Supporting Faculty and One Another: A Message from Kiernan Mathews

April 2, 2020

Over the last several, eventful weeks, the COACHE team and I have been (like you) doing our best to adjust to the demands of working at home and of worrying about loved ones. We try to remind ourselves: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” We have recognized how privileged so many of us are by our access to our homes, our pantries, our healthcare, our paychecks.

The experience has certainly tested our assumptions about who among us in the academic profession is advantaged by remote work by mandate. Is it really better to be isolated without distraction, or to be surrounded and supported by family? Is it really worse to be pivoting frantically to teach online, or to be staring hopelessly at an evaporating research program?

We have been listening to academic leaders, to scholars of higher education, and of course, to the faculty at the heart of our mission. Across the four domains of our research-practice partnership, we are learning how this Collaborative might be not a distraction from, but rather, a foundation for institutional strategies for faculty engagement during the current crisis.


COACHE Categories of Impact: Data Collection, Strategic Support, Leadership Development, & Scholarship



Data collection and visualization

“Swift to act” is not a phrase typically used to describe institutional review boards, but Harvard’s has quickly approved our protocol changes for the Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey. Such changes include more sensitive outbound messaging, a clearer “unsubscribe” link, and the option for partners to conclude the survey immediately.  This last feature was important to partners comfortable with their response rates to date.

Instead of prolonging their Faculty Job Satisfaction Surveys, I am recommending that institutions reach out to their entire communities of faculty and staff—not just those full-time professors who haven’t taken the COACHE survey yet—with a locally-run, “pulse” poll on COVID-19 impacts and interventions.

Looking further ahead, I urge you to enlist the minds of your faculty to invent our way through this challenge. What questions could you be asking faculty right now to discover what’s working, what needs work, and what work lies ahead? Share your ideas with me at, and I will share a few of my own.

In the meantime, we are busy cleaning and coding the results from the Faculty Retention and Exit Survey that concluded in December. Universities who have participated in that study for three years should expect to receive their comparative results in the fall… when we will be eager to analyze the impact of COVID-19’s financial fallout on departures, counteroffers, and pre-emptive retention.

Strategy support and consultation

For partners currently in the field, we have posted suggestions for their own COACHE-related communications with faculty. Todd’s virtual open houses (the next one is Friday, April 3 at 2:30pm Eastern) are giving us all a chance to talk through our concerns and float solutions. Todd and Lauren have announced the dates for two Strategy Workshops, which are being reworked for a potential shift online. We will be also be retooling the Workshops to prepare our partners to use COACHE results in a post-COVID academy.

In the meantime, partners who have COACHE data may use it to better understand faculty preparedness for the present and for the coming months. For example, some experts are calling on colleges to start planning now for a fall semester in which all courses will be entirely or partially online. COACHE’s Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey can reveal which corners of their institutions can lead, and which can learn, in that (more thoughtful) shift to online teaching. The survey asks faculty to rate the support they receive for developing online or hybrid courses, teaching online or hybrid courses, assessing students’ learning, and for improving teaching generally. Our data suggest that faculty in community colleges are much more comfortable with these tasks (p<.001) than are faculty in all other higher ed sectors. A provost might see in her own data which disciplines on campus can guide the others into this new territory.

Ultimately, COACHE data can identify organizational role models and blind spots. Always with an eye on equity and our most vulnerable faculty, I recommend asking not “Do faculty…?”, but “Which faculty…?” In the current crisis, our partners’ existing data could be tapped to answer questions like these:

  • Which faculty on campus agreed that departmental colleagues “pitch in” when needed? Where did faculty tell us that colleagues are not inclined to pitch in?
  • Which departments were likely to be discussing effective teaching practices and the effective use of technology, and which were not?
  • Which faculty were interested in collaborative teaching or research with faculty in disciplines other than their own? Which were already engaged in such collaborations?
  • Are your faculty governing bodies typically inclusive in their decision making?
  • In which schools, colleges, or disciplines were faculty leaders and senior administrators able to discuss difficult issues in good faith, and in which were they not?
  • How effective are senior administrators and faculty leaders at cultivating consensus, at ensuring that there is sufficient time for faculty to provide input on important decisions, and at communicating the rationale for important decisions?
  • Can faculty expect a systematic review of the effectiveness of institutional decision-making processes?
  • Does your institution’s shared governance model hold up under unusual situations?

