Demoralization Eats the Soul

I’ve been away from the blog for some time – apologies. I’ve been busy, or lazy, or consumed with angst at the state of the country/world, or working on the upcoming elections, or all of the above.  In any case, I remain deeply concerned about the state of higher education, with partisan divisions regarding the value of a college education as wide, if not wider, than ever. A recent FiveThirtyEight poll revealed that more than 80% of likely Republican voters believe that “Most college professors teach liberal propaganda.” (Only 17% of Democrats agreed.) As one respondent from Pennsylvania noted, “My daughter went to college as a staunch Republican and she came out a liberal Democrat.”

But no, this is not another tirade about the ugly cynicism of politicians who have found that hammering higher education (along with immigrant bashing) is their ticket into the culture wars dance. After all, targeting professors and student activists has been a staple of Republican campaigns since Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “The professors are the enemy,” Nixon proclaimed, a refrain picked up in the current electoral cycle by JD Vance, running for Senate in my state of Ohio. Speaking as the everyman taxpayer when running for governor in California in 1966,  Reagan questioned “why some instructors were able to use the classrooms to indoctrinate and propagandize [our] children against the traditional values of a free society in this country.”

There is more than a little irony in the fact that in the current Congress, every senator and 95%  of House members, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Boston University) to Marjorie Taylor Greene (University of Georgia) has been “indoctrinated” by these institutions so contemptuous of the “traditional values” of American capitalism. As Kelly Grotke recently wrote, “Most [higher education] institutions are run along similar lines as their peer institutions—which is why so many of us who have worked in or proximate to higher education find it grimly comic when the conservative media depict colleges and universities as bastions of illiberal un-American radicalism. Our universities and colleges are also places where people are trained in concepts and practices that normalize the financialization of society and are often governed by administrations and trustees who contribute to this shift, especially as governing boards have become increasingly dominated by financial, business, and legal professions.”

So, let’s turn our attention away from the cultural warriors roaring their terrible roars and gnashing their terrible teeth and focus instead on the administrators and trustees who run our educational institutions and are charged with keeping them financially stable and mission-focused. Individuals who are, ostensibly, on “our” side in their support of higher education. And, to be sure, there are a number of college and university leaders whose exemplary work on their own campuses and in calling attention to the attacks on higher education nationally are inspirational. I’m thinking here, to cite only two examples, of Michael Sorrell (Oberlin ’87), the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, who announced that, starting in fall 2023, any admitted student with a 3.0 GPA or higher who is eligible for a Pell grant can select two family members to start college with them. And Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC, who challenged her fellow presidents to “speak out about racial justice and political suppression of the truth about American history,” adding, “if we fail to speak out, how dare we robe ourselves in velvet and satin and march into our fall convocations to orate on the greatness of our institutions?”

Yet, on all too many campuses – my own, sadly, included – actions taken by administrators and trustees have produced disillusion rather than inspiration. Indeed, demoralization among faculty and staff is more widespread than I have witnessed over many decades of riding academia’s up and down cycles. Disengagement is widespread not because we have just been through more than two years of pandemic-driven turmoil and are “burnt-out,” to use the most common diagnosis. It is ubiquitous because the same leaders who relied on the extraordinary contributions of faculty and staff to keep the ship afloat during Covid’s long years (while simultaneously slashing their pay and benefits), appear to have quickly forgotten those efforts. It seems like just a few minutes ago that administrators were praising the dedication of staff and faculty for instantaneously pivoting to online instruction, insuring that libraries and offices could continue to operate under stringent Covid protocols, and attending to the complex stresses of isolated students. Now, they are warning faculty to stay in their own lanes and expecting staff to cheerfully pick up the work of their fired/retired colleagues. (Care to show your dedication by volunteering to help out in the dining halls or delivering food to student dorms?).

Critiques of administrators from faculty trained to cast a critical eye on everything are unremarkable; demoralization at this level isn’t, and it underscores a radical unease among faculty and staff that many administrators and trustees, by focusing exclusively on spreadsheets and marketing strategies, have lost sight of the purpose of a liberal education and have turned their backs on the community that is needed to sustain it.

Timothy Burke, a historian at Swarthmore, recently observed that many leaders “simply don’t care” about the state of faculty morale “because they actually don’t think there’s a meaningful difference between a disengaged and demoralized faculty and an engaged and energized one in terms that matter to the institutional bottom line.” After all, what does morale matter as long as colleges can attract customers (aka students), particularly in light of declining enrollments nationwide? Burke cautions that it should matter when demoralization “results in valued employees leaving and in recruitment difficulties because the word has gotten out.”  But in a labor market where an abundance of qualified faculty are eager to take the place of those who quit, “any academic leader who calculates that demoralized faculty and staff really don’t matter is arguably doing some pretty shrewd thinking.” Maybe trustees are simply fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities and looking out for the long-term financial health of the institution. So, I ask again, what difference does faculty and staff morale make if there are parents willing to pay the costs, faculty who are keen to teach the classes, and staff (more or less) available to run the library, serve the meals, and clean the rooms?

Plenty, as it turns out, if our (presumably shared) goal is to further student success.

So how do we determine what “student success” means? If the prospect of future earnings is the only indicator of student success, we can stop right here. Who needs a liberal education – or liberal arts colleges – if ROI (return on investment) is the only metric for measuring success. Just point students toward business degrees since the research suggests that the “economic value of business programs is high compared to the financial returns for other programs.” OK, maybe also offer programs in health, engineering and computer and information sciences, since these fields yield a high dollar amount of “success.” Problem solved. Higher education can now be laser-focused on turning out graduates who are trained to become well-compensated doctors, venture capitalists, lawyers, and programmers. (Wait…aren’t we already doing that, and raising Republican hackles in the process?) For those of you keeping score at home: what programs have your colleges chosen to shore up over the past few years? My guess is that it isn’t sociology, Russian, or art history.

And yet our administrators and trustees, to a large degree, have pledged themselves to serving colleges with broader missions, ones that emphasize not (just) individual accumulation, but social purpose, citizenship, committed service, and contributing to the well-being of others, which means that “success” will need to be measured differently.

A new book by Richard A. Detweiler, The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment (MIT Press, 2021), argues for a more comprehensive accounting of student success. Certainly, future earnings are a factor, but not a stand-alone. Success, he argues, should include “achievement over the longer term and the value of living a life involving leadership, making contributions to society, continuing to learn, or being culturally involved, and/or living with a sense of fulfillment.” With this in mind, the question becomes: How do our institutions enable a student’s long-term success in ways that are broadly aligned with our liberal arts mission?

Over the past few years, a number of books have been published which, using different methodologies, have come to a similar set of conclusions: student success understood in these broad terms derives more from developing an educational ecology that supports learning than from content acquisition or focus on a chosen major. (When Bryan Caplan complains that higher education is essentially worthless because students don’t remember the content of their courses, he misses the point entirely