A Communication Compact


            “…As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you may think.”  Campbell

 WHY: CONTEXT -  Almost three COVID-years have passed.  Academic program enrollments have declined, some programs have been reshaped and redirected, and some programs have been eliminated.  Some have been newly created and are thriving even though general university enrollments in most schools have tended to decline.  Some students have thrived in new, virtual environments and some have been devastated by them.  Faculty have suffered burnout and resigned and/or retired.  Those who have stayed the course or have had no choice but to stay the course, often simply waiting to return to “normality,” have experienced curricular frustration, severe departmental budget cuts and restraints, anxiety over new, mandated content delivery modes, health and safety mandates and restrictions, and a host of other issues.  Certainly, what it means to be a faculty member and fulfill faculty roles and responsibilities has required “flexibility.”

            The past three years have presented an environment far from the “normality” of what the university community was used to navigating.  Faculty unions in higher education during the COVID years have opened conversations concerning compensation for “extra” work outside the “normal” faculty professional roles and responsibilities and for what is adequate and appropriate professional development and support services.  Faculty have focused on learning to make appropriate adjustments to health and safety code restrictions, administrative mandates in reaction to those restrictions, and management of course delivery to preserve the integrity of each of their courses and student learning.  Faculty have been generally stellar in doing so and their experience has garnered a wealth of shareable data and intuitive realizations about student learning.  Academic Senates have had conversations concerning program and course revision, combination, closure, and program integrity as well as creation and viability of new academic programs.  What it means to be a “student” in virtual academic environments and on campuses without much of a range of student activity opportunities has had a definite impact on both enrollment and recruitment.  Administrative roles have been changed and impacted as well by severe budget reductions and constraints.  Staff has been caught between all parties while attempting to serve everyone and yet negotiate their job, layoffs, and their life during transitions from the office to home and from home back to the office.

  In short, unions have demanded compensation, administration has demanded change and accountability, and students have demanded specific content delivery mediums and options.  The conversations among the factions have often been contentious and divisive.  As a staff member at a major university said recently, “In the boardroom, the voices are loud, disrespectful, and counterproductive.  No one is listening.”                                                                                                                             

            During the past three years of the pandemic, everyone has lived with a certain amount of disarray and uncertainty.  As we move forward out of a “COVID environment,” one option is to bring participants together to explore and examine what has transpired in the past three years, create (where possible) better ways of moving forward, and collaboratively and collectively build new and better structures.  This is a time to assess, invest, and reassess all the “extra work” and utilize the new and emerging faculty, student, and administrative expertise that has emerged.  The question is whether faculty unions and other campus constituents can play an important role in this discussion and whether they should be invited to do so – not to negotiate, but to collaborate.  A Communication Compact, in some form, could be a route to explore.  Bringing the voices of key constituents respectfully to the table to inform each other, understand each other, and collaborate with one another could have long fingers for finding and smoothing new understandings, structures, protocols, and positive directions forward.  The Compact would be based on the need for creating an environment of professional respect, trust, and collaboration.

WHO and HOW: Organizational Structure

            The Provost would lead the Communication Compact and be responsible for its effective and respectful functioning and bring the voices of campus constituents together for collaboration on pertinent academic issues.  Voices at the table would be those necessary to a full hearing, analysis, and understanding of the issue(s) at hand.   A sampling of the constituents could be any of the following: Provost and Academic Affairs, Academic Senate, Faculty union, Student Affairs, Finance, Student government, Accreditation, and Staff leadership.  Possibilities are not limited.  The core of the Compact could logically consist of Academic Affairs, the Academic Senate, and the faculty union since it is not unusual now for the Provost to meet individually with these two constituents to address specific issues. 

At a time when faculty unions are talking about compensation for “extra work,” they should not only be at the table, but they should have a voice in helping to define what “extra” means and whether “extra” is really “extra” or whether it is merely expected behavior under contractual descriptions of professional behaviors and whether there is room for the “extra” that has led to innovative approaches to pedagogy and can be used effectively in tenure and promotion portfolios.  If they don’t do it at this type of table, they will certainly do it at the negotiating table.  Faculty unions need to be collaborators with administrators, staff, and faculty.  Bringing the voices together for a broader look at the issues that have arisen during COVID and their impact on student learning, faculty development, and the university community in general could provide insights leading to better revisions of and creation of new academic frameworks, student learning, and understanding of faculty roles and responsibilities.

 WHAT: SAMPLE ISSUE - Professional Academic Frameworks

            The following sample issues of professional academic frameworks ripe for discussion as we move forward from the COVID experience are issues that would involve collaboration with faculty unions and/or faculty governance units.  COVID, in large and/or small ways, has changed or demanded “flexibility” in these frameworks/standards and responsibilities for faculty.  Some of the professional structures impacted by COVID that may need to be addressed are usually established by/within faculty contracts and governance documents.  Conversations concerning the positive and negative nature of the changes and “flexible” understandings that have taken place can help determine improved paths forward rather than just returning to the temporary comfort of the way things used to be.

            The five “clauses” below are a traditional part of faculty contracts and governance documents.  These “clauses” could focus the conversation on better and more up-to-date frameworks for faculty responsibilities.  Creating new paradigms for functioning effectively will be essential in a new world of higher education in which faculty, students, and administrators will need to find new ways to best promote, support and nurture one another in mutually beneficial ways in whatever a post-COVID culture looks like. 

+ The “Teaching” clause

+ The “Health and Safety” clause

+ The “Professional Behavior” clause

+ The “Tenure / Promotion” clause

+ The “Professional Development” clause

Professional Cycles and Processes

Professional cycles and processes abound in academe.  Tenure and Promotion are two of the very important and traditional professional goals for faculty that could be used as an example.  Adapting the processes and protocols for tenure and promotion to incorporate the adaptations faculty have already made (and those they will likely have to continue to make in the future) in pedagogy and professional roles and responsibilities could provide a meaningful discussion of professional standards.  At the same time, discussion of the commitment needed from administrators to promote appropriate professional development and innovation initiatives for faculty in a post-COVID culture is also necessary. 

Professional Readiness: PD / Innovation

Mandated transitions to virtual delivery models have shown gaps between effective and efficient usage of technology and misuse of technology.  Lots of questions arise: What constitutes readiness to effectively teach in today’s world of higher education, regardless of tenure or promotion status?  What demands does that place on faculty regardless of habitual or comfortable methodologies?  What types of professional development are necessary and beneficial to help meet and address those demands?  How do these affect assessment models and how, in turn, do these assessment models affect faculty workload demands – or, are those demands part of a traditional or newly defined framework of faculty responsibility?  These conversations then return to the important discussion of the commitments required from administrators.  The conversations also have import for accreditation demands and responsibilities. 

The questions above are also important to innovation models and how they are encouraged, supported, and incorporated within frameworks for tenure and promotion and merit.  Faculty have generally become more collaborative and innovative during COVID.  They have worked creatively to find ways to adapt to the restrictions and mandates of both familiar and unfamiliar teaching environments in order to bring and maintain integrity to student learning.  All these issues and conversations, to some degree, are interdependent and interrelated. 

How beneficial would it be to have professional frameworks, policies, and procedures that reflect and reinforce that?  How beneficial would it be to have all the key constituents who have experienced the trauma COVID has inflicted on higher education to have a voice at the table to help find better ways forward?


Respectfully submitted,

Paul A. Blake, Ph.D.

Provost, Ferris State University, retired

Big Rapids, Michigan 


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