Professors in the pandemic: The painful truth about how much universities actually value teaching and learning

At the university where I work, the directives and decisions trickling from on high are dire and draconian. Even the best budget forecasts present a grim scenario. We must all sacrifice. The viability of our institution, and of higher education itself, depend on our ability to make anguishing choices now. I do not doubt the urgency of current circumstances, but when I talk to faculty colleagues at my university and across the nation, we’re asking the same question as always: When it comes time to hack and saw at university budgets, why do so many institutions fail so utterly to prioritize academics?

Because the academic function of higher education has faced amputations for years, faculty are now perfectly primed to ask: Why do supposedly non-essential extras — including unprofitable, wildly expensive Division I sports programs — seem always to rise higher on the safe list than the instructors, advisors, and support staff that make teaching and learning possible? University responses to the pandemic, including cuts to instructional staff, rub salt into a long festering wound as, once again, athletic programs and administrative excess are mostly left off the table.

It should hardly be surprising that, in a nation that has long nursed anti-intellectual resentments, the academic portion of universities has been portrayed as the real drain on university budgets. After all, conservative extremism has managed to vilify public school teachers while celebrating greedy billionaires, so it’s hardly a challenge to scapegoat supposedly whiny, entitled professors. When times get tough, then, it has become quite natural for university administrations to penalize those closest to the academic mission. Of course, in addition to being steeped in the same anti-intellectual miasma that has gripped much of the nation for decades, administrations often face extraordinary pressure from football-loving conservative governing boards to “trim the fat.”

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Amid all the apparently self-evident calls for sacrifice, how easy it is to forget that university science training and labs make it possible to study and treat disease. And that it is years of university study that has permitted us to model and predict epidemics, to properly use ventilators, manage critical supply chains, to respond rationally to economic crisis, and to rebuild urban and rural infrastructure. So too, our research and teaching help our society refine its understanding of social and political evils, for example, white nationalism, environmental racism, structural inequality, and the like. In addition, focused work in creative fields has expanded human sensitivity and imagination, helping us to envision innovative futures and to honestly and courageously face the human condition, in both its beauty and horror.

While many will applaud this laundry list of why universities matter, when it comes time for sacrifice, where will the knife actually fall? To quote a wise old friend: “The boyfriend who tells you he loves you, but treats you like an afterthought or burden, doesn’t love you.” As devastating as this pandemic is, then, it’s also an opportunity to revisit questions about core university values and priorities. And when we examine our institutions, let’s bypass their high flown mission statements and elaborate strategic plans. Let’s ignore the pretty rhetoric of chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans altogether. This is a terrible time in many respects, but it is the very, very best time to discover how much we’re actually worth to well-paid administrators who have been serenading us for years with assurances of how much we, and our departments, matter.

I do not think there is a single faculty member, advisor, or librarian who expects to be exempted from the consequences of this crisis. But we are also keenly aware of who has been marked as safe, and the order of those being pushed down the gang plank. Under cover of urgency, universities will, no doubt, succeed to some degree at fulfilling longstanding budgetary wishlists, e.g., reducing “academic bloat” through reorganization and elimination schemes they’ve fantasized about for years. Whatever happens next, though, may we never forget that we are seeing the truth that lies beyond the rhetoric. Each time you drive by your university’s two-million-dollar football scoreboard, remember that bad boyfriend, the one who insisted you were his sun and moon but could never manage to remember your birthday.

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