Owning the Fail

Students have a right to be disappointed in our institutions.
By a lecturer in Florida

This article is part of a series, "Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic." 

One day last May, my daughter showed up on my doorstep, and for the first time in two months, I had someone to hug. Before that, we’d shared lockdown happy hours on our respective porches, in separate cities, on our phones, listening to mockingbird mating calls together and surfing the strangeness: How it felt for her, in her first year as an educator, to teach history and civics to high school sophomores whose parents had lost their jobs in the hospitality industry. How it was for me, a college lecturer with sixty composition students whose first year got cut off at the legs. We marveled at people’s ability to change behaviors, at how swiftly the air and waters can clear. We talked pedagogy, mental health, bureaucracy, credentialing. “No one’s ever done this before,” I said. “No one in history has ever put all of education online, all at once.” We went silent, wondering about the future.

We spent the rest of the school year teaching in my house, in separate rooms. I sometimes overheard her classes and meetings. Her school operates on an ethos of open, frank communication. “We own our fails,” she told me. “We’re almost proud of sharing them. It proves we want to do things better.” It’s a transparent approach that reveals, to me, just how deeply teachers at her school trust in and value one another.

The high school students have hat day and other incentives to keep their spirits up. One night I walked into a room where my daughter was doing crafts and chatting to students on Google Hangout. “It’s the I’m Bored Club,” she said, for kids with nothing to do and nowhere to go, kids who like knowing a caring adult is available. I, too, had set up postsemester sessions with my fiction-writing students who feared losing camaraderie and motivation over the summer. We both, apparently, find a need to extend ourselves in this way.

One day my daughter started running around the house in a frenzy, giggling and shrieking at me to help her find some canned food, rope, and scissors. When she had a pile of random objects on the kitchen counter, she slapped her phone and said, “Done!” She and her coworkers were having a scavenger hunt. Why not? I thought. Then, Why am I so envious? I suddenly wanted moving, shrieking fun like that. Maybe I was envious of the tacit agreement that care was necessary to the job. The teachers at my daughter’s school met highly stressful circumstances with an equal measure of support for one another. Students are especially needy now, as their school counselor confirmed: they are twice as depressed, in twice the numbers. I guess the teachers needed to jump-start some joy.

Maybe I was envious simply because I was witnessing good leadership. Jesus, I thought, administrators serving teachers! Wow!

If only colleges and universities would follow such an example. Just when we most need teamwork, transparency, and trust, we have a one-way flow of communication that feels strategically short-sighted, designed for the optics.

Days before my daughter showed up, my university president announced the campus would be reopening in the fall, when experts predict a second wave of coronavirus infections. The president described all the ways planners were “reimagining spaces,” securing COVID-19 tests, and maintaining flexibility. This is someone who earned academic and policy credentials in the fields of medical science and public health, and therefore should inspire confidence. Video messages remind university “stakeholders” of all that impressive experience. Surely, the voice, hand gestures, and words proclaim, this is exactly the president to trust in our current predicament.

But the president answers to a board of trustees whose top-down, opaque decision-making process shows little of the shared governance that was once the hallmark of robust universities. Maybe the board and some panels of experts were consulted, but professors were not, and forget about staff or contingent faculty members like me. We were informed that staff and non-tenure-track faculty would face furloughs, layoffs, and a 10 percent pay cut if we returned to work. What do we know? Who cares?

Administrators have their bottom line, their corporate rationalizations in this era of public defunding. But something is wrong when, like hospitals, they cut salaries and lay off the frontline workers whom they need most right now—the people who do 70 percent of undergraduate instruction and make the biggest difference in student retention and, thus, in academic success and tuition flow (and, by consequence, those all-important ratings).

So, a shout out to you magnificent nurses! The precariat feels you.

Decisions are being made by corporate reflex: Downsize vulnerable workers. Put PR over transparency. Tweak the president’s seven-figure salary and the bloated administration, just so you can say you did. Don’t ask us for ideas. Refuse to let us create a path to our own survival. The message is clear: Shut up. We’re not a team.

Universities have clung to their corporate mission creep as if it were the only way to survive. But from the innards of the beast, it feels like the opposite of survival; it feels like slow death. Witnessing my daughter’s joyous, midpandemic meetings with her principal, I finally admitted to the full weight of my bitterness. I am as deeply disappointed in universities right now as I am in the Democrats, the party I will vote for this November. We’re like the church that, having lost its way, needs Martin Luther to call its corruption by name and nail a few theses to the door.

Universities can no longer afford to limit themselves to bottom-line thinking. If we don’t use this moment to do the right thing, with an ethos of care and transparency, we lose all credibility, and students have every right to question the meaning and value of their degrees. Doing right might be the way to earn back all that public good will we squandered with soaring tuitions. Doing right may be the only way to survive. We are obviously working from the wrong model. Let’s own our fail.