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Faculty’s Changing Roles and Responsibilities as a Result of COVID-19: How Universities Can Better Support Them

It’s critical that institutions recognize the additional workloads, responsibilities and pressures on faculty to support them as much as they support their students and communities. 

Looking back at the months of March and April, it is amazing how rapidly universities transitioned from the traditional face-to-face mode of instruction to various modes of remote emergency teaching. While the focus at that point was on enabling effective term completion, the situation today–just a few months past that initial transition–is different. It is critical that universities recognize that faculty’s role and responsibilities have changed, and that institutional success going forward depends on how they are supported in these expanded roles.

While faculty often used technology pre-COVID-19 to augment their efforts in classrooms, studios and laboratories, these were tools rather than the medium through which instruction was delivered. Today, and at least for the near future, faculty will need to not just be teacher-scholars but master the technology through which they interact with students. The platform used–be it Zoom, Microsoft Teams or some other–is a layer of abstraction between them and the now-virtual classroom, one that enables interaction but necessitates mastery not just in teaching but in the use of tools that a few months ago were not even included in the instructional technologies available in most classrooms. In many cases, faculty have developed new methods and apps to engage students, to allow for better communication and interaction, and to encourage group activities simulating the social interactions intrinsic to true learning. Irrespective of the details of the mode used, faculty have had to master new skills almost overnight. 

Despite the myths abound, achieving excellence through online/digital delivery most often requires more focus, time, and effort than for a traditional class.  In addition, faculty have largely been the primary point of contact to assist students in making their own transitions, serving as the “Help Desk” by answering questions on software, internet connectivity, and by assisting students in accessing the technology they needed to continue. They thus took on the roles and responsibilities of instructional technology specialists and help desk attendants to their already full roles as teacher-scholars, spending hours of their own time developing online course materials and mastering the art of delivering online instruction without compromising the quality of learning.

The more digitally experienced faculty have been helping others to not just make the transition but to become experts themselves, setting up helpful websites, sharing tips, apps, code and software modifications to enable better engagement and interaction with students, simulations for laboratories and even serving as instructional designers. Through their own collaborations they have almost overnight raised the level of digital teaching and learning far beyond what a lot of institutions had achieved in years prior to the pandemic. Going from instructor to instructional designer and tutor/enabler is a lot of work, and these faculty leaders should be commended for their selfless efforts.

Over the past few decades, highly skilled and trained student services personnel have been hired at higher ed institutions for advising, counselling, career development, and overall holistic support.  While this personnel had to make transitions of their own to continue providing a high level of service to students, the logical, and at times only, contact for the student was their instructor. And faculty, in a number of cases, have taken on this added role, answering questions from students worried about their lives, financial situations, career prospects, and health.  The best faculty are remembered as exceptional mentors taking on the roles of friend, guide and philosopher, shoulder to lean on, and cheerleader who encourages progress through difficult times. Almost overnight most faculty took on these roles, and to make things even more difficult, the interaction was virtual. The fact that progress to degree completion has continued, and that our students have not reported even greater mental and emotional distress is a testament to the hard work and skills of dedicated and talented student support personnel, but credit also needs to be given to faculty who were often the first and only points of contact for students. They provided assurance, advice, and helped assuage the emotional stress caused by the pandemic. Their role as “advisors” has greatly expanded their responsibility and time commitment, and it is only likely to continue.

In the pandemic’s initial stages and continuing even today, faculty became a source of comfort and contact for parents and community members, providing guidance not just on the decisions to be taken regarding students’ future course of learning but also about the role institutions of higher education played in addressing the surrounding community’s socio-economic environment. Many faculty members, of their own initiative, and with support from their institutions, have reached out to provide virtual music concerts, lectures, discussions, even engaging in “how-to” sessions with the community, making isolation seem like less of a concern and helping build community relationships to sustain everyone through difficult times. This enhanced role of engagement while definitely personally fulfilling requires the significant dedication of additional time and effort that most often is not considered part of the workload or included in discussions regarding performance assessment, tenure and promotion. 

We often speak of the need for universities to not just be the intellectual hubs and economic drivers for their communities but also socio-cultural hubs. The pandemic has brought the latter into sharp focus, and faculty across the nation have not only risen to the need but are increasingly playing greater and more visible and impactful roles. These roles need to not only be considered a tremendous aspect of service but also to be actively supported.

