It is rare to find an educator in 2018 that feels education has not changed much over the past decade. Change in itself is not a bad thing; in fact most of us as professors feel it’s something to encourage, embrace and teach students how to manage through. Most individuals, if well-equipped, can use change as a differentiator and improve their overall job position. It is because of change that I want to arm university leaders with information – information about why their good faculty are leaving. In this article, I will identify 16 reasons your best faculty are asking us to help them find a teaching job … and what administrators can do about it.
Change in Education
Unfortunately, not all change is beneficial for students. Institutions are cutting costs and asking part time or adjunct faculty to do more than ever. The result? Faculty burnout and less time in the classroom engaged with students. A lot of change occurred when part time adjunct faculty were reclassified as employees due to the Affordable Care Act and other IRS rules that had schools scrambling to try to comply with something that had changed in a flash. This underpins some of the unrelated job training, meetings and “faculty engagement scenarios” I will describe in this article. It is something worth looking at – should your W2 employees really be classified as such? They may be misclassified as employees when they are really contractors, driving a lot of the very issues stressing faculty out. More on this in a bit.
As the owner of a company that - in part - helps professors find work, we talk with a lot of online educators who are looking to change jobs. In an effort to best help them, sometimes we need to understand why they are searching for new work when they are already fully employed. Knowing their concerns helps us more closely align their goals with a new job. More than ever, faculty are willing to share their frustration with the university or school they are working for and sometimes, their own leadership, who they feel isn’t advocating for them any longer.
Online Teachers: Why Do You Want to Leave?
In response to the question, “why do you want to leave your current position?” we get varied responses, as expected. Sometimes it’s the need for more flexibility, the desire to earn a better salary or the need for a change. In 2016, about 15% of the those we asked answered with some sort of response that led me to believe the task of teaching had begun to expand to include more time-consuming activities that have traditionally fallen on other components of the school.
Double the Number… Online Faculty Feeling Burned Out by Administrative Tasks
In 2017, this number was close to 30%. My colleagues - and bosses who are willing to discuss it and are equally frustrated - are reporting similar metrics. In many cases it is schools with highly paid upper leadership and not public institutions. One professor said (I am quoting anonymously here with permission): “I am the advisor, the alert updater, the plagiarism catcher, the report filer, the phone call maker, but still have to write three paragraphs of feedback per assignment to my students each week. I have to respond to all initial posts. I have endless training sent by HR that does not apply to me but has to be done. I receive a dozen emails every day about donuts in the cafeteria or a parking lot closure at a campus I didn’t know existed. I make $2000 per course. If I don’t do the first set of administrative things, I get into trouble – put on the ‘bad list’ that could cost me my job in a passive-aggressive ‘we don’t need you next term’ kind of way. If I don’t have time to provide paragraphs of feedback that I want to provide, then I do my students a disservice and feel terrible. And again, it can cost me my job. I need to use my off-time making a living teaching at other schools, like part-timer’s have to do. I cannot live on $2000 every 8 weeks, two-thirds that after tax. I would love to do all they want, but it’s not realistic. I can teach for $2000 every 8 weeks, but I cannot do all of the overhead requirements and still pay my bills. They have left me no choice but to leave. I would do this full time, but the school doesn’t want that either. They just want me to do everything for free.”
The frustration didn’t stop there. Another professor wrote (rewritten with permission), “I attend required non-compensated meetings to show accreditors we are engaged faculty. I don’t even know who my boss will be tomorrow.”
As one administrator put it, “My faculty have a right to be upset. The role of the traditional advisor is now a sales person, so we don’t have advisors. My faculty have to advise students and the institution is falling apart at the seams. Faculty pay the price. I am angry too.”
Faculty Skipping Administrative Duties?
Faculty are afraid to ask their bosses if they can “skip the administrative task” … and for good reason. They are very likely to get a “no”, or worse - not be “rehired” for the next term. Here is a situation we hear about too often: “I didn’t know I was fired.” Often, faculty won’t know they were “un-hired” because their email still works, but no one replied to them any longer. A week before a term begins, they ask their boss what class they will have, trying not to seem anxious but feeling sick at the thought of not having work. Then, they find out they’ve essentially been let go with a canned response: “we don’t have you assigned”.
