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It’s Not Just Students Who Aren’t OK: Why We Need Trauma-Informed Leadership

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

It’s Not Just Students Who Aren’t OK: Why We Need Trauma-Informed Leadership

In a recent conversation I had with faculty development professional and online educator Karen Costa, she told me, “I spend a lot of time talking to faculty about humanizing higher ed, about trauma-informed pedagogies, and I regularly hear, ‘Karen, can you tell this to my chair and my provost?’” But in his New York Times editorial, “My College Students Are Not OK,” educator and author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives Jon Malesic seems to double down on what could be called the opposite of Costa’s experience. Malesic calls for a return to nothing less that “rigorous” in-person learning because, he says, students have forgotten how to learn and require immediate course correction. Under the banner of reminding students how to learn again, he argues against extending pandemic accommodations, saying, “students, faculties, administrators, and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.”

He further calls on administrators directly, arguing, “Administrators will need to enact policies that put relationships at the center. That will mean resisting the temptation to expand remote learning, even if students demand it, and ensuring faculty workloads leave time for individual attention to students.”

I have so many responses to just these two quotes. For example, he unquestioningly assumes that online or hybrid learning is bad without evidence, which Costa and so many others can decidedly disprove. He speaks of “accommodations” as if it were a dirty word rather than thinking about accessibility for all learners (and faculty), which is also an important aspect of the work Costa does with faculty. And he doesn’t seem to anticipate the idea of administration making policies without (implementing) input from faculty as being problematic.

But I want to focus on the point that he, seemingly ignoring his own work on burnout and the reasons he left higher education previously, disregards the ongoing trauma of the pandemic as well as the social, political, and environmental upheavals of the past two years. He makes a nod to why students might be not doing “what it takes to learn” when he offhandedly acknowledges that “the pandemic has certainly made college more challenging for students.”

This is quite the understatement, to say the least. Writer and higher ed commentator John Warner responded to the editorial in Inside Higher Ed, saying, “Malesic suggests that students should have ‘bounced back’ this semester, but this seems to significantly discount the disruption of the pandemic. I do not know how long it truly takes for a reset following this kind of event, but a few months does not seem sufficient.”

But students aren’t the only ones being expected to “bounce back” and return to “normal”; faculty and staff are experiencing the trauma and expectation as well. Can we—should we—act as if the pandemic is in the past and not take anything we learned about flexibility, care, and trauma into the future? What does it say if we don’t, if we deny lessons learned during the traumatic last several years? And what does this have to do with faculty, staff, and leaders? We can’t answer these questions without acknowledging that all of us have experienced, and are still experiencing, trauma from the sustained impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all aspects of our lives and well-being. And those who directly engage with students may be accumulating secondary trauma as students deal with what can be life-and-death situations.

What do we talk about when we talk about trauma? Many faculty are not OK, to borrow Malesic’s wording, in ways that predate but were intensely exacerbated by the pandemic. Faculty burnout was already becoming an epidemic—caused by the seemingly unrelenting stress of a higher ed industry facing ever-shrinking budgets, divisive politics within and outside the academy, public cries for new levels of accountability, and growing attacks on academic freedom. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and trauma and burnout proliferate.

As I’ve written before, burnout is characterized by three features: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of worthlessness regarding work and accomplishments. Each of these facets describes key features of what it was and is to work during the pandemic, whether connected to teaching in multiple modes and supporting students experiencing their own burnout, limited research productivity, family care responsibilities, and general malaise, or what Adam Grant calls “languishing.” All of these are natural reactions to the ongoing traumatic events that have just piled on top of existing stressors and frustrations.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an “event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Mays Imad tells us that “the origin of trauma does not have to be violent or abusive, because trauma is centered in an individual experience and can have conscious and unconscious manifestations.” When we understand that, it becomes easier to think about how and why trauma-informed practices are the path forward in academic leadership.

