A Pledge for Surviving Difficult Times in Higher Education

by | Dec 12, 2022 | Commentary

We are living in polarized times.

Everyone I know stands firmly on one side or the other on issues of the day like “Don’t say gay,” reproductive rights, the pandemic, and the causes and consequences of climate change.

These debates can negatively impact us as individuals and in our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.

Here at Ithaca College, however, I am noticing a polarization less obvious but no less insidious.

 

Deep Austerity

Institutions of higher education are stung by a shrinking demographic of college-bound students, pandemic-related economic downturns, and what feels like a revolving door of centralized administrators who often aren’t successful at earning the trust of long-term employees or understanding institutional identity.

Faculty and staff salary increases don’t keep up with the “regular” pace of inflation, let alone the increases we see today. Resources supporting our work also continue to be reduced. We have no substantive role in many decision-making processes, and instead, we are expected to have faith that those clasping onto their decision-making power are acting in our collective best interest. Those among us who are most vulnerable to these reductions worry about their own positions being cut.

This perfect storm leaves employees competing for resources, limelight, and any sign that they are valued. And it leaves, in its wake, a systemic problem that individual faculty and staff members cannot solve alone. However, those who care deeply feel compelled to try.

 

Contradictions and Quiet Quitters

Within this bleak panorama are contradictions and muted polarizations. A few of us are thriving. Many are not. Some of us feel seen and valued. Others are made invisible and then silenced by administrators. And many have become what The Guardian has dubbed “quiet quitters,” minimizing time on campus, reducing collegial social interactions, and declining voluntary campus service.

Some of us remain optimistic about the future of our institutions. Others do not.

Leaders at my institution have stated publicly that Ithaca College will become a “community of care.” However, this catchy phrase is ill-defined. It may mean something specific to those who introduced it but it’s hollow and amorphous to many others and papers over the realities of working under austere and demoralizing conditions.

As of this writing, no viable plan has been shared for how we will become a “community of care” or what that will mean. Meanwhile, many among us do not feel the college truly cares — at least, not about us.

 

A Pledge to My Colleagues

If I was in charge, I would be proposing systemic solutions, but I am not. The only way for me to positively impact this community is as an individual, focusing on the ways that I can positively impact my colleagues and my students.

To that end, I offer these four simple practices as a pledge to my faculty and staff colleagues who are the heart and soul of our institution and its bedrock. And I hope that through enactments of this pledge, morale might be improved in some very small ways, at least in my own circle during these difficult times.

My challenge to my colleagues is this: try out, adapt, and augment these ideas to see if they might alleviate the polarizations, the quiet quitting, and the silences.

 

I will honor others’ lived experiences.

This is the time of year when we are asked to renew training for workplace discrimination. Yet attempting to disrupt discriminatory behaviors, as we are instructed to do in our training, leaves us vulnerable and defenseless against those with more power and their own discriminatory behaviors.

I suspect that there are many institutions in these varying states of austerity, including Ithaca College, where members have not yet learned to honor the lived experience of all their colleagues or to question the actions of people who outrank them. Our attempts to disrupt are too often confused with causing “dysfunction.”

Going forward, if someone trusts me enough to share their lived experience, I will honor it, I will thank them for trusting me, and I will offer to help, in any way I can.

For example, if someone tells me that they are the victim of their supervisor’s homophobic micro-aggressions, I won’t argue. I will ask questions to better understand and then help to disrupt the behavior.

As a further example, if a student of color were to tell me that they experienced racism in my class, I will not refute or argue, and I will not use my own “good intentions” as a defense. I will be grateful for the opportunity to understand my own missteps and intervene.

 

I will not assume intentions, good or bad.

We are often asked to assume good intentions, but we are by nature a community of highly trained skeptics and critical thinkers. As professors, it is our responsibility to be skeptical, raise doubt, ask questions, push boundaries, and value multiple perspectives.

Intentions lead to actions which impact others.  We need to separate intentions from impacts, and learn to value both rather than defaulting back to our “good intentions” to defend ourselves.

Instead of assuming good or bad intentions, I will look for the words and the courage to ask for clarity. I will then share the possible impacts if others act on these intentions. I will try to think carefully about how the actions motivated by my own intentions might impact others.

After all, when I am impacted negatively by someone else’s actions, their so-called good intentions have little value to me. Intentions certainly do not console me.

 

I will say thank you in all the ways I can.

We have lost programs we love that were the product of professional lifetimes of dreaming, labor, and investment. They were valuable to our community.

We have lost colleagues that we care about deeply.

We have lost faculty and staff who performed important work for our institution and for all of us.

Our own workloads have been increased, while resources supporting those increased duties have diminished. In this milieu, a pervading yet unspoken sensibility seems to suggest that we survivors should feel nothing but gratitude that we are still employed.

When our academic integrity propels us to go above and beyond so that our campus continues to function, some of us are told that our efforts are not valued and that we should not feel obliged to go that extra mile in the future.

It is no wonder many on our campus are experiencing various levels of grief, pain, and loss, as a result.

I will not assume that others have been appropriately acknowledged for their investment, care, and love for our institution. I will speak positively and help others to shine.

 

I will go out of my way to make sure those around me are seen and heard.

Everyone should know that their words have been received.

Ignoring another’s concerns or ideas never helps them to feel valued, and it can, in fact, cause a great deal of pain. Even those among us who are the busiest have time to acknowledge the ideas and concerns of others.

I will acknowledge when someone has had the courage, enthusiasm, or care to speak up. If I do not agree with their thoughts, or if they don’t seem pertinent to me in the moment, I will make an effort to circle back as soon as possible.

 

Untapped Resources and Power

I’d like to end with a reminder to anyone who reads this piece that I am speaking from my own perspective and experience, which I suspect will resonate with some and maybe not with others. We are, after all, a polarized community.

And as I observe some faculty and staff vilified by our leaders because they have questioned, pressed back, and raised doubts, I also see the intensification of divides and the amplification of polarizations.

Although small and microlocal, my pledge to myself and to you is to find ways to value members of our truly incredible Ithaca College community. Our faculty and staff are not only a resource with the capacity to help shepherd the institution out of austerity, but we are also its foundation and its power.

 

Brad Hougham is Professor of Music Performance at Ithaca College. He is a sought-after clinician and pedagogue and has taught extensively and sung in solo and choral settings in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Canada.

 

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash.

 

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