So, faculty do the job, burn out, get frustrated and look for other work if they stay in education. Deans report to us that they are losing their best faculty at the highest rate they have seen in their careers and they do not feel like they have the power to do anything about it. Often, your direct boss is in the same situation, but he or she isn’t in a position to share it with their faculty. If you are unhappy, there is a good chance your direct manager is too.
Faculty are careful not to throw their institutions under the bus, seem generally fearful of sharing why they are looking for work (though less so today than two years ago), and frequently report something along the lines of, “I just want to not be afraid when I see an email with my bosses name.” As academics, what have we become? Institutions need to take a second look at priorities, perhaps make a few dollars less per student in profit and bring in proper support. Let faculty focus on teaching so institutions can keep their best faculty and do the right thing by improving their working conditions.
Life in On-Site Academia
I remember the days of traditional academia. I worked at a university in California when I was still a teenager, and had become the youngest professor ever hired at the school. Our school had a lot of part time professors (on salary) and adjuncts (on contract) then, too. These concepts are not new to academics. I never heard of or saw deans walk into an adjunct’s shared office space or the office of a part time professor and ask them to take on tasks that were unpaid that took them out of the classroom.
Today when I visit on-site, traditional faculty are not asked to do these things without pay either. Yet, for some reason, it seems okay to ask remote faculty to take care of tasks unrelated to teaching with a quick email draft. After the Affordable Care Act was implemented, most adjunct contract 1099 faculty were moved to W2 employee status. Perhaps this is the reason school leadership is putting more pressure than ever on faculty to do outside activities to keep their jobs – because they can. Or perhaps the depersonalization of email and not knowing our colleagues face-to-face has an impact on what we ask them to do. In the traditional workplace, you walk into someone’s office and you see their family photos and hear their partner asking to bring dinner home. There seems to be more respect for personal time. Perhaps it is more difficult to conceptualize that the faculty member has a family and/or friends they would like to see in the evenings and would like to not go back to work after the kids are in bed…. Back to work at their part time or adjunct position… at least until the next day… without getting into trouble for a delayed response.
It appears to me, through interviews and shared information, that institutions can sometimes shield their cost reduction efforts under the premise of “empowering faculty”, and as a result, are adding to their to-do lists at an alarming rate. Administrators, your faculty are telling us (and each other, and their new managers) that they would rather be less empowered and be able to see their kids at night and teach. Many of your good faculty want to leave. Faculty who choose to stay in bad work environments often report to us that they feel excessive burnout and we believe your students will notice this.
Unfortunately, while we can offer advice to just “leave and find other work”, it isn’t always possible to do that quickly. Competition at the institutions that do not treat faculty like advisors or administrators is fierce – I know because some of those schools ask us to find faculty to ease the burden of searching through thousands of CVs that get submitted when they post a job. Word gets out about the good places to work, and far more candidates apply to those jobs than the schools where burnout and mistreatment is common and well-known. Those schools tend to either have high turnover, or fearful employees. Faculty new to the field are more likely to put up with excessive work unrelated to teaching than those who have been in the industry for a while (perhaps because they don’t know what the ‘old days’ used to be like), which means institutions lose tacit knowledge and experienced professors that are vital to student success.
Since early 2016, we have been keeping a list of the most common situations we hear candidates say they want to avoid in their next job. This is not a laundry list of complaints. In fact, quite the opposite. Most faculty we speak with are very sad to feel as though they have no choice but to leave. In fact, it’s not unusual to hear a grown professor crying at the future loss. Many feel defeated.
16 reasons your best faculty are asking us to help them find a teaching job … and what administrators can do about it
Administrators know that retaining good faculty is directly correlated with retaining students. There are many reasons to retain faculty; including business reasons pertaining to student satisfaction with the quality of their education. With the rapid change toward micro-management, excessive to-do lists and faculty burnout, there is no time like the present to share these faculty requests with administrators that have the power to do something about it. We provide to you the most common situations faculty are trying to avoid in their next job:
- Adjunct or part-time faculty as advisors. As schools cut resources to students, faculty are asked to do the calling, the emailing, the “checking up on”, the alerts in systems and the “faculty report of potential student issues”, as one candidate put it. This is a task routinely handled by advisors, but now falls on faculty at many schools. One dean said, “I have good retention at my school for one simple reason. Faculty are in the classroom to provide their expertise, teach, grade and follow up on student questions, not to act as unpaid babysitters.” This approach would improve morale and help you keep your best faculty.
