In a recent Inside Higher Ed blog, John Gardner (2021) described the need for an “ethic of care” when working with students during the pandemic. This ethic requires “one to center the well-being of the student when it comes to decision making . . . respecting student autonomy and freedom.” What would it look like to apply this ethic to interactions between faculty and administration, especially during this time of uncertainty?
Open up The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed (or your favorite educational periodical) on any given day and news of institutional cuts to majors, minors, departments, and faculty leap from the headlines. This is then followed immediately by reports of institutional fallout from those decisions. Administrators argue that the programmatic cuts create budget balance, respond to student needs, are pandemic-induced, and/or “right-size” the institution.1 Faculty members decry the cuts as being made by an aloof administration that does not understand the needs of students or the value of their programs, especially those in the arts and humanities2.
Sound like an intractable problem? Let’s look at this through Gardner’s lens of an “ethic of care.”
In many cases, faculty seem to miss the bigger picture by assuming that conversations about program prioritization (or whatever euphemism is used on their campus) is somehow a private trouble, confined only to their own institution, instead of thinking of what they are going through as a public issue, endemic to all of higher education.3 There are too many statements made in the popular press by faculty that imply that the primary fault for perceived financial distress lay at the feet of their (incompetent) administration, perhaps without realizing that the same problems are happening at most other, similar, institutions. Is it possible that every institution facing programmatic cuts is governed by incompetent administrators? Sure, but that seems like a faulty premise.
On the other side, the biggest point that administrators seem to get wrong is not recognizing – or not demonstrating to faculty that they recognize– that these cuts are felt viscerally by faculty. Imagine being told that the discipline you loved enough to study for over a decade so that you could spend a lifetime learning more about it and teaching it to others, is deemed no longer sustainable. The pain that results runs deep and cannot be easily overcome. Administrators must ensure that faculty have the opportunity to provide substantive input into the academic program prioritization process, receive information on how decisions will be made, and be allowed time to reflect and mourn possible outcomes.
Both faculty and administrators have to come to terms with the fact that they are all on the same team. The scope of responsibilities on each side of this divide varies, but both need to work together to address the larger structural challenges in a more informed, systematic, empathetic, way. That is governance done well. However, before the governance conversation can begin, the “us vs. them” trope between faculty and administrators that so often holds sway in these conversations must be overcome.
Of course, the dynamics of these conversations vary significantly by the nature and size of the institution. The importance of forming an institutional alliance between faculty and administrators on campus is likely greater at smaller, private, liberal arts institutions, given the existential threat they face in the near term (Grawe 2018, 2021). But that does not minimize the importance of how the interactions between faculty and administration should take place at every institution.
So, to that ethic of care. Administrators have to acknowledge their positions of power relative to faculty, especially in the context of the governance structure, and reach out to faculty members in ways that are both invitational and transparent. Administrators should recall the nurturing affect they demonstrated toward students when rising through the academic ranks and be sensitive to the emotional state of the faculty at their institution. And yes, this is a tricky line to walk, as administrators also have the responsibility to manage budgets, which under many circumstances could result in the need to cut people and positions. Administrators are therefore placed in an unenviable position (“Yes, we are a family and we really value the work that you do, but I’m sorry, I have to let you go”). Administrators need to find a way to trust faculty with more information and invite, and take seriously, faculty advice and counsel.
At the same time, faculty must recognize the competence of administrators in areas that are beyond the scope of faculty responsibilities. Faculty need to trust that administrators care just as deeply as faculty about their students and are making decisions in the best interests of the institution. To be sure, faculty have much perspective to offer in the decision process, but its counsel cannot and must not be limited to “don’t make us change,” “don’t cut positions,” or “don’t cut the liberal arts.”
It is a challenging time in higher education. The only way through this is for faculty and administration to develop Gardner’s “ethic of care.” Perhaps a little more care and compassion will help everyone understand that they are all in the same boat. If there are too many people on one side standing up and rocking, without working collaboratively with the other side to rock in unison, whether they be administrators or faculty, everyone will fall in the water.
Burke, L. (2021). “Cuts, Cuts, Cuts.” Inside Higher Education. 14 December 2020.
Flaherty, C. (2021a). “The Growing Ithaca Resistance.” Inside Higher Education. 8 February 2021.
Flaherty, C. (2021b). “Wright State to Formally Announce Faculty Cuts.” Inside Higher Education. 19 February 2021.
Flaherty, C. (2021c). “U of Kansas Will Cut Humanities Department.” Inside Higher Education. 23 February 2021.
Grawe, N. (2021). The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Grawe, N. (2018). Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Manore, A. (2020) “Open the Books discusses alternatives to faculty cuts.” The Ithacan. 14 December 2020.
Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pettit, E. (2021). “Kansas Regents Make it Easier to Dismiss Tenured Professors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.” 21 January 2021.
Seltzer, R. (2021). “Eyeing a Crosstown Merger.” Inside Higher Education. 12 February 2021.
Warner, J. (2021) “Instead of Surveillance, Try an Ethic of Care.” Inside Higher Education. 25 February 2021.
Whitford, E. (2020). “Guilford Board Pauses Budget Cuts.” Inside Higher Education. 18 December 2020.
Whitford, E. (2021). “Another Concordia College Closes.” Inside Higher Education. 29 January 2021.