Everyone in Higher Ed Deserves Better Than We’re Getting Right Now

Opinion | Coronavirus

Everyone in Higher Ed Deserves Better Than We’re Getting Right Now

By Cate Denial     Dec 2, 2021

Everyone in Higher Ed Deserves Better Than We’re Getting Right Now

This semester has felt like living in limbo. Most campuses are back open after the emergency remote learning of last year, but things are hardly normal, with the pandemic lingering worldwide. One professor captured the mood on many campuses in a Twitter thread that went viral this week. See a version here, published with the author’s permission.

As we finish out a semester that so many people–faculty, staff, students, administrators–have found unbelievably tough, I can’t help thinking that we need a wholesale re-imagining of how we do higher ed.

I saw a tweet the other day that said we’re living through an era, like the Great Depression, or WWII, where everything has changed. And yet we’re working as if things will go back to 2019 if we can just hang on a little longer.

There is no “little longer.” There is no going back. And if we take that seriously, and we admit that what we’re doing right now isn’t working (as evidenced by burnout, exhaustion, sickness, frustration, and sadness) we have to come up with another way.

Individually we can do what we can. Flexibility in spades; understanding offered to one another as well as to our students. But no amount of individual grace can make up for the fact that our institutions are still grinding along as if we’re not in a pandemic.

The immunocompromised and chronically ill among us need working patterns that do not put them at risk, and that means a collective effort to make our campuses safe, and offer hybrid and remote options with much greater thoughtfulness.

We need a metric ton of mental health interventions—many more counselors and therapy groups for students; better support than five EAPs [Employee Assistance Program sessions] for faculty and staff; group supports; dialogue circles; spaces to process what’s happening and what it has cost.

We need to rethink the pacing of our classes, and what we can achieve in a trimester or semester or quarter. This is particularly hard in the sciences (for example) where X amount of material is a pre-req for things like med school.

But that suggests that we need to rethink grad school too!

We need the space to come up with creative solutions to all we’re struggling to hold together with spit and twine, and yet I don’t know anyone who has that kind of energy. We need course releases, and sabbaticals for staff. We need periodic reading days.

We need to pay adjuncts for their expertise, so that they’re not stringing together multiple jobs to make ends meet. We need to make sure they have benefits so that they can be cared for when they’re sick, and able to take a mental health day when they’re frayed.

We need to start these conversations even if we don’t know the solutions yet. We need department conversations, and unit, and college-wide—we need, wherever we are located, to what extent it is possible, to start this process.

Everyone in higher ed deserves better than they’re getting right now. And it starts with understanding this is not temporary. We have given ourselves over to lifeboat learning, and it’s time to reimagine the voyage.

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