I’ve been asked to present a conference paper in October at an educational leadership conference, on the subject of academic personnel morale. By then I’ll be back on the faculty, and it will be interesting to see what my morale is; but that’s another and less interesting topic. I want to venture some remarks now, as Provost, and really welcome further commentary.
The morale subject is always tricky. Most academic administrators, myself included, are by nature optimists – frankly, it would be hard to do the job otherwise. Of course some of us are reasonably well paid. At the other extreme, almost all faculties generate folks who like to lament that morale has never been lower, and some of these are often found in faculty senates; their views are sincere and always worth considering, but they are not always representative. So dialogues can be complicated.
There’s no question that the morale situation may well be changing. At many institutions (most publics, many smaller privates) including my own, salaries have been fairly stagnant now for quite a while. The situation is bad for most public sector employees, but it is undeniably galling, and for many junior faculty particularly, really damaging. Other morale components are jeopardized: research funding is harder to come by. Faculty composition changes, to include more people not on the tenure track in order to increase teaching power at lower costs; and while this can open opportunities for some really good teachers, it can also be troubling to many faculty in several of the major employment categories. (The results also divide faculty, often counterproductively, in ways that can complicate expressions of concern.) On yet another front: because of strained resources, more attention is paid to older faculty in cases where teaching may flag a bit or, more commonly, research energies have diminished. Academic work is still attractive in many ways, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that, for many, conditions have deteriorated at least a bit.
I would argue self-servingly that most of these factors are really out of the direct control of people like provosts or even presidents. We strive to get attention to salaries, but we don’t manage the public purse. And we really do have to figure out ways to maintain teaching power amid constrained budgets.
So what to do about morale? I have no magic answers, but a few suggestions. My first involves candor and openness. At Mason we’ve been holding budget forums, several times a year, in which (I believe) we’re quite open about the problems and limitations, inviting suggestions and comments. We do the same on other issues, including sessions on relevant topics with the Faculty Senate. Some us-them tension is inevitable, but I’d like to think that we keep it in bounds. We approach undeniable challenges in a collaborative framework.
Second, while the overall situation is not exactly rosy, there are real occasions for new excitement that will appeal at least to important segments of faculty and generate new opportunities. Some of our global initiatives, for example, clearly appeal to some faculty. New classroom arrangements that encourage teaching experiments form another instance, again generating measurable interest and response. None of this corrects the basic dilemmas, but these and other developments compensate in part, and allow new energy and expression. As a growing institution, with a real vision for the future, Mason has, I think, maintained a sense of momentum, and an openness to good ideas from faculty and staff, that do bolster overall morale.
Third, and more tentatively, there are also other possible rewards. Human Resources and various faculty and administrative committees do generate ideas about prizes, recognitions and other incentives that can be of genuine interest.
Fourth – and this goes back to the fact that academic life maintains appealing features despite change – any good institution does provide encouragements for research and new discovery, and many rewarding interactions with ambitious and interesting students: the core of the academic vision is buffeted a bit, but arguably remains intact.
But what other solutions can be ventured? What other obstacles should be noted? Again, there’s opportunity here for wider discussion, even if the results are not always encouraging.