-COVID academy rather than be victims of it.


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See also: Kiernan Mathews