ADVANCE Roundup: Institutional Ideas for Responding to Faculty Exhaustion and Demoralization

Although the early years of the pandemic are behind us, and we are beginning to adjust to a “new normal” in our classrooms, labs, and professional activities, faculty continue to report feeling exhausted and over-stressed. Two recent essays in Inside Higher Ed suggest unique institutional responses: a “Chapter 11” work relief declaration and a return to values and workload equity redesign. The Chapter 11 suggestion was made by an anonymous faculty caregiver overwhelmed by unrelenting teaching and academic demands that she could not fulfill following an official two-week hiatus necessitated by her child’s health crisis. This was not simply a personal problem; she argues that faculty are “like lemmings walking off a cliff of overwork” with the requirements for career advancement ever-increasing, an expansion of committee and administrative tasks, and constant pivots, instructional up-dates, and altered expectations for teaching. The author proposes a “Chapter 11” for faculty that would allow overwhelmed colleagues to step away from some of these responsibilities. Too often, we just watch each other struggle. 

In the other article, Doug Lederman describes a state of faculty “demoralization” characterized by detachment, cynicism, and dissatisfaction, provoked by a discrepancy between espoused values like equity, care, and deep learning and enacted values that tend more to system preservation and economic goals. Added to this is the realization that a faculty career is changing given current and future constraints—less job security, more surveillance and accountability, diminished institutional flexibility, a paucity of faculty resources. Instead, a mythic ideal is upheld as a standard for faculty performance requiring constant availability, unquestioning loyalty, no caregiving distractions, and bodies that never falter.

There is considerable evidence that experiences of exhaustion and demoralization often jeopardize the progress of women caregivers in STEM, especially those with children (see, for example, these two recent publications–”Preventing a Secondary Epidemic of Lost Scientists” and “Voices of Untenured Female Professors in STEM”). Lederman argues that these issues impact recruitment and retention, undermining institutional goals of faculty equity and diversity and points out that campus culture has a critical impact on institutional competitiveness both for talent and institutional reputation. He urges university leadership to gather data on workplace conditions (note the ADVANCE AFEQT tool), measure workload inequities, update systems of reward and accountability, and reconfigure administrative systems to uphold core cultural values. We hope that innovative responses like a faculty “Chapter 11” or institutional reconfigurations around deep values can catalyze a shift in the culture of academe toward more humane priorities and an institutional redesign that is more inclusively responsive.

Today’s feature was shared with us by Dr. Jennifer Slack (IPEC, Humanities) and the ADVANCE PI team. If you have an article you think we should feature, please email it to advance-mtu@mtu.edu and we will consider adding it to the ADVANCE Weekly Roundup.

The ADVANCE Weekly Roundup is brought to you by ADVANCE at Michigan Tech, which is an NSF-funded initiative dedicated to improving faculty career success, retention, diversity, equity, and inclusion. To learn more about this week’s topic, our mission, programming efforts, and to check out our growing collection of resources, contact us at (advance-mtu@mtu.edu) or visit our website: www.mtu.edu/advance.

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