- When faculty are not in the classroom, let them have their time back. Unless they are actively teaching, their time is theirs – not yours. Unless the employee is full time and has the “other duties as assigned” on their job description and agrees to unlimited work hours and times, please give them some time off. This perhaps stresses faculty out more than anything else I hear from professors. We hear faculty have to be “always be on” for their bosses, reply immediately and help their deans or chairs with reports, updates and course redesigns (or worse – curriculum development) just to be assigned a course again next term. Faculty are being asked to do these things just to get a contract next term, sometimes after years of service, not for extra pay. As an employer, I will never ask my team to voluntarily give up their time for me without some compensation. It is unethical to not pay people for their work - and in some states - not legal. A former program chair-now-professor said, “Faculty are not our academic slaves. I could no longer lead my team at my institution. Those above me felt faculty were our academic slaves and I had no power to change it. Anytime I said something needed to be done, my boss said ‘have your faculty do it.’ I left after 15 years in my position.” A part time or adjunct faculty members job is to get into class, teach, prepare students, communicate with learners, grade, provide feedback, answer questions and step back out until they login next. If they choose to go above and beyond, as many of us do when we feel committed to the institution, that’s our choice. Please do not make 24x7 tech support for our students a contractual job requirement for the next 8 weeks.
- Nonsensical training. Have you or your faculty team been assigned training on proper dress when coming into the office – but you don’t even know what city it’s located in? How to properly straighten the breakroom? Even (I kid you not) how to properly operate the coffee machine? One of our University clients asked us to create “training that matters; that faculty want to take part in.” Yes! Please ask HR to separate out their mailing lists, send training that truly applies to professors, and offer optional professional development opportunities instead.
- Meetings. Often. Like weekly. As a contractor or adjunct! Yes, I’m serious. We have quite a few clients report each month that they are asked to participate in weekly meetings and discussion threads with other faculty. One of these institutions averages a class size of 7, and pays accordingly (quite low). One faculty member said, “It takes me 5 hours to grade, and another hour a week to be in a weekly meeting. Why? It’s unpaid time I could spend with students or my family.” Don’t be offended. Faculty do want to meet with you. Just not every week.
- Continual unpaid training. It’s one thing to put new employees/adjuncts through training that is unpaid (not preferred, but seems to be quite popular). Professors have learned to accept this part of online education. But, asking them to be in continuous unpaid training courses is burning out your faculty. They need to breathe.
- Excessive email. Most faculty tell us they prefer their bosses to email them rather than call because one of the perks of being an online professor is time flexibility. IT can separately out mailing lists online faculty in Arkansas are not receiving the slippery road warning in Ohio. It seems silly perhaps, but adjuncts or part time professors have to work at multiple schools to pay their bills. Non-stop email is a stressor; a mechanism for burnout.
- Assume your professor is likely right, and the student is likely not. I don’t know why after all of these years this issue still surprises me, but it does. Many professors report that the tone of their boss’s emails are accusatory when a student complains, usually about a grade. Rather than collecting information from the faculty member, assessing the situation from an unbiased perspective and being an advocate for education, some folks seem to be itching for a reason to call a faculty member out for doing something wrong. Yes, professors make mistakes. But assuming your students did not and your professors are in error from email #1 (or even in your own mind – a mindset issue) is not collegial, unfair to your employee who fears for their job, and disrespectful of the time the professor likely put into the situation already to keep the problem from hitting your desk to begin with. I know a lot of faculty who will do just about anything to keep a student from escalating to the dean’s office as it results in a mind-numbing amount of documentation and worry. Faculty tell us they have to continually cover their behinds to prove their innocence.
- Do something about plagiarism. If professors report it, do something about it. There are institutions out there notorious for one thing: Firing faculty for not filling out plagiarism reports, but letting students redo assignments for full credit when the faculty does submit the report.
- Take student conduct seriously. Students do bully and harass professors and administrators sometimes tell us it’s their own schools culture that allows it. Students learn quickly that if they escalate an issue, they’ll get their way. I have had it happen to me, my colleagues have shared many stories, and professors tell our team frequently. It’s also mentioned often in our forum. It takes many forms, including threatening to go to the dean’s office if a grade isn’t changed, repeatedly calling/texting their cell phones and sending veiled threats to professors. Students sometimes take aggressive action in the classroom that leads to a “group think mentality”. In an example a colleague shared recently, there was a technical issue in her course. One student posted about how “awful it was she had not fixed it” and “what was she doing all this time.” Students are unaware that most of their professors do not work for the school full time and likely did not create the course. She responded quickly that support was looking into it, but the student kept at it until the other dozen students were jumping on the bandwagon. She felt helpless and anticipated terrible evaluations that could cost her the job. She worried for 10 weeks until evaluations were released.
