Why We Should Care About College Leaders’ Morale, Too

column | Higher Education

Why We Should Care About College Leaders’ Morale, Too

By Kevin R. McClure (Columnist)     Dec 1, 2021

man squashed under red bar

For the past year and a half, a group of associate deans from colleges across the country have been meeting every two weeks by Zoom to discuss how to adapt policies and practices to the pandemic. They record part of their conversations so that folks unable to make it can watch later. The other part is not recorded—so that participants can freely vent.

That second half has been revealing, according to Laura Nelson, an associate dean and director of academic affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University.

“There came a point when the recording was off,” she explained, “where it just became clear that absolutely everybody was really struggling.”

After my piece on low morale among staff and faculty in higher education came out, I heard from a few college leaders who pointed out conditions haven’t exactly been rosy for them, either. So I did what I’ve done for my entire career: I started interviewing them.

That’s how I learned about the bifurcated Zoom huddle. That idea of recording the “business” part, but not the “feelings” part, of the meeting stuck with me. I thought about it while re-watching my interview with Nelson. At one point, she discussed caring for her school-age children, caring for faculty, and caring for students. I finally asked if she worried that, while she was caring for everyone else, no one was caring for her. She paused and looked away, tears welling. “Yes,” she said, before artfully steering the conversation in another direction. That pause carried the weight of leading through the last two years. For a brief moment, the recording was—figuratively—off.

The problem is that many of us in higher education primarily see the leaders of our institutions when the recording is on. We see the “business” part but don’t see and, frankly, don’t ask about the “feelings” part. As a result, we sometimes fail to remember that college leaders are human. We too readily conflate people with the positions that they occupy, too quickly forget that we knew many leaders as peers before they assumed titles. It becomes easy to expect leaders will do whatever the job demands, irrespective of the hours or sacrifices. “That’s what they signed up for,” we say. “Look at what they’re paid,” we reason.

But I’ve concluded there’s a big cost to caring little for leaders’ wellbeing.

Before I’m accused of selling a sob story, let me be clear that I hold college leaders to high standards. I’ve written a few—OK, more than a few—pieces imploring leaders to do better. Not a single person I interviewed for this piece—from department chairs at community colleges to deans at exclusionary private institutions—thought we should go easy on them. Many of them framed their roles in terms of service and believed they should be held accountable for their decisions. What I’m getting at is this isn’t an article designed to secure your sympathy or persuade you that leaders deserve special treatment. Very simply, I’m arguing that college leaders’ morale matters, just as it matters for staff and faculty.

We should care about college leaders because they are human and it’s the right thing to do. But we should also care because overlooking leaders’ wellbeing is bad for our institutions. Newsflash: We’re in the midst of a leadership crisis in higher education, with leaders stepping down in droves after managing compounding crises. Many people wonder who is willing and able to take their place. We need compassionate and competent people to step up, which is impossible if we’ve ground down or pushed out our brightest stars.

What’s It Been Like to Lead?

I started my interviews by asking what it’s been like to lead during the past two years. In some cases, I directly asked leaders, who served in roles across academic and student affairs, how they were feeling. This seemingly straightforward question appeared to catch leaders off guard. I got the sense that the question was unfamiliar—like maybe they weren't often asked how they were doing.

My hunch is that these positions don’t afford much space for feeling, something that Becky Corran, a department chair at Doña Ana Community College, confirmed. She is stepping down after five years in the position. After she announced her decision, few people seemed interested to learn why. “It's as if no one cares if I'm leaving here or not—and, no, definitely no one said, ‘why are you going?,’” she explained. “It’s a huge department and I don’t know that anyone is going to step up to take over.” It’s partially the workload that’s driving her decision, though the workload has always been heavy. “Something more acute is going on,” she said.

Even in normal times, department chairs feel the squeeze of middle management. “But somehow the questions of middle management have become less mundane and more life and death,” Corran explained. The position has stressed what she called her “ethical framework” too far by demanding that she tell faculty to go back to the classroom, despite not always having policies in place to protect them. She feels this stress most intensely with part-time faculty, who are underpaid and don’t receive benefits: “The demands from administration are getting passed to those folks who are already exploited.”

Many of the people I interviewed said they got into leadership to help people. But lately, the relational side of leading has been harder to achieve. With fewer people physically present on campus, there’s less opportunity to soften an email, generate buy-in for an idea, or rally colleagues around a shared goal. As Corran put it, “the communication feels like it just becomes more task-y,” such as reminding people to complete a mandatory training. At a time when new policies and protocols abounded, many leaders were placed in the unenviable position of compliance police. “Every week there’s a new level of accountability,” Corran said, “and that just takes away from the meaningful relationship-building type of management that I would like to do.”

