Higher Ed, We’ve Got a Morale Problem — And a Free T-Shirt Won’t Fix It

Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s been a difficult start to the fall semester for many of us who work as staff and faculty on college campuses in America.

Perhaps we allowed ourselves the faintest glimmer of hope for better working conditions compared to last year, only to be met by sterile emails enforcing inflexible personnel policies, signs about “masking up” on campus as hoards of unmasked fans descend on football stadiums, and pressures to pantomime normalcy for students when our own lives feel far from normal.

Maybe we have experienced a cruel deja vu, once again juggling hours of Zoom meetings with the needs of our unvaccinated children as the delta variant courses through schools and day care centers. Let’s say we’re not just physically and emotionally depleted, but we question whether our institutions have our best interests at heart. We might wonder if we can still enact our values in higher education, given our employers’ leadership and decision-making.

Hypothetically speaking.

Assuming that some part of the scenario above sounds vaguely familiar, college leaders may be casting about for ways to lift their employees’ spirits. More than a few, it seems, have turned to gimmicks that have little chance of meaningfully moving the dial on morale. That’s because the root of many morale issues in higher education run deep enough that a free T-shirt will feel shallow and even insulting.

Morale can absolutely be improved in higher education, but it requires the type of sustained attention necessary to shift organizational culture. Leaders need to be ready to put in the work, starting with admitting there is a morale problem and actively listening to what staff and faculty are saying.

From Burnout to Demoralization

There was considerable discussion last fall about burnout among college staff and faculty. I wrote about how college leaders should prepare for a wave of burnout as the pandemic brewed a potent blend of constant work and worry. Recently, I’ve seen an increasing number of stories about workers who aren’t just exhausted. They are fed up.

Stories have chronicled boycotts of in-person teaching, protests and die-ins to demand mask and vaccine mandates, faculty senate resolutions, and even faculty members walking away from jobs. I’ve heard from several colleagues at multiple institutions that morale is the lowest they have ever seen. People in higher education are using a new word to describe their experience: “demoralized.”

Doris A. Santoro, a professor at Bowdoin College who wrote a book on teacher demoralization, has explained that teachers of all kinds are facing stressors during the pandemic that put them at heightened risk for burnout and demoralization. But she also draws clear distinctions between the two. Whereas burnout happens when teachers are entirely depleted, demoralization “happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.” Anne Helen Peterson and John Warner have also written eloquently about demoralization and how it differs from burnout.

Suffice it to say, demoralization suggests an ethical indictment of organizations, professions and society broadly. We still often talk about burnout (and its solutions) at the individual level, but we refer to demoralization among a group, like workers at a particular company or in an entire profession. In fact, many definitions of “morale” focus on collective sentiments, equating it to esprit de corps. Low morale, like demoralization, means a group is struggling to maintain belief in an institution or goal, especially when times get tough. As such, it provides a stronger push for people thinking about leaving their jobs. If burnout means driving while drowsy, demoralization means seeking the nearest off-ramp.

What Has Changed This Fall?

How did we get from burnout to demoralization in a year? In truth, the delta variant didn’t suddenly trigger demoralization. These issues predate the pandemic and have long co-existed. And, of course, the feeling isn’t universal. But it does seem like wading through another semester of Pandemic University—or, more accurately, through the ways that policymakers and college leaders responded to the pandemic—shattered many people’s fragile defenses. While writing this piece, I received many emails and messages about why morale is low at their institutions or why they left higher education, and a few themes surfaced.

Leaders are exercising a sort of selective amnesia about the trauma of the past 18 months.

There’s a pervasive frustration that leaders didn’t learn any lessons from last year. It’s almost as if last year didn’t happen at all, or leaders are exercising a sort of selective amnesia about the trauma of the past 18 months. In practice, this manifests in zealously pursuing Normal Fall™ regardless of employees’ concerns and worsening public health indicators. Relatedly, many people feel that leaders simply aren’t listening, aren’t taking questions about fall plans in meetings, or aren’t transparently answering the questions they received. Values-based conflict emerged as staff and faculty sought compassion and thoughtful answers in the face of elevated risk and instead heard: “Everything’s fine!”

Low compensation, of course, was frequently mentioned. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education included results from a survey showing that 88 percent of respondents believed uncompetitive salaries are a top reason people leave college student affairs jobs. While staff and faculty may have previously tolerated inadequate pay, the equation changed significantly with the addition of excessive work demands and the possibility of serious illness. The fact that many leaders continued to ask employees to work under these conditions without additional compensation felt exploitative.

Another reason for low morale is inadequate staffing. As people have left jobs, institutions have faced vacancies they haven’t been able to fill or fill fast enough. Or they simply haven’t ever hired enough people to do the work well. Sociologists Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen described the pervasive and purposeful under-staffing of institutions in their book “Broke” as the austerity-driven goal of “tolerable suboptimization,” with workers “toiling under exceptionally high workloads with little relief in sight.” For many staff and faculty, the combination of low pay and ballooning workloads reveals institutions care little for employee wellbeing.

Norms within the higher education profession aren’t helping matters. As Margaret Sallee, who recently edited a book on sustainable careers in student affairs, told me, “I’ve been so concerned about the ways that student affairs eats its people up. I think it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic … but, I hate to say it, I think it’s gotten worse in the last three months.” The profession normalizes working long hours to support students, and many senior student affairs leaders “are stuck in a rut of how we used to do things and how we’ve always done things.” Sallee attributes some of the low morale this year to disappointment after it looked like the field may shift away from these “ideal worker” norms: “Instead I just see this knee-jerk reaction to going back to how it was.”

