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From the Desk: Faculty staying the course in the face of uncertainty

Feb 3, 2021
Kathy Johnson standing in the Campus Center
Kathy Johnson, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer.Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

About five years ago, I took part in a series of trainings aimed at helping me be more effective in my leadership role as a new chief academic officer.

Recently appointed provosts and executive vice chancellors from around the country met every few months to learn about issues such as enrollment cliffs, strategic planning, budgeting, learning technologies and student success. A regular theme was preparing for the unexpected – how would we manage a cyberattack that disrupted internet access? An active shooter in a student center? A fire that decimated a research laboratory? This training helped me have the confidence that comes from planning for the worst.

However, we never in our wildest dreams could have fathomed the compounding crises of 2020 and how they would profoundly alter the ways we deliver academic programs. Nor could we have envisioned the stamina it would take to slog through weeks that morphed into months that are quickly careening toward an entire year of planning, pivoting and adapting, often at a fevered pitch. Or the sense of loss that would gradually settle in, given the scarcity of opportunities to engage with colleagues for support and camaraderie and to celebrate the normal things – a funded grant, a recent promotion, an award from a professional society, or even just the end of the week – at Chancellor’s.

But I also never could have envisioned the incredible strength, creativity, tenacity, kindness and good humor that IUPUI faculty and staff have demonstrated. Despite so many challenges, it’s because of our community that we have not witnessed disastrous consequences for our students and academic programs.

Yes, our enrollments of new students and international students have dropped temporarily, but many graduate programs and disciplines aligned with the health professions are thriving. For nearly a year, faculty and staff have gone to incredible lengths to support students’ well-being as well as their learning, and students have overwhelmingly risen to the challenge.

Yet there are limits to our capacity to keep on at this pace.

I personally can’t wait to strike forever from my vocabulary words such as “pivot” and “unprecedented.” Educators are anxious, burned out and tired from juggling an array of competing personal and professional obligations, often from the dining room table and with loved ones competing for precious bandwidth in order to learn or work.

Understanding these challenges, leaders in academic affairs have worked very hard with our faculty governance leaders – the best faculty governance leaders in the world, in my opinion – to put in place a number of policies and practices aimed at reducing people’s stress as much as possible.

My incredible colleagues who staff the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Institute for Engaged Learning enthusiastically and creatively helped faculty to become more comfortable using new learning technologies and to adapt undergraduate research, internships, global learning and service learning to the online or hybrid environment.

To help deans and chairs better understand the circumstances under which faculty have worked, we created the COVID-19 Annual Review Supplement. The goal of this supplement is to document the extraordinary contexts under which research, service and teaching activities were performed last year, and to help inform adjustments to workload that may impact annual reviews and decisions about merit. We will continue to work with the IUPUI Faculty Council to envision other ways we could support faculty in 2021.

As always, feedback from faculty colleagues is most welcome, particularly as we begin to engage in post-pandemic planning to ensure that our campus becomes stronger as a result of all we have been through together.

Kathy Johnson is the executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer at IUPUI and a professor of psychology.


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