- Prepare the courseroom and ask support to fix issues. If courses have technical issues, please know your professors are likely trying to fix it but cannot spend hours resolving a courseroom issue that should fall on the shoulders of technical support. Train technical support so they do not have to respond with “check with your professor.” This frustrates and is unfair to students and faculty. Let your faculty have a place to report problems, tell students it’s being fixed by support and not to hold the faculty accountable for the issues, and then fix it in the master shell so it does not recur. One of the most proactive situations I have ever heard of was a Dean who logged into her faculty member’s course when it had issues, posted an announcement as herself, and said “Please do not hold Professor So and So Accountable for this issue. He is doing all he can and it is our fault, not is.”
- Streamline course setup. We are hearing from more professors than ever that their school requires them to scrub a course (hundreds of pages sometimes) to find and replace all applicable specific due dates and times accounting for holidays, create course calendars and do all syllabus and gradebook alignment and weighting – or some combination thereof. Faculty should not spend five hours setting up a course, unpaid. Our team of instructional designers is skilled in ensuring courses are streamlined for faculty. Most schools operate this way too. If yours does not, consider changing it.
- Remember cost of living goes. A raise now and again would increase morale. A raise both for a job well done, and simply a cost of living increase, would help faculty feel appreciated.
- Watch tone when you write to us. Whether you know it or not, adjunct and part time professors live in constant fear of losing their jobs. Professors feel as though their managers don’t know them and every term is a battle for work. When you write rude messages to faculty (or leave “call me back” voice mails without saying what it is about), you cause highly stressful situations for your team and build a terrible environment.
- Take evaluations in context. Unless you notice a pattern, take evaluations in context. Students who get poor grades take it out on professors. Students having a bad day take it out on professors. Students who didn’t do well on an exam take it out on professors. What does this mean? If a faculty member did their job, provided critique and feedback and the learner earned anything less than an A, they could get bad evaluations (particularly if the course size is small and every n=1 counts more toward the central tendency). If you tell faculty they are scoring lower than other faculty, they should ask, “do I have better grade distributions than those other professors?” This is a relevant factor. (Another one is labs.. #15!)
- Labs! Ah! If you insist on keeping a course with a lab that students have difficulty accessing until the third week of a course, please just toss those evals into the round file. They are meaningless. They stress your faculty out. We work with professors who leave schools simply because they are using labs that are a nightmare and the first two or three weeks of their class is self-described hell. All of those great “Connect” labs are torture for faculty and their students. Please get rid of them or have them set up for learners before students begin.
- Blank shells. If you are paying faculty to develop, then professors are happy to develop a course. If you are paying them to teach a course, please have a course shell that was designed by an instructional designer and a subject matter expert already loaded. A course setup from scratch can easily take 40-50 hours of unpaid time. It is not fair to your faculty. It is not academic freedom either!
Common Themes for Online Faculty Frustration
These are the common themes we hear every day. We often remind faculty that their boss, who they felt was perhaps in their corner at some point until he/she wasn’t, didn’t “make the new rules” and while we are happy to help them find a new job, they may wish to speak with their boss as well and see if something can change. In fact, many times we hear from a group of faculty at a school that want to “jump ship”, and the chair or dean shortly after (who also wants to leave)! It’s probable your boss is still in your corner, but cannot officially state his or her position without losing their own job, too.
Those “reply to all” messages that keep us entertained (when one person replies to all with something that should probably be a private thought about a policy or decision – and then hundreds of others say “me too” or “stop replying to all”- I am laughing just remembering some of the best) are telling us something beyond the obvious. The obvious is that specific groups were not created by IT, which would have been best practice. But if one person.. or five people.. on a faculty team are concerned about what is happening at the institution, chances are most others are also, they are just less vocal about it. This kills faculty morale and translates, usually unintentionally, into quality of work with your learners.
Nodding Your Head?
If you are an administrator who is nodding your head in agreement with this list but feel as though you can’t fix it either, we collectively ask you – if you can’t, who can? Please tell us, or share this post, so someone will. I know I speak for almost all of our clients who are looking to make a job change when I say, “we would really like to keep working with you. Please help us do that.”