The often-complicated role of middle management has grown infinitely more complex in a remote and hybrid work environment. Chairs and deans have struggled during the pandemic to keep the affairs of their departments and schools in order, while also trying to figure out how to work — and how to supervise others’ work — through a screen. Some of the questions they have had to wrestle with: How do you support career development of employees remotely? How do you change your approach to promoting equity during a pandemic? How do you encourage employees to return to the office?
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To bring some clarity to these and other questions about the changing campus workplace, The Chronicle recently held a virtual forum with several higher-education managers, underwritten by ServiceNow. I led a conversation with Christopher S. Celenza, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University; Mary Beth Dawson, chair of the biology department at Kingsborough Community College; Kimberly A. Griffin, professor and associate dean of graduate studies and faculty affairs in the College of Education at the University of Maryland at College Park; and Taviare L. Hawkins, professor of physics and division chair for math and sciences at St. Catherine University. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan Zahneis: Mary Beth, when I interviewed you for a story about being a department chair during a pandemic, you said your conception of the job has changed in the past couple of years, particularly when it comes to boundaries. Could you tell us about that?
Mary Beth Dawson: I’m very much a boundaries person. When I first became a department chair, I was acutely aware of not only respecting the boundaries of my colleagues, but my own personal boundaries as well, which meant that I really had a very nice work-life balance. That was completely upended by the pandemic. I found myself accessible in ways that I had never been before, and I wasn’t always comfortable with it. I went from being a person who didn’t email past 5 p.m. and never on the weekends to being a person who found themselves interacting via text, email, and telephone until 10 p.m. every night. Once we got past the first semester and the initial pivot to online learning, I was able to recalibrate, but my level of accessibility is still much higher than it had ever been prior to the pandemic.
Zahneis: Kimberly, you started as an associate dean during the pandemic. I’m curious how you saw the relational nature of your job changing in a hybrid and virtual environment.
Kimberly A. Griffin: In the past, to build relationships, I would sit across the table from somebody, have coffee with them, but now a lot of difficult conversations were being had over the phone or on Zoom. Certainly there were academic issues and things related directly to the nature of work that we had to address and deal with, but there were a whole host of life issues that were intervening that also might be more pressing to address. At the start of the pandemic, my son was a year and a half old, so juggling all the pieces of having a new job as well as having a little one at home will make me empathetic for the rest of my career to the ways that life can be mixed up with our work. We have to be mindful about how we create support structures for students, for faculty, for staff, for them to be able to continue to maintain their obligations while also doing the work that we need them to do. Relationships are one of the key ways to have a fuller understanding of how to balance all of those different pieces.
Zahneis: Chris, in terms of equity, how do you make sure that individuals can ask for flexibility without worrying that it reflects poorly on them?
Christopher S. Celenza: In the first months of the pandemic, there was a study that had come out that showed that single-author submissions by women had declined pretty precipitously to certain journals as compared to men. Despite all the various types of progress that we have made as a society, the burden of child care still fell disproportionately on women. When I got to Hopkins, some of the conversations about equity were underway, but they really didn’t start happening until later. We did things like extend the tenure clock for a year, and we are offering a second one if somebody wants it. We partnered with our central administration to provide grants to help people continue their research. We did our best, but I don’t think the equity issues are going to go away. Even at the outset of the pandemic, I believed that this was going to be something like a five-year experience for institutions. So I suspect we’re going to have to keep revisiting these questions as we go forward. And it’s hard because you have to do things that are in line with federal laws and you have to do things that are equitable for everybody. And yet sometimes you see clearly that a certain group has been disproportionately affected by what’s going on.
Zahneis: How do you get people back into the office when they might be reluctant? How do you form community right now?
Dawson: As a public institution, we are very much policy-driven, and this is a top-down policy. So some of the concerns are alleviated for me because people who have health concerns that they document will have accommodations. Individual faculty who expressed to me their concerns about coming back to campus is something I’ve had to deal with on a case-by-case basis. It is quite difficult to maintain community because a lot of people just are not here and we anticipated a lot more in-person classes. One of the ways that I have tried to maintain community is to get my faculty together informally on a regular basis, any subset of them just to have conversations. I did try to give everyone at least one or two in-person classes. But it has been a little bit difficult. We need to recalibrate our sense of community and what it means within the context of the department and the college.