If your institution is already using its COACHE data as evidence to drive institutional focus, policies and practice in response the COVID-19 fallout, I hope you will share your examples with me.


Much of the higher ed media’s focus has centered on the sudden impact on teaching, but learning happens also through the research that faculty lead. Right now, many thousands of faculty and doctoral candidates are facing potentially career-ending interruptions to their research agendas.

I believe the longest-lasting legacy of the Collaborative will not be our instrumentation, our analytics, our support of faculty affairs leaders, or even the impact that they have on faculty lives by acting on COACHE results. Instead, our greatest potential for long-term impact is our massive, longitudinal database about the faculty experience. The lessons that can be drawn from COACHE data can be used to understand and improve the academy, especially for those whose numbers are otherwise too few to be heard.

Since I became Principal Investigator, I have been working with Harvard’s IRB, general counsel, and sponsored projects offices to make the COACHE Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey database freely available to researchers. This is our strategy to scale for impact, and many have already published their COACHE analyses widely.

If you know of a faculty member, postdoc, or graduate student in any discipline who must shift their research program, ask them to consider the themes of the COACHE survey; the institutional, demographic and professional characteristics we capture; and the opportunity to make discoveries about higher education equity, diversity, and careers in the disciplines. My team even has a running list of “in our spare time” research questions they would be happy to share.

Not long in the future, the data we have collected this spring will be ripe for analysis, both quantitative and qualitative. What will we learn about faculty attitudes just before and during a period of historic disruption to work and life? Reach out to collaborate, or even just to suggest the questions you think are the most important to answer.

Leadership development

Finally, we have been evaluating how COACHE can continue its programs to develop provosts and deans to lead faculty at this extraordinary moment.

For those of you who have participated in my summer Seminars on Leadership of the Faculty, do you realize how acutely we and our faculty are feeling the “constructive destabilization” promised by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey? You will remember the three modes in which their deliberately developmental organizations (DDO) keep us working on our and one another’s “growing edges.” To succeed, they must be symbiotic: developmental principles, practices, and communities.

While all three are at risk, I worry most about our communities in this extended period of social distancing, which is why I recommend seeking out new developmental opportunities for our new challenges. Whether or not you have been exposed to the Seminars (but especially if you have been), consider joining Kegan’s just-announced online offering for personal development: the Developmental Sprint, beginning April 7 and April 14. For what seems like an exceptionally reasonable fee, Bob is offering 18 hours of “connection and personal growth in the face of current challenges.”

We are hoping—admittedly, beyond much hope—that we will host a completely revamped Seminar this summer. Already, we have received a record number of applications. If we are unable to gather together, rest assured that we will find a way to continue developing your capacity to lead your faculty and your community of support in academic affairs.

In the meantime, we write. One of our first, public responses to the coronavirus was Todd’s call to academic leaders to include part-time and adjunct faculty in COVID-19 response planning. Lauren is curating the discussions among faculty success administrators online; she has started with a post about the emergency changes universities are making to tenure and promotion clocks, and will be writing more about grading, student/peer evaluations of teaching, and other topics as they arise. And you can expect more from me as I join my team in mining our data for insights into what faculty need—and how we need faculty—to get through this.

As for COACHE’s own sustainability, rest assured that I have marshalled this project’s resources—your contributions are re-invested in our research, not captured by Harvard—to sustain the project through a turbulent year. We will be still be here to ask faculty: “What next?” I hope you will share your thoughts on the most important questions you think COACHE should be asking in the months and years to come.