A common comment in the media these days is that COVID-19 exposed features of US society that were always present but not as visible before March of 2020. This is also true in the microcosms of the culture of universities. I’ve written about how students and faculty returning to their homes left the homogenizing culture of a campus and faced very different challenges to continuing their work at home.
There is strong evidence that female labor force participation declined in the society, that the decline was larger in jobs with little flexibility. Similar findings pertain to universities. There is equally strong statistical information regarding disproportionate reduction in female faculty research products. While the data are not as strong as one would like, home care responsibilities of women versus those of men appear to be a key driver.
Another exposed feature of US universities is the general choice of faculty to serve the immediate needs of their students. This is perhaps one of the more laudable aspects of university campuses – the shared devotion of faculty to serve the needs of their students. After the pivot to remote learning, faculty in general spent more of their time on teaching and student mentoring than was true earlier. Part of the increased burden came from navigating pedagogical changes. Their lives centered around learning management systems, Zoom, and other internet-based work platforms.
Increased teaching workload also stemmed from the fact that some students faced much greater challenges learning from home than did others. International students faced real problems of following classes because of time zone differences; some students experienced home chores and employment in the family business; other students struggled with weak internet connections. Georgetown faculty quickly learned that some students required much more of their attention than others. The faculty spent more time preparing for class and more time out of class – all with the aim of care for students. The pace of classes seemed to intensify from greater support for students and creation of new in-class activities necessary for student engagement.
Of course, all of the attention of faculty paid to their classes and students had a cost. For most faculty, their research took a back seat to their teaching. There is a double toll for such an outcome. First, one of the principal missions of a university is the knowledge production that comes from original scholarship and research. Universities are centered around an endless search for truth, continuous efforts to deepen understanding of our world and to seek solutions to problems facing the world. Reduced research activity weakens a university. Second, faculty have chosen a life in the academy because they are passionate about seeking deeper insight into a set of issues of interest to them. Removing time doing research from their lives vastly reduces their well-being. Spending time on their passionate interests is a source of sustenance and renewal. Eliminating that work is itself a source of fatigue and discontent.
Georgetown, as other universities, sought to acknowledge this loss by extending the amount of time required before a tenure decision must be made. It offered support for home care for faculty struggling with both home jobs and faculty jobs because schools and day care facilities were shuttered. It helped a little.
Looking forward to a fall semester with in-person teaching and on-campus activities, we sought some support to reboot research agendas of faculty.
Just recently, we were able to help more broadly. Faculty in the McDonough School of Business were assisted with a school-based program, aimed at restarting research activities. In the other main campus schools, assistant and associate tenure-line professors were offered a choice between $5,000 more in their research accounts or a course off in the next three years. In addition, for nontenure line and tenure line faculty of any rank, we have greatly increased the various internal research grants, which we have found useful in seeding new research.
Georgetown can never fully eliminate the harm that the global pandemic wreaked on its educational, research, and service missions. This is a small step to try to repair some of the damage.