Campus Reopenings: Will Faculty Be in Person or Remote?
Many of the major decisions regarding how campus reopenings will take place have been made. Most institutions have announced that they will start the fall semester with primarily in-person classes. Institutions have also been announcing whether they will require COVID-19 vaccinations for students, faculty, and staff. As of August 2, 631 have announced vaccination requirements for students, with the list being dominated by private institutions and institutions in “blue” states (Thomason & O’Leary, 2021). About half of these will also require vaccinations of faculty and staff. The final major item to be revealed for many is whether institutions will require faculty and staff to be present on campus or allow them to continue remotely.
To entice students back to campus and recruit new beginners, our campus administrators are planning to generate a fall student experience that is as close as possible to the pre-pandemic experience. If COVID vaccinations are required of students and university personnel, it should be possible to safely do this with some COVID precautions. Without vaccines it is difficult to imagine that COVID cases will be avoided. If COVID reappears on campuses, it may force instruction back into online delivery and result in the flight of students from campus. Many institutions will not be able to tolerate another fiscal hit from refunding room and board and the rest of the losses associated with campus shutdowns. It is critical from the perspectives of both student expectations and campus finances that the 2021–22 academic year be marked by in-person instruction with a full contingent of students living on campus.
Staff work versus faculty work
In a recent Academic Leader article, we considered pros and cons of staff working in-person on campus and working remotely. The expectations of staff interacting directly with students are vastly different from those of faculty. While some types of staff (e. g., advisors, food service individuals, academic services staff, tutors, and mentors) do work with students or serve students and other publics directly, others (e.g., police, physical plant workers, and groundskeepers) are tied to campus by the nature of their work. There are also a large number of behind-the-scenes staff (budget personnel, research administration, credentials analysts, purchasing agents) who never see students. The work of the latter might be done remotely except for the issue of equity among staff. Some staff would be able to save time and money and enjoy greater flexibility while others would not.
Faculty work differs from staff work in that a major component of the former involves direct contact and interaction with our primary constituents, students. Beyond teaching in classroom, laboratory, clinic, or studio settings, these one-on-one or small group contacts may involve formal or informal advising, mentoring, office hours, supervising, counseling, and advising student clubs or organizations. It is difficult to imagine all of these roles being fulfilled remotely with a quality equal to that of in-person contacts.
Positives of faculty working remotely
There will be some faculty who wish to continue contributing remotely even if students will be on campus. They cite the elimination of commuting time, increased personal productivity, and enhanced flexibility in dealing with work-life balance issues as reasons for their position. These faculty taught online from home during the past 18 months and wish to continue that practice on a full-time or majority of the time basis. Personnel working from home offer some advantages to the institution as well. If remote work is full-time, it frees up space on campus (including parking); part-time remote work (hybrid) does not offer this and requires that two workstations be present. Remote work also allows higher education an opportunity to attract and retain faculty who want the flexibility offered by remote work.
Negatives of faculty working remotely
Student surveys have told us that an element that was missing for students during the spring shutdown was personal contact with faculty and with peers. This sentiment has been strongly voiced. Administrators are taking steps to make certain that this element is restored. This consideration is obvious, and we will spend no more time on it. Instead we will move on to some other reasons that faculty should be on campus in the fall.
Colleges and universities are well aware that some of our students (and their parents) are reluctant to return to their studies because of questions of vaccine efficacy and fear of COVID-19. When they learn that significant numbers of faculty are not on campus, their assumptions about the faculty absence may be matched to their reluctance. This is a leadership-by-example reason to be in-person.
One of us (N. Douglas Lees) is old enough to remember some of rhetoric that prompted the post-tenure review era that began in the mid- to late 1990s. One piece of this was a story about a full professor at the state university who would be at home Tuesday afternoons cutting his lawn. This was noted by a trustee who called the university president inquiring how this could be. Perceptions of faculty work are dangerous and often formed and disseminated without further checking. We are presently at another time when higher education is under the microscope, and we don’t need more stories like the one above; however, they would certainly be forthcoming with faculty spending more time at home.
Another example of how remote work might lead to misconceptions of faculty effort would be an instance where a parent, legislator, or reporter visits campus hoping to speak with someone and instead finds closed doors, dark offices, and postings of email addresses for scheduling virtual interactions with faculty occupants. Even if this arrangement with these faculty members has been announced and approved, it simply will not look good. Perceptions matter!
At this point we would like to address faculty productivity while working remotely. From what we have read or heard, there is a consensus that some faculty—likely drawn from among those not responsible for children’s remote education, caring for ill family members, and other increased, personal activities associated with the pandemic—were more productive while working remotely. We feel that this may be true in limited aspects of faculty responsibility but question whether their overall productivity has improved. Because of the personal isolation afforded by being remote, faculty are able to focus on their work uninterrupted for long periods of time. The work that they are doing more productively is likely their scholarship. So why do we suggest diminished productivity? The answer lies in those interruptions. One may have been a call from the chair or dean asking for information, another may have been a colleague stopping by for advice on a student advising issue, while third may have been a new first-year student who cannot find her classroom. These types of faculty contributions are neither found in job descriptions nor are they part of a faculty member’s annual report, yet they are critical to establishing and maintaining a unit culture and reputation. These interactions not only generate good will but also promote collegiality, teamwork, and collaboration. Losing these kinds of activities may go unnoticed in the short term but will have negative consequences over time.
A final reason in favor of faculty being on campus when students are present is related to the number of faculty wanting permission to work remotely and how to make accommodation equitable when not all requests can be approved. Most of our schools and departments, even those that were exclusively in-person prior to the pandemic, want to retain some of the online courses that faculty worked so hard to develop and perfect in order to increase enrollment and to prepare for a COVID return or a similar emergency situation. Decisions should be made, with faculty input, on what percentage of course sections will be online and which courses would be eligible for remote instruction. There may also have to be caps on remote sections per faculty member per semester or year. The chair must select who gets the assignment if multiple people request it. This brings equity to the forefront. Traditionally, choosing the faculty member would be simple to tricky, but in the current environment, it could be explosive. Teaching these courses online from campus may be a simpler and better solution that avoids many of the criticisms we have heard recently, plus it would allow the faculty member direct access to centralized and superior campus technology and the support that goes with it.
Another example where equity comes into play is in the recognition that not all faculty are able to do their work remotely. Thus far we have talked about discharging teaching responsibilities using remote means. We assume that committee service responsibilities can be met via Zoom, although “reading the room” is a challenge. Faculty who must come to campus are those involved in laboratory research (most science disciplines, engineering, medicine, dentistry). They must oversee the research work of their students (undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral); supervise the work of employees (technicians, hourly workers); consult on experimental protocol changes; troubleshoot equipment malfunctions; and demonstrate techniques. None of these roles is done effectively or efficiently from another location.
Balancing faculty, staff, and student needs and desires as we come out of the pandemic will be a challenge. During the pandemic we learned that we could do much of our work remotely, but it was not likely ideal. Parents and students have strong reactions to the experience they are paying for; during the shutdown we had many students inquiring about having course fees returned to them because they were not fully benefitting from campus resources and felt that online courses were not of equal quality compared to the in-person versions. Students have clearly communicated their desire to be back in person for the full college experience, and given that student dollars—tuition, fees, and room and board—are the primary drivers of our fiscal health, we need to create an environment where students are best served.
Thomason, A., & O’Leary, B. (2021, August 2). Here’s a list of colleges that will require students or employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/live-coronavirus-updates/heres-a-list-of-colleges-that-will-require-students-to-be-vaccinated-against-covid-19
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Jane R. Williams, PhD, is associate professor and former interim chair of psychology and associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.