How faculty morale moves ahead in higher ed

Administrators must take a proactive approach to involving and engaging faculty

Campus leaders can’t wait until faculty morale is tanking to add it to the list of priorities.

Keeping instructors engaged requires a proactive approach.

Administrators should give faculty a meaningful role in decision-making and also building pride in academic departments and institutions, says Edward Hebert, a professor of kinesiology at Southeastern Louisiana University who has studied morale.

“Once morale is bad, it’s really hard to turn the ship around,” Hebert says. “Morale is not something that’s easy to manipulate—you might think, I’ll just pay people more money but that’s not it either.”

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COVID, of course, has put even more stress on faculty, as they contend with the twin challenges of overhauling teaching techniques while helping students cope with trauma and anxiety. But, Hebert says, the key components to raising morale remain the same:

  • Sustaining a strong sense of collegiality on campus
  • Providing opportunities for faculty to work together on meaningful initiatives
  • Allowing more experienced faculty to mentor younger instructors
  • Publicizing a department’s or program’s success

“You need to have a strategic plan,” he says. “You need to have some things you do on purpose to improve morale.”

Helping faculty face the future

The economic crisis caused by COVID has many faculty members worried about the health of their institutions and potential consolidations, furloughs and layoffs.

In Pennsylvania, a faculty association has been lobbying state officials to provide more certainty and stability, says Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.

3 ways to boost engagement

An overlooked casualty of the pandemic is employee engagement. Pattie Wagner, a human resources expert with the firm Sikich, offers three ways to keep faculty involved:

  1. Be transparent. Employees appreciate being kept in the loop. Outlining clear guidelines and expectations for employees can prepare them to perform well in a fluid environment.
  2. Embrace flexibility. Leaders should ensure team members understand the technology available to them and are proficient with these tools. Additionally, leaders need to continue to find creative ways to manage teams that may be dispersed for an extended period.
  3. Show empathy. Leaders should foster peer-to-peer communication and show empathy by listening to employees’ concerns and working hard to address their questions.

At the beginning of the fall semester, the state system had warned of layoffs at 10 universities. The faculty association has pressured officials to lower that to number to only five schools, says Martin, also a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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Her organization is closely monitoring a plan to consolidate two groups of the state system’s universities.

“Faculty are isolated from their students and isolated from colleagues who can provide moral support from, and they’re facing all issues like losing jobs and health care in the middle of a pandemic,” Martin says.

Administrators can help faculty by providing as much information and clarity as possible.

For example, faculty appreciated when administrators at some state campuses announced the entire fall 2020 semester would take place online, rather than struggling to conduct in-person classes and then having to switch to remote.

“My colleagues at those universities breathed a palpable sigh of relief because they knew in advance how they had to design classes,” she said. “That was extremely helpful.”

Morale mission: Reflect on what’s missing

Morale is not the sole responsibility of administrators. There are plenty of actions faculty can take to reduce stress on their own.

Professors should eliminate any assignments or activities that don’t have a clear purpose, advises Benjamin Wiggins, manager of biology instruction at the University of Washington.

When faculty members put extra energy into more purposeful activities, students will appreciate fewer categories of assignments, Wiggins said in a December faculty stress webinar hosted by online content provider Course Hero.

“Anything you grade every two weeks that you don’t have a great reason for, just cut it,” Wiggins said. “Be absolutely brutal with how you pull things out.”

Faculty should also set boundaries between work and their personal lives. Wiggins’ team, for example, has made it a rule to not send emails between noon on Friday and Monday morning.

Three out of four faculty members reported significant stress while transitioning to new modes of teaching, according to a recent Course Hero survey of 570 full- and part-time faculty at two- and four-year colleges.

But many faculty members have been more focused on making the shift successfully than on their own mental health needs, says Tara Graham, Course Hero’s vice president of educator communities.

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“When a student comes into office hours, faculty members don’t know they’re going to talk about subject matter or if they’re going to have to put on their grief counselor or therapist hat,” Graham said.

Faculty members should also reflect on what’s missing in their personal lives and fill that gap with a hobby, said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at San Antonio, during the webinar.

For instance, someone who feels they are spending too much time on Zoom and other online meetings should take up mindfulness or yoga, McNaughton-Cassill said.

“With burnout, people feel overwhelmed by the demands on them, and their initial strategy is to try to do more, they say ‘Let me work harder to get through it.’”

Matt Zalaznick is UB’s senior writer.

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