Celenza: The staff component is really important, too, because we couldn’t do what we do without them. But a lot of things have changed. People are seeking opportunities elsewhere that might be fully online. The community is striated and there’s different parts of it, but ultimately it’s one big thing. And so to me, in-person was very important. It was like a floodgate opened here when we were able to be in-person again. Almost all the faculty and students wanted to be back. For the staff it was a little bit different. Every part of the community has its own characteristics and its own things we have to watch out for and care for.
Taviare L. Hawkins: My faculty really do want to be back in person, but maybe for this person over here, someone in the family got a positive test and so they couldn’t make it in. So then you have to open the online thing. One thing that’s really helped us, especially in the sciences, is that we’re still buddied up. If you get sick, your buddy is going to go in and teach your lab section. When you’re up for it, you can log on and do the lectures. We use that system to keep students engaged in person as much as possible.
Zahneis: Do you see the job as fundamentally different than it was before?
Dawson: I’ve been at my college for 30 years. This is my seventh year as department chair, so I have a bit of experience. My job has fundamentally changed. I believe that it has changed permanently. I’m not really sure if things are better or worse; they are just different. Flexibility is key.
Griffin: When you’re not able to sit beside someone, but instead have to have a Zoom call, then taking the extra moment to be intentional about building a sense of connection before jumping into hard conversations is important. You have to think about different ways to communicate with people. Sending an email and saying, “Oh, I’ll just bump into them in the hall later on and follow up” isn’t going to work anymore. So it’s brought a different type of intentionality to my work. In some ways it’s built my capacity to meet with people and connect with people. It’s easier in some ways to put a Zoom on the calendar with someone than to find a time when we can both have coffee.
Zahneis: In some cases, faculty members could be seen to be taking a pass on things that they might not have before the pandemic. How have you approached situations where you feel like faculty members have been phoning it in?
Hawkins: The pandemic has made people check out a little more than they normally would. But here’s Zoom again. You get to call them up and have that meeting and say, “Hey, I need a little help.” That can happen more frequently when you’re online. You can get their opinion on things or pitch an idea to them, and then you’ll see them show up in the meetings to help you out. So it’s been good and bad.
Zahneis: What about recruitment and retention now for faculty and staff members? Chris, you had mentioned that expectations for salaries may be different since colleges are increasingly competing with the private sector.
Celenza: There’s a lot of ways you can compensate people for their work. Finances are one, environment is another, and sense of fulfillment another. We’ve had instances of somebody who was going to come into our office, but then at the last minute they received another offer from a big tech firm on the other side of the country where they could work at home and the pay was almost twice as much. There was no way we could do that. But I think faculty, like all of us, are looking inside themselves and wondering, “What really matters most to me?” At the beginning of the pandemic, we were faced with our own mortality, with uncertainty. Some of us might have lost loved ones. The big takeaway is going to be community. We have to create a place where it’s fulfilling to work. Compensation is important for sure, and we’ll do the best we can, but there has to be something more, something you really feel like you’re a part of, a feeling that you’re at home when you’re here.
Griffin: It’s important to be clear about who we are and what we’re here to do and getting folks to buy in and invest in that. It’s easier to feel a sense of connection and feel motivated and committed if you see yourself reflected in the mission and in the values of the organization you’re working for. I just read something recently on burnout, and folks said they want resources, rewards, and rest. Even though there’s a million things to do, how do we not overload folks? How are we being intentional about helping them re-establish some of those boundaries that Mary Beth mentioned earlier? How do I model that I’m not working all the time, that we all need a little bit of a breather? I always bristled a little bit when we had conversations earlier in the pandemic about productivity, and there was a lot of, “Oh, people aren’t productive.” No, they’re working incredibly hard; they’re just not productive in the ways that we recognize. We need to let people know that they’re valued and that we really want to keep them here.