Sink or Swim

I am a chair at an institution in distress; we are experiencing line terminations of junior faculty and other budgetary cuts. The line cuts have been particularly challenging for many reasons, not least the hope that was dangled in the announcement that the lines could be restored if other cuts seem sufficient, which has made it very hard to organize. The junior faculty, extremely creative, amazing teachers with excellent publication records, feel unsupported by senior faculty, even shunned to a certain degree, and also sometimes feel cut out of decisions. Senior faculty feel like they are uncertain what to do: they are unsure how to fight back, and are uncomfortable doing planning for next year that may likely involve planning to not have the junior faculty present. Some are themselves in fight/flight/freeze mode. The sense of “business as normal” can be excruciating when business is not, in fact, normal. How ought a chair best navigate these challenging waters?—Sink or Swim

Dear Professor Swim,

I don’t envy you. Many smaller colleges, especially in New England and across the Rust Belt are going through a similar experience. As we’ve seen with the closing (or last-minute salvation) of several institutions over the past few years, small liberal arts colleges and regional universities that don’t have the benefit of large endowments are feeling the pinch. And according to some sources it’s only going to get worse. As with all statistics, these numbers are more than just empty figures: they’re people’s lives. And colleges like yours are where the statistics are experienced first hand. While there’s not much you can do about the economic and demographic realities, you can help your colleagues deal with the fall-out.

I’d imagine that you’re suffering as much as your colleagues are, if not more given that you feel responsible for the folks in your department and their morale. It’s not quite clear from your letter where you are in the process of retrenchment, i.e., whether some line cuts have already taken place or they’re still uncomfortably on the horizon. But here are some suggestions that might make life a little easier for you and your colleagues in the department. So first, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself emotionally and physically. These transitions are exhausting for everyone involved, and as someone in a leadership position you’re also having to absorb the anxiety of those around you. Get plenty of sleep, eat as healthfully as you can, move your body on a regular basis, and take some quiet time for yourself, either just by closing your office door and listening to relaxing music or trying meditation. Spend time with friends and try not to obsess about work. Once you’ve been able to find some time and space for self-care you’re much better prepared to help others.

As difficult as it might be, now is the time for community building, even (or especially) if members of the community don’t feel a great deal of solidarity for each other. This will take several simultaneous efforts. My sense is that your goal is to help colleagues out of feeling that fight/flight/freeze impulse. While I don’t think that you should encourage people to give up, there might be some utility in having them repurpose that energy. Organize a gathering of your senior faculty over a meal and talk through their concerns. Let them know how the junior faculty feel, without casting blame in any direction. Acknowledge their own discomfort at the unpredictability of the moment, but also impress on them how important it is for them to support each other and their junior colleagues (whether they’ll be colleagues next year or not). Get your junior faculty together at a similar kind of event. You need to be honest with them about how grim things look, but you can also reassure them that they have the full support of the department whether they’re able to stay at your institution or not (I’m assuming you’ve already written recommendation letters for those who are looking for jobs elsewhere, but given the current employment situation, that may or may not be enough for them to land another position). Put together opportunities for your faculty to spend time together that isn’t organized around freaking out, such as brown bag lunches in which they can share their research or pedagogy with each other. Your goal here is to build fellow-feeling any way you can.

This may all seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, to be sure. But I’d argue that the more inhumane the situation, the more compassionate towards each other your department needs to be. It may be that you can then put your heads together to work out ways to respond to these cuts that will minimize the pain across the board, something that your colleagues are currently incapable of doing, given how little they’re trusting each other right now. Or not. At any rate, the next couple of years will be a little more bearable for everyone.

—The Chair