I’ve written about important lessons learned at universities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some thoughts noted the homogenizing features of university campuses for students. All students on a residential campus, regardless of their home environments, have the same dormitories, the same food, the same study spaces, the same library access, the same internet infrastructure, the same access to faculty. We all now appreciate this much more deeply than before March, 2020.
In mid-March, 2020, a diverse set of Georgetown students returned to their homes to complete their courses in a virtual mode. Across the group, they experienced very different environments. Some returned to cramped housing where they had no bed. Some had very shaky internet connections. Some returned to their work in the family’s business, while attempting to complete their courses. Some assumed the care of family members. Others returned to their old room in their large home with high-speed internet and a set of parents who provided for all their needs. They had a quiet place to do their work. Their only job was completing their courses.
Less commonly observed is a parallel story for faculty.
In mid-March, 2020, most faculty in the country also returned to their homes. For many faculty in urban universities, who live in the distant suburbs, there was an immediate attraction of avoiding long commutes into campus. For some, whose courses easily transferred to a virtual mode, the new teaching platform was sufficient. Others used pedagogical approaches not well suited to an online environment, and the transition was more painful. These differences were not surprising.
Major differences across faculty arose, however, for reasons outside of a university’s control. When COVID-19 shifted universities from in-person educational institutions to online ones, local K-12 schools also closed, day care facilities closed, babysitting services were constrained, in-home eldercare and care for special needs people were curtailed. Suddenly, every household became isolated, stripped of its usual external support services, and forced to become self-sufficient. These external factors affected faculty very differently given their life situation.
Single parents of young children who’ve chosen the academic life succeed when they can rely on carefully assembled, external support systems. Without them, as vividly learned after the March, 2020, transition, their lives become much more difficult. Their transition was much more challenging than that of faculty who live by themselves or those dual-career couples with no children in the home. Faculty who are parents had to provide 24-hour care for babies and young children; they became home schoolers for school-age children. They provided at-home medical care after telemed visits. They invented entertainment strategies for the children. And, then, on top of all that, they also provided world-class university teaching to students spread throughout the world.
Universities thrive when their faculty thrive. This is a necessary ingredient for students thriving.
However, universities were designed to support faculty on campuses. There, ideally, faculty have quiet offices to prepare their classes, classrooms to deliver their teaching, facilities to meet and mentor students, support staff to assist all their work. This works well when other support systems work to provide care for others in their family unit.
Universities cannot create external support networks when a pandemic closes them down. Universities, however, need to take seriously differences in the life situations of their faculty.
They can try to invent new flexibilities to acknowledge large differences across faculty in the work challenges they face. They can also encourage collegial support so that colleagues with fewer burdens can help those with more burdens in this extraordinary shock that the pandemic has delivered to the world.
I am proud of the support that the Main Campus Executive Faculty group offered in highlighting the issues above in a recent town hall. I am also hopeful that the work of our new Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, Chandan Vaidya, will find a way forward from sets of focus groups and from a faculty task force on these issues. This will no doubt require creative solutions from the university administration as well as new forms of cooperation across faculty within departments and programs.