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On a conference panel last week, chatting with colleagues from other institutions — one to the north of Mason, one to the south — I asked, of course, about how things were going. The intensity of the responses surprised me: morale was plummeting amid budget cuts, lack of ability to replace departing colleagues, and larger classes. Both colleagues proceeded to give lively, imaginative papers, showing (as one of them had noted) that research and teaching continue amid challenge, but the assessments were striking even so. By coincidence I then learned of a recent statement by some UVA faculty, again on gloomy circumstances: five years without a pay raise, more students admitted, etc.

There are often some faculty around who lament low morale, and sometimes we take these laments with a grain of salt, but there are good reasons to expect a wider confrontation in the future. And yet I’d like to argue, admittedly self-servingly as an administrator, that collapse into low morale is not our best option. Admitting some existing and probable future deteriorations, I’d like to urge colleagues to participate in helping guide momentum amid undeniable change and challenge, rather than sinking into despondency.

Step one involves some candor about degrees of pain. Public universities and many privates — though not all — are hurting, (although probably, on average, a bit less than other public employment sectors and far less than the outright unemployed — and also far less than faculties in many other nations). States like Virginia have suffered less than many sister states, some of which are still hacking budgets.

Step two, in a more positive scenario, involves openness about trends and issues, with faculty and administration collaborating rather than separating. At Mason, faculty and staff have gone a long time without raises, except for the gesture we were able to make (to the annoyance of some state officials) last year. Class sizes have gone up, from 26.2 five years ago to 27.4 last year (though down from a high of 28 in the midst of the crisis).  Student faculty ratios have risen from 15.1:1 to 16.0:1. This means, by the way, that we are admitting more students with some impact on teaching conditions, but also some budget relief that cushions the impact. Some faculty have seen teaching loads drop a bit (in three major units of the University), but others, including some administrative faculty, have been asked to do more. And unquestionably this is not, overall, a situation in which to expect dramatic reductions in teaching load. How awful this picture is, of course, must be up to the beholder.

Whatever the reaction, we must keep communication channels fully open and be ready to deal honestly with any questions and disagreements, rather than fall into an unhealthy combination of secrecy and rumor.

Step three: We have to acknowledge that more challenge lies ahead. We seem to have reached the end of an ability to react to public budget cuts with significant tuition hikes. Lots of people are concluding, reasonably enough, that while universities may be hurting, students and their families are hurting even more. This means, almost surely, that more changes must be contemplated, to seek reductions in costs, particularly if we want to be able to afford gains like salary increases in the future.

Which brings us back, squarely, to morale. My hope is that many faculty, grasping the situation rather than merely protesting, will collaborate in innovations and experiments that will make the future as positive as possible for universities, faculty themselves, and students. We need, to the extent possible, to take charge of the situation rather than yield gracelessly to external imposition. There are lots of positive interactions ahead.

We also need to be careful about how change is presented.  American universities continue to do lots of things right, including some traditional things and some newer approaches (for example, toward more active classroom learning). We won’t advance if faculty feel belabored and unappreciated by the outside world, and this means, it seems to me, some circumspection on the part of prophets of disruption.

The whole point is to have faculty part of the process, not its targets. Faculty can rightly hold administrators and state officials to account for the fairest and clearest possible policies, even while not expecting a real or imagined status quo ante. Morale can respond to positive responses to admittedly difficult circumstances. We don’t have full choice in our future, but we still have considerable margin, and morale will be partly within this realm of choice.