I don’t know how things are going where you work, but morale is pretty low at the institution where I teach. It’s palpable. It like a foggy malaise has descended upon the campus and taken over every office and classroom space. With the fog, there seems to be an existential dread that lumbers like a haunting specter across campus. It attends every committee meeting. It logs into Zoom. It even comes to class. It’s everywhere.
If I sound a little dramatic, I apologize. But I’m betting that some of my colleagues would argue that I’m actually underselling the state of affairs on campus. To some, the morale is probably a lot lower than I’m recognizing. It’s just a tough time to be working in education.
For me, I’m left to wonder, “Why? Why is morale so low?” We’re working at (mostly) the same institution with (mostly) the same people. The easy answer is “We’re still working through a global pandemic,” but that doesn’t seem to say enough about the issue. As I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking through the morale issues on campus, I landed back on an article titled Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty that I’ve shared a few times over the last five years. Written in 2001 by Jon Wergin, the article examines forty years of research and outlines four factors (autonomy, community, recognition, efficacy) that contribute the most to faculty motivation. While I know motivation and morale are different, the factors could offer a lens to view campus climate and morale. Beyond that, however, the factors could also provide some opportunities to improve things.
“Professional autonomy,” Wergin writes, “is the freedom to experiment, to follow one’s own leads wherever they may go and to do so without fear of the consequences.” When the pandemic hit, so much professional autonomy was put on hold as we responded to administrative directives that attempted to keep our campuses safe. Faculty didn’t have much freedom over how to offer their classes or how to interact with their students or colleagues. The lack of autonomy was demotivating and we’re seeing some of the lasting impacts of those processes.
As we struggled with a lack of autonomy, we were also missing a sense of community. Wergin writes that faculty possess a “desire to belong, to feel part of a nurturing community.” This is what motivates a lot of faculty to serve on committees, to join book groups, or to attend campus events. We want to participate in the campus community. While many of us continued to serve on committees and meet with our colleagues through the pandemic, it wasn’t the same. And we’re seeing the lasting effects of that loss of community.
I think everyone wants their work to be appreciated and recognized. Whether it’s receiving a thank you note from a student or receiving a compliment from a colleague, we all want “to feel valued and to know that others see (our) work as worthwhile.” But it’s hard to remember to recognize the efforts of others when we’re dedicating so much time and energy just getting through our academic days.
Efficacy, Wergin writes, “is a sense of having a tangible impact on our environment.” As faculty, we’re motivated by the hope that our efforts will make a difference in students’ lives or will contribute to some greater goal on campus. As we became physically distanced from our colleagues and students through the pandemic, those impacts became less visible, and our sense of efficacy was impacted.
While these factors can help us understand how we got here, they can also help us identify ways to improve things. As individuals, we may not have much ability to change someone’s sense of autonomy, but we can impact the other factors. We can recognize our colleague’s work. We can communicate the impact they’ve made. We can gather together as a community and celebrate.
I know these ideas oversimplify the challenges we’re facing and ignore the economic stressors that undoubtedly impact on campus morale. A lot of those issues fall outside of our control as instructors. I’m a big believer of “controlling what we can control” and the only thing I know I can control is how I work and interact with the people around me. And I know I need to do that in a way that honors their need for autonomy, community, recognition, and efficacy. Maybe it won’t have any impact on the morale on campus, but it can’t hurt to try.
Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50-53.