Going Above and Beyond: Measuring Faculty Activity During a Crisis

May 21, 2020 Nikki Kowbel

As higher ed made an emergency transition to remote learning and research this spring, faculty were challenged to change the format and content of their courses while creating a positive learning experience for students. Remote work also changed faculty’s ability to conduct research and scholarship. As a result, institutions are reevaluating their faculty review processes, including adjusting tenure timelines, broadening the scope of measurement, and shifting priorities to reflect the realities of what faculty faced in the spring term.

While higher ed has faced incredible challenges and a high volume of change this spring, many institutions are taking the lessons they have learned through the transition to build out digital processes to drive long-term improvements.

In a recent panel discussion, Brandon Shields, Assessment and Accreditation Analyst, Kent State University; Jody Waters, Associate Provost and Director of Graduate Studies, Southern Oregon University; and Susan Powers, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Indiana State University highlighted the heroics they’ve seen from faculty members as they shifted their courses online and talked through how their institutions are using technology to track all the ways faculty are going above and beyond in this new educational environment.

Letting faculty ‘stop the clock’

Faculty’s teaching, research, and service have changed in so many ways because of the pandemic that an automatic extension to the faculty review, promotion, and tenure clock isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Many institutions are giving faculty the option to request an extension, but they can ultimately decide whether to take the offer or proceed on their existing schedule.

“Not everybody needs it, not everybody wants it. If we grant everybody, that means that some people have to go out for promotion early, which is a larger hassle,” Powers said. “We may have to consider some longer extensions for some of those science faculty whose experiments have been horribly disrupted, or faculty who rely heavily on travel for international presentations or international data collection who have been thwarted on those activities and work.”

In addition to considering extending the promotion and tenure clock, some institutions are reevaluating the expectations around promotion and tenure to reflect the shift in job requirements and responsibilities faculty have faced as a result of COVID.

“We passed a statement of intent and recommendation of amending our bylaws to make a temporary adjustment to university-wide promotion and tenure expectations to allow for things like extraordinary service to the community or different roles played on campus during this time,” Waters said. “There's also some recognition for informal leadership roles, which I think is something that our faculty are really appreciative of. Our faculty, like many institutions, struggle with the construct that there's a lot of unseen labor that they put into their jobs, that can range from interacting with students who are in distress, a lot of advising, but then also the informal leadership roles that are really hard to capture.”

Due to travel restrictions and shifting priorities, faculty are seeing their plans for publications, presentations, and research postponed or cancelled. This requires faculty to find new ways to publish their work, and for institutions to start measuring and recognizing these activities as part of the broader scope of a faculty member’s contributions. “There's been such upheaval for them in their relationships to the institution and with their students, but more importantly to their careers,” Powers said. “For our junior faculty in particular, this has been so disruptive that they are really looking to the administration, their other colleagues, and their faculty Senate to provide them with a framework within which they can still feel protected and supported.”

This extends to using student feedback in the review, promotion, and tenure process. While many institutions have chosen to stay the course in their survey and evaluation process, they are choosing to allow faculty to determine whether they include these course ratings in their portfolio, risk-free. This allows the institution to effectively capture data on student and faculty performance, stay on track and compliant with assessment requirements, and learn from student feedback while keeping the extraordinary circumstances of spring 2020 in mind.

Southern Oregon University has taken the idea of the “asterisk semester” one step further, adjusting the data they're capturing in their faculty professional activities report to get more detailed insights into the faculty experience during the pandemic. “At [faculty’s] request, we altered our data collection screens to include sections for their annual self-assessment that allow them to comment on how the pandemic affected their work and how they responded,” Waters said. “It'll actually be really interesting to do some analysis afterwards in terms of looking at how the faculty responded, what they were able to learn, and what stress points they identified. Given the size of our faculty, we can actually move on those pretty quickly into summer and fall teaching.” This data, combined with student feedback, will help the institution get a sense of the quality of instruction in the online environment.

The changing scope of research and service

Measuring the “extracurriculars” has become even more challenging this spring, as continually shifting priorities has caused research and service to move further down the list as faculty go above and beyond in other areas. Due to the need for social distancing, faculty have spent significant time and energy moving classes online, adjusting their lesson plans to accommodate remote learning, and supporting students through the transition.

“This semester has really been about teaching. We’ve definitely heard from faculty that they’ve had less time to work on research this semester,” Shields said. “We have said that they should not be asked to do as much [other service activities or committees] to compensate for the fact that they are doing all of this additional work creating these courses.”

The pandemic has also opened up new research opportunities. “There are plenty of faculty who've also found new research streams and have already started doing some scholarly work on what it means to be a faculty member in this situation and what it means to their teaching,” Powers said. “While it will close some doors for people, it's opened other doors.”

For schools that play a significant role in their communities, faculty are finding new ways to engage and help. “We have a number of folks who are already either being recruited or have reached out to community partners to see if the institution can lend some expertise to managing some of the problems that are emerging or are being made worse by the pandemic, specifically food insecurity,” Waters said. “There's a natural fit between some of the really unfortunate exacerbations of inequity that have occurred because of the pandemic and the research and the expertise that our faculty members are able to lend.”

Making it easier for faculty to engage

To facilitate the quick transition to remote learning and accommodate other shifts in faculty workload and focus, many institutions had to rapidly adjust their policies and procedures. In some cases, bylaws and policies needed to be modified to allow decisions that were once made face-to-face in lengthy committee meetings to be made remotely, and to adjust communication strategies to ensure students and faculty understood changes to grading and other policies.

While these changes were required to keep things on track during the pandemic, there are long-term benefits to creating remote workflows and using technology to manage processes. The shift to remote work has made it possible for more faculty members to get involved in departmental meetings and committees, and will allow for ongoing engagement as travel restrictions lift and faculty resume their on-the-go schedules. “The senate at their last meeting rewrote some of their bylaws to allow for remote meetings, so they could actually now allow a faculty member who works largely at a distance or a faculty member who is away at a conference to be able to participate in Senate deliberations and votes,” Powers said. “The pandemic opened up new opportunities for faculty that would never have been able to be engaged in some of the service activities.”

A lasting impact

Faculty have demonstrated creativity, strength, and resilience in the ways they have worked through the challenges brought by the pandemic, and the lessons learned this spring can create a stronger foundation for the future of higher education. “We can see this seeding some things that may ultimately make the institution stronger and more responsive. There are almost no conversations these days on our campus that don't have significant meaning. It's a very dense time in terms of taking in information, analyzing it, trying to make sense out of it because the stakes are really high,” Waters said. “We are taking a lot away from the level of commitment that our faculty, that our staff, our administrators and our students have shown, and trying to apply that resilience to how we build something moving forward.”

To hear more from our panelists on how technology is supporting their faculty activity reporting efforts, watch the on-demand recording.

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