And we shouldn’t gloss over the intense workload. I spoke to a former chancellor who stepped down during the pandemic and who asked not to be named after signing a non-disparagement agreement. They told me it wasn’t uncommon to work on holidays and while on vacation, describing “very productive” days at the state capital where they started meetings at 6 a.m. and ended after midnight. Once the pandemic hit, they calculated that “75 hours wasn’t a busy week.” There were multiple 90-hour work weeks in order to deal with daily changes brought on by the state's response to the pandemic. According to the chancellor, when they started to experience serious health problems that would require surgery, members of the governing board bristled at the idea of taking necessary time off to recuperate. On top of everything else, it’s often expected that leaders be without chronic health conditions or disabilities.

Conflict is inevitable in leadership, but the pandemic has dialed up tensions, and many leaders I interviewed feel that they have become the punching bag for unhappy constituents. Nelson at North Carolina State told me that leaders there have seen “real anger, real disagreements with students, which is actually understandable because, I mean, nobody likes what's happening after a point.” I spoke with Teresa Valerio Parrot, a communications expert who works closely with boards and presidents, who told me that we often overlook the fact that presidents, in particular, are stuck “between everybody on campus who is unhappy—because everybody’s unhappy these days—and their board, which is also unhappy.” Many people in higher education are disillusioned or frustrated, and that animus gets funneled up to leaders.

And so the leaders I spoke to talked about being exhausted, about sleepless nights, about the crushing toll of being the messengers of difficult decisions. They questioned how sustainable it all was, and they marveled at how they were able to keep up the pace this long. But they were still doing the work every day. Nelson shared that she was afraid to stop functioning until “we get the ship through the storm.” Similarly, Corran said that morale among her department chair colleagues is low, but “we’ve got to keep the place running.”

A Caring University at Every Level

In each of these interviews, I could hear leaders’ deep concern for the wellbeing of others and a sincere dedication to serve their institutions. What’s less clear to me is, are we in higher education expecting leaders to care about us without us showing them the same care in return?

The fact that we’re losing good leaders provides one answer to this question. At least two of the people I interviewed weren’t sure if they were going to stay in higher education. Nelson has noticed that many of her colleagues are trying to stay in their positions until things have settled, but she expects a significant number of departures or early retirements in the next year: “I think a lot of us are thinking about it.” And although middle managers might have once had aspirations to higher levels of leadership, many saw what was asked of their supervisors and said: hard pass.

We could try to retain leaders by paying them more, but there are a few problems with that approach. I’m already uncomfortable with the escalation of pay and perks for executives, and that level of compensation provides a built-in justification to ask leaders to give every waking minute of their lives to our institutions. I would rather see lower compensation if it means the work could be better distributed and the expectations could be more humane. There’s also the fact that many of the people I interviewed weren’t just in it for the money. In fact, several said they had more lucrative opportunities that they passed up. The pay can be good, but it varies by position and institution. Even so, a paycheck becomes less enticing in the middle of another 14-hour workday.

Instead, I think we need a community-wide reorientation around what it means to work in higher education. Board members and presidents can help to set the tone for the rest of the institution. Boards should scale back their performance targets and make it a priority to monitor presidents’ workload and wellbeing. Rather than give leaders sabbaticals after their service, build it into their tenure so institutions can reap the benefits of the reflection and renewal. Presidents, in turn, should establish boundaries around their work so that an “always on” expectation doesn’t trickle down to their direct reports. Instead of making and announcing nearly every decision, as many presidents have during the crisis, Valerio Parrot recommended they could go back to distributing some responsibilities across their leadership teams. And they could do themselves a favor by making sure there is infrastructure in place to carry out the strategies they pursue.

There’s a pervasive belief that higher education suffers from “administrative bloat,” or having too many people in cushy, overpaid leadership roles with ridiculous titles. But the truth is that we don’t have any idea what the optimal level of staffing is in many areas. Just as faculty and staff stand to benefit from adjusting their workloads, perhaps leaders do, too. Although as Valerio Parrot told me, the type of personnel study necessary to make those adjustments may feel like a luxury institutions can’t yet afford.

In the meantime, these top-level leaders should talk more openly about workload and morale. There are ways of communicating about these issues with authenticity and vulnerability so that leaders don’t risk unloading problems onto others. Brené Brown has a whole book about it. Presidents and other executives should normalize having regular, honest conversations about how people in various positions are feeling about their work. As a result, more of us can see beyond the “business” part of meetings and get a sense of the real people leading our institutions.

And what about those of us who are faculty, staff and students? We also have a role to play in supporting the morale of our leaders. For one thing, we could take a close look at our language. When I’ve floated my thinking on this topic to followers on Twitter, I’ve been surprised at the ways in which leaders are dehumanized, as if they were a separate species. Perhaps the anger is warranted. Sometimes it seems unproductive and cruel.

It is honestly in our own self-interest to take leaders’ morale into account because it can keep the right people in leadership positions longer. Our institutions won’t have as much turbulence from turnover and won’t spend as much on search consultants. In an ideal scenario, leaders would be freed up so they can be more thoughtful and creative. The truth is that our leaders can’t attend to our morale and wellbeing if they’re barely above water themselves. No one is served well by a leader working 75 or more hours a week.

Many of us will emerge from the pandemic desiring a more caring university. We can’t build a caring university while callously disregarding the wellbeing of people simply because they signed up to lead.

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