The Long Tail of COVID

Feb 28, 2021

Photo by Milada Vigerova from Pexels

We’re starting to think about what emergence from this pandemic could look like. This is difficult enough in the near term–but what if we instead place ourselves at the imagined vantage point of five or ten years after COVID? This perspective leads us to interesting retrospective questions. What do DU faculty need to have thought about? How has the pandemic shaped Higher Education in the decade since? What sort of systems did we build, and were they more just than the ones with which we responded to COVID-19? How did we meet the technological and ethical challenges of recovery while sustaining the University of Denver as a whole?  

A “long-tail” denotes a distribution where many events occur far from the “head” or central part of the distribution. While this term is most often used in statistics, it also applies to the health effects for many COVID-19 patients. Similarly, although the bulk of flashy disruptions (your “unprecedented events”) occurred as part of the acute period of the pandemic, the effects on the academic workplace will no doubt be profound and long lasting. Here, in dialogue with higher education commentators,  we sketch out a few possible directions for these changes and suggest some of the questions we ought to be asking today at DU about what kind of post-pandemic professoriate we want to build.

How will the academic workplace change? In contrast to those campus employees who have not been able to transition to remote work, most faculty members have spent nearly a year of teaching, researching, and engaging in service without necessarily setting foot on campus. While the fate of the MOOC craze of the early 2010s should make us cautious about proclaiming the death of place-based education, some changes in what is taught online seem likely. This may mean a readjustment of modalities at campuses so that more courses are permanently offered remotely, but may also promote in-person courses that are technologically enhanced, taking advantage of tools like discussion boards, video conferencing, and digital collaboration to supplement what occurs in the classroom.  While there are predictions that the post-COVID labor market will be dominated (at least in white collar professions) by telework, it is unclear whether this will hold true in academia, where students appear to recognize the value of in-person education, balking at paying high tuition and dorm fees to dial into zoom calls. In addition to preparing DU students to be critical thinkers and problem-focused learners,  we may have to adjust our pedagogy to ready students for the challenges that the new workplace will offer.

The COVID epidemic raises additional questions for DU and other universities. Will faculty follow the exodus of tech workers from expensive urban cores to relocate in more affordable markets? Will academic conferences and travel return to pre-pandemic norms, or will virtual presentations, which have clear environmental benefits, become standard? 

It is impossible to understand the effects of COVID-19 on the professoriate, without considering how existing power structures shape how individuals experience pandemic-related challenges. U.S. health disparities–most notably along racial, age, and class lines–mean a varied relationship to the virus itself (not to mention the clear ableism of many responses), adding to the more generalized threats to mental health and well-being. Caregivers, especially of young children or adults with heavy burdens, are bearing the brunt of all types of increased workload, especially during closures of schools and daycare centers and uncertainties about elder care facilities. Since caregivers are more likely to be of color, female, and from a poor or working-class background, COVID has clear implications for gender and racial equity related to promotion and advancement. Class issues also emerge in terms of technological access and space to work comfortably from home; these are compounded by academic caste systems which mean that adjunct faculty have far fewer material resources.  Even the additional emotional labor of supporting students, who experience all of these challenges themselves, often falls unequally on minoritized faculty. And while the summer of 2020 saw large-scale protests on behalf of racial justice, which is inspiring, the backlash and continued lack of major progress in this area can foster “racial battle fatigue.” However, the call to consider responses to COVID-19 as a way to advance reparations to Black communities is gaining momentum. What would it look like at DU to see COVID recovery as an avenue to racial justice, to the black community and beyond? And what types of courses, degrees, and research projects can we build to better understand inequity and the pandemic?   

COVID’s long term and complex impacts on scholarly productivity and work/life balance are hard to predict. Faculty workload was unmanageable pre-pandemic. Labs and archives have been shuttered and conferences and performances canceled. Caregivers and COVID patients most obviously have had their scholarly routines disrupted, but the psychological pressure of the pandemic (and politics) is widespread and devastating. Social isolation, including for those who live alone, is real and harmful. The choices that universities and disciplines make about how to support faculty during and after the pandemic, and also about how to measure and value work, will have long-reaching effects on the composition of the professoriate. How can we re-frame how success is defined in the Academy to recognize this reality? 

Campus responses to COVID-19 will also shape the pipeline of future faculty, most notably through the halting or slowing of admissions at many graduate schools. PhDs graduating in 2020 and 2021 face a competitive market with hiring freezes in place at many campuses. The sharp decline in international students may mean fewer international faculty in the future. It also seems likely that limited spots in graduate programs, depending on how admissions processes are designed, may limit diversity. Existing graduate students may face financial challenges, exacerbated by the student debt crisis, that could cause some to leave academia. And employment prospects are dim at schools facing existing demographic and other challenges along with pandemic-related losses. What will we do to sustain our graduate programs and prepare students for the academic workplace of the future? How will we attract and retain diverse faculty members in a contracted market? 

COVID exposes financial challenges for most universities, but especially for state-funded institutions and those highly dependent on international student tuition revenue. Although DU does not face an existential threat, in contrast to  “hundreds, maybe thousands of colleges that entered last March with already precarious finances”, financial pressure will no doubt impact us. While many predict a “great contraction” in the sector, with many campuses closing, what does this mean for campuses that survive? How will DU grow into the five strategic imperatives as a way to meet this challenge? 

Faculty and Staff are most likely to flourish when they are experts at the work they do most often. Yet the temptation is to respond to COVID with a sense of scarcity and to layer more responsibilities on faculty and staff, with the noble intent of supporting students and the mission of DU. How do we make space for faculty to do the work that they are experts at—while also weathering the fallout from COVID and preparing ourselves for the future?

We look forward to thinking with you about these issues and hope to see you at the Provost’s Conference series on the Post Pandemic University.

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