There are also tensions surfacing between different categories of university employees. Some workers have had autonomy to decide what was best for them and their families, while others have not. And some staff, in particular, are tired of having their expertise ignored. That’s what I heard when I spoke to a staff member at a rural community college who asked to not be named to protect their job. “Staff have degrees, they have expertise, they are publishing and doing these things that are just completely ignored by faculty,” the staff member explained. “It’s just really hard to be constantly dismissed.” They likened higher education to a class system: “I don’t have academic freedom. I don’t have any type of protection … I think that has become more apparent with the pandemic, being told who is ‘essential,’ who has to be on campus.”

This staff member and their colleagues have been sending each other job ads: “There are data analyst jobs I could do and easily make double what I’m making.” But what bothers them about staff leaving is the sense that nobody cares. “We see a lot of ‘quit lit’ from faculty. We don’t see it often from staff, mainly because staff just disappear.”

Gimmicks Won’t Get It Done

Just as there were college leaders genuinely worried about burnout, there are leaders who want to do something about low morale. Too frequently, however, the solutions they devise don’t match the magnitude of the problems or initiate the long-term, cultural changes many employees desire.

When I expressed my worry that many college leaders won’t put in the work to address low morale, my Twitter followers filled my mentions with examples of small tokens of appreciation or one-time events. It was clear they found many of these gifts or programs to range from comically unhelpful to infuriating. In no particular order, these examples included: a credit to the performing arts center, tickets to a football game, free ice cream, raffles for gift cards, a coupon to the coffee shop, food trucks, and free hats and T-shirts.

To be clear, I don’t imagine most leaders believe these efforts will fix everything. They know what they have asked of staff and faculty during the pandemic, and they want to recognize that effort. However, they may not fully appreciate how these initiatives can trivialize concerns and have the opposite effect of what they intended.

How Leaders Can Start to Improve Morale

There are some obvious answers to higher education’s morale problem. People want compensation that reflects the realities of their labor and the value they bring to the institution. They also want their departments and units to be properly staffed to meet expectations and serve students well. This last point bears repeating: Students’ success is inextricably linked to staff and faculty working conditions. You don’t get the former without investing in the latter.

Students’ success is inextricably linked to staff and faculty working conditions.

It’s true that raises and adding new positions are huge expenses for most institutions, but that doesn’t make them impossible. Just as important, the price tag doesn’t prevent leaders from making a commitment and a plan. Leaders should tell staff and faculty that increasing pay is a priority, even if it takes time to implement, then develop a plan to analyze workload issues across the institution and create a timeline for addressing them. Knowing there is movement toward adequate pay and equitable workloads is more meaningful for many staff and faculty than a dozen thank-you emails.

I’ve heard of a few other low-cost ideas. For example, leaders should think about their communication choices. I suggest they excise “return to normal” from their vocabulary, stop worshipping at the altar of “in-person” instruction and activities, and feel comfortable admitting when morale is low. Josie Ahlquist, an expert on digital leadership in higher education, recently wrote that leaders should give up on messages imbued with “toxic positivity” and consider instead a position of “critical hope.”

I asked her about this in an interview, and she explained: “Leaders in the past could just be performative or hide behind, ‘I’m fundraising, attending big football games, and it’s all good.’ And we haven’t had ‘all good.’ To say ‘everything’s fine’ isn’t being emotionally connected.”

She drew inspiration from professor Jessica Riddell, who wrote that many leaders have leaned on toxic positivity in their responses to the pandemic. By putting on a constantly cheery facade that brooks no dissent, leaders have silenced “candid and uncomfortable conversations.” On the other hand, critical hope acknowledges that we are in the midst of a radical transformation and welcomes complexity and discomfort as cornerstones of a process to reimagine higher education.

Given how many people have told me they feel ignored, I can’t recommend enough the power of giving staff and faculty platforms to speak—and then listening to them. In practice, this means collecting perspectives and questions, then providing complete and transparent responses. It means bringing important campus decisions to shared governance bodies for deliberative discussion, rather than seeking “input” after the decisions have already been made. Ahlquist stressed the value of being accessible, whether it’s blocking off time for anyone in the campus community to meet, doing listening tours, or allowing people to send direct messages via social media. Even small efforts like these can help employees feel seen.

I spoke with Terisa Riley, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, after learning she asked a student affairs group on Facebook for ideas to improve staff wellbeing. “I’m a real active social listener, which will sometimes drive people crazy,” she explained. Although initially some people were suspicious of her engagement on multiple social media sites, Riley maintains it helps her get to the bottom of frustrations, note complaints, and collaborate with colleagues to find solutions.

Listening isn’t enough to completely prevent departures. “We’ve started to face some of the turnover that we’ve been reading about,” Riley explained. But she is keenly aware that “other industries are much more flexible, they understand that the human being doesn’t divorce the family or responsibilities they have when they walk through the door at 8 a.m.”

She’s a firm believer that higher education needs to do a better job of managing its talent. And that might mean leaders need to give people the ability to individually renegotiate their working conditions. As Riley put it: “If someone is thinking that leaving is their only option, I say, ‘Please don’t let it be. Can we talk through what you personally think you need to be here? I’ll try to help meet your needs, I want to hear from you personally.’ Because I only have 1,000 employees. I can work with all of them if I need to do it.”

Importantly, this approach doesn’t treat workers as expendable. Colleges have a bad track record of operating as if there will be an endless supply of people who want to work at them. I think that’s both factually and ethically wrong—it’s also a terrible approach to attracting and retaining highly-skilled workers, many of whom are, at this very moment, perusing job ads.

The simple truth is that while morale can tank quickly, rebuilding it takes time and sustained energy. And it’s harder still to rebuild as the pandemic continues. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have my own critical hope that the “business as usual” systems and decisions that got us here can be transformed for the better. Save the T-shirts for another day and start building the type of organizational culture that staff and faculty can believe in again.

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