Delta is here and it’s exposing higher education’s labor problem.
Evolution happens slowly. That’s why we have a appendix or something like that (I’m not a biologist, so please know that I am talking out of my back side). Except for viruses. For viruses, evolution can happen fast. The novel coronavirus (a.k.a Rona) mutated into what we now call the Delta variant that is super contagious and maybe better than it’s Rona 1.0 cousin at slipping past vaccine immunity. So we are are in a bad spot again. Some of our current troubles are because of the Delta variant but a lot of them are because of people who refuse to get vaccinated. Delta and anti-vaxxers: A bad combination.
Also that culture war? Yeah it’s about the vaccine and masks too. Freedom means we have to let people make other people sick. (Ok, now my sarcasm is revealing my liberal bias.) For that reason - and in some cases because of explicit state laws - lots of colleges and universities have not required the COVID vaccine for students, faculty, and staff, and will not mandate masking inside. It’s a recipe for infection. We’ve seen this play out at large public universities. Penn State appealed directly to the State Assembly to explain why they don’t have a vaccine mandate. Check out this remarkable open letter
from Penn State President Eric J. Barron. Here is one passage that got a lot of attention:
Universities with vaccine mandates have been met with implementation, enforcement and legal challenges. Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities. State funding of our University requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.
Remarkable. A little misleading. The courts are clear that mandates are legal. Even so, I’d almost say refreshingly its a transparent statement. But not in the kind of way that is going to make the faculty feel better. At the University of Iowa, the provost sent out an FAQ that was quickly taken down, implying that anti-vaxxers are a protected class and as such should be treated with kid-gloves in the classroom. So much for free speech and facts over feelings. As you can imagine, the statement didn’t go over well. The university issued new guidance
to say you can tell the truth so long as you allow space for “all sides.”
The faculty - who are mostly liberals who TRUST SCIENCE and also don’t want to die - are at a low spot in terms of morale. I’d go so far as to say the faculty are hopping mad. The last 18 months have been hectic and challenging and exhausting. Teaching online, sometimes homeschooling at the same time, trying to figure out how to keep research going.
Too often, faculty trying to figure out how to make ends meet too. Academic salaries
- despite the evidence of Professor in Alabama who make $150,000
a year, in Alabama and they don’t even play football - are flat. For the most part, full time tenure-system type appointments afford a middle class life or better and good security. But for most faculty members, it’s a different story. Adjunct wages are low
, like $3,000 a course low, and adjust work is precarious, and probably most faculty are adjunct (although truth be told our data on this is not all that good). So faculty feel unappreciated; taken advantage of.
One tenured faculty member even quit
, citing his university’s immoral response to the pandemic. At Spelman, faculty with uncommon coordination and soldiery organized a Zoom-out
. They temporarily moved the entire curriculum online, to pressure the administration to take their safety concerns more seriously. You won’t see that kind of collective action many places.
I don’t think that many faculty will quit. And I am sure that at most colleges and universities, faculty are not coordinated enough to operate collectively. Many tenured faculty are taken for granted are are frustrated. But they (we) also have pretty good jobs, and are not often attuned to the challenges faced by our contingent colleagues. The discontent will continue to simmer, but vulnerability is experienced asymmetrically.
The public probably isn’t too sympathetic. People see big tuition bills and big loan balances and assume professors are pampered, over-paid, under performing ninnies. Ok, I don’t actually have data to support that assertion. But I don’t think it’s wild speculation either. Anyone who’s a faculty member and talks to a family member who is distant from higher education learns pretty quickly what they think of us by the questions they ask: “What do you do when you are working 3 hours a week?” Indeed.
The administration (I defining the term as the abstract oppositional authority, The Man, if you will) knows the faculty are at their rope’s end. The thing is … they can basically take the faculty for granted without much to worry about other than rant-y blog posts (the sort written by people who work 3 hours a week) and Colleen Flaherty
articles getting clicks for 18 hours. With wages down in an inflationary economy and a faculty market that is sluggish for anyone who is not a super-star, basically the faculty are stuck. They can let us be mad. Sure, faculty activism might pick off a Provost or two here or there but basically we are harmless, if very annoying. Just ask the Associate Deans
. The circular firing squad makes the idea of faculty coordination and solitary seem … remote.
The fact is, most faculty are not going to quit. Most faculty are not particularly mobile. And most of us, including myself, are replaceable.
Students are a different story. Most colleges and universities in the US are tuition dependent. State funding
is now matched or exceed by tuition payments in the public sector as a source of operating revenue. Most private colleges and universities are not independently wealthy, big endowment-type places. Most of campuses are living hand to mouth on tuition fees.
Students and their families want in-person education. A switch to online would signal significant uncertainty about the future of higher education delivery. If not now, when can we “get back to normal?” Students will ask that question. Families will ask that question. Policy makers will ask that question. The social demand for higher education is strong and more inelastic than most people think. But it’s not unbreakable. Campus leaders don’t want to test the social bonds that keep the whole thing together (the bonds are expectations about “going to college”).
This doesn’t mean that faculty should just give up advocating for better working conditions and safer, more responsible colleges and universities. But I think mask and vaccine mandates are about as good much “safety” as faculty can expect. Easy for me to say. I’m teaching in an online program this semester. But the vaccines basically work (even if their efficacy wanes), boosters are coming, masking mitigates transmission (so for example, hospitals) and people want to “get back to normal.” I don’t think we will see much accommodation to faculty frustration. Here is how I put it on Twitter.