While the jury is still out on fall enrollment, admissions staff have burned both ends of the proverbial candle to ensure high levels of new matriculations and retention. Faculty have been engaged at a level higher than before as well; reaching out to prospective students, parents and families; hosting formal and informal virtual chats; encouraging attendance and calming fears. While numbers for fall are still unknown, there is no doubt that faculty acting as informal recruiters and admissions counselors will have helped a great deal. In similar fashion, they have doubled up on their efforts to engage with and support teachers in schools, ensuring that students’ transition to college not only continues unabated but is strengthened through greater collaboration and innovative engagement mechanisms.

Online delivery of instruction has served higher ed well as a means of addressing the challenge of continuing to provide students with a high level of learning and academic experience during a global pandemic. However, along with the change in modality of instructional delivery, there is the expectation of 24/7 availability that sometimes comes with this asynchronous mode.  

Enabling support to alleviate excessive time demands on faculty while maintaining the flexibility students need and ensuring that a work/life balance is maintained are more critical today than ever before, and university administration and HR departments need to pay greater attention to these facets. These greatly enhanced roles and the toll the added responsibilities have taken–and continues to take–on faculty need to be acknowledged and alleviated through a range of formal and informal mechanisms. Faculty burnout is already being reported, and unless attention is paid, universities’ abilities to maintain a high level of excellence may well be jeopardized. 

Just as the rest of society members, they are parents and caregivers. They belong to high-risk health groups; they have financial concerns and challenges; and they are affected deeply by social distancing and the lack of meaningful interaction. They have balanced work, children and family, taken on enhanced mentoring and caring roles, carrying a much higher workload than they would under normal circumstances. Faculty of color and women have shouldered even greater roles as they have supported students from these groups who are affected disproportionately by the pandemic’s health and socio-economic consequences, adding to the inequities they already face within the system.

While most institutions have developed mechanisms to address issues related to tenure the larger- and longer- term, issues of workload, emotional well-being, and affordability need to be addressed as well.  As institutions of higher education, we are responsible for ensuring that we not just acknowledge faculty efforts but that we take steps to reward them and support them further in their professional and personal domains.

From simple issues, such as ensuring that each faculty member has the appropriate technology and wireless access provided by their institutions, rather than having to share personal computers, digital equipment and bandwidth, or be forced to use their personal funds for their work, to providing the appropriate resources at home for remote workers, institutions need to plan and implement appropriate measures for the future. As plans for the academic year are finalized, faculty’s new roles and responsibilities must be appropriately addressed as related to workload and work/life balance. Faculty responded to the pandemic admirably but at significant cost to themselves. This cannot become the new normal.

Assuming that digital delivery of instruction and enablement of online learning will continue through the fall and probably to some extent through the rest of the coming academic year, institutions of higher education need to provide faculty with instructional support, training, and tools. Recognizing that faculty are being asked to do more will lead to making appropriate modifications to workloads, compensation and evaluations.  If faculty are to continue to take on additional roles with students, they need the appropriate tools, support and thought needs to be given to reconfiguring student support and HR divisions to also support faculty in their enhanced roles with students, as well as addressing and supporting their continued well-being.

Faculty are dedicated to their students and have sacrificed both personal and professional time to ensure the smallest possible disruptions to students’ progress. Appropriate steps need to be taken to supporting and respect faculty’s time by providing the appropriate resources for these activities as well. Many institutions have done a remarkable job creating online communities and engagement activities for students and alumni, ensuring that close connections are maintained and even strengthened.

That same, and even greater, level of effort now needs to be placed on creating online communities for staff and faculty, not just as “listening sessions” but also to support, engage and replicate the camaraderie and scholarly interactions that exemplify academic life at its best. Despite the realities of pandemic-driven shrinking budgets, increased workloads, skewed work/life balances, physical and emotional well-being, compensation levels and equity need to be made a priority along with other competing operational considerations rather than just putting them off “for later.”

These are extraordinary times, but institutions of higher education are extraordinary places powered by teacher-scholars and innovators, focused on ensuring that higher education continues to deliver on the promise of opportunity for all who enter our doors, enabling success for our students and the communities we serve. We need to ensure that we offer the same to our faculty: adequate and appropriate support, acknowledgement, reward and care.

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