Originating in work with veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma-informed approaches require us to first notice the signs of trauma in others or ourselves. For students, that might look like “difficulty focusing, retaining, and recalling information; tendency to miss classes; anxiety about exams, public speaking, and assignments.” For faculty and staff, it might manifest similarly or as exhaustion, feelings of guilt or shame or even anger, and disconnection from people and activities that were previously enjoyed. Based on my conversations with faculty across the country, it’s safe to say that faculty, especially those already burned out and running on adrenaline much of the time, are experiencing physical ailments, anxiety, and other pressures that compound burnout with trauma.

So, what does this mean for academic leadership? Costa wants administrators to know that “the trauma response happens after the event, and we are still in pandemic, social and political unrest . . . you can’t turn trauma off like a light switch. It requires intense healing, which takes time. This moment is like a permanent crisis. How do you deal with that? Not by pretending it’s 2019.”

Leaders who take a trauma-informed perspective will have a better sense of understanding, compassion, and humanity in making decisions that affect faculty and staff in the long tail of the pandemic. This means acknowledging and working with people’s emotions, not just their rationality. Higher ed can be a dispassionate place, to say the least, but we can no longer ignore the emotional scars we all have, from pandemic to social justice trauma and beyond, if we want to learn from this historic moment. Trauma-informed leaders appreciate the pervasive impact of trauma on people and systems, identify signs and symptoms also in people and systems, use trauma awareness to lead, and work to not cause re-traumatization (SAMHSA, 2018).

SAMHSA offers five key principles of the approach that directly shape how academic leaders can begin to approach their work in a trauma-informed manner:

  1. Safety. As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physical and psychological safety remain basic needs that leaders must satisfy for their communities. The events of the last two-plus years have severely dented our ability to feel our basic needs are met. Academic leaders can create this sense of safety by continuing smart pandemic testing plans, encouraging dialogue in which participants feel heard and their ideas valued, and owning up to any mistakes that affect the community.
  2. Trustworthiness. Trustworthy leaders are transparent in operations and decision-making, showing care by creating an environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared empathy. The gap separating administration from faculty and staff can be large when there is distrust and cynicism. Offering multiple forums for faculty and staff to share their needs, concerns, and support for ideas and then explaining what exactly you will do with that information can build trust.
  3. Peer support. Trauma-informed cultures offer opportunities for relationship building around mutual needs and interests. For example, through my institution’s Office of Faculty Professional Development, I run a burnout support group for women faculty that holds space for them to share their experiences, validate each other, and think about cultural shifts to be made. Through this group, I can identify and, in broad strokes, share with leadership some of the common yet specific challenges facing women faculty at our institution.
  4. Collaboration. Building on the principles of safety and trustworthiness, partnering with faculty and staff in pandemic-related decision making and healing is crucial because everyone has a role to play in that healing. Many institutions have convened a variety of committees and work groups to assess the future actions of institutions related to this social and cultural moment. Ensuring these groups allow all voices to be heard, valued, and included in decision making builds safety and trust through collaboration.
  5. Empowerment. Responding in a trauma-informed manner is not about fixing deficits but creating meaningful change through the other four principles. Faculty and staff are empowered to build on their individual strengths in addressing and responding to trauma. For leadership, this might mean charging groups of faculty, staff, and students to address specific pandemic-related challenges; encouraging units to examine and shift aspects of their cultures that may cause re-traumatization; or offering training on trauma-informed practices that faculty and staff can take back to their units.

A sixth principle is added to several of the trauma-informed care models to include awareness of cultural, historic, and gender issues that affect how we understand and address trauma. Trauma-informed leaders recognize that, in addition to the fact each person experiences and works through trauma differently, our broader contexts and intersectionality influence how leaders enact the other five principles.

Returning to Malesic, while I disagree with his rationale for most of his claims about what’s next in higher education and learning, I wholeheartedly agree with his claim that “Administrators will need to enact policies that put relationships at the center.” Relationships are centered in trauma-informed approaches. Trauma-informed leadership understands that relationships, awareness, and care should inform every decision and every aspect of an institution’s culture—and that this work needs to be wholly collaborative.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and the forthcoming Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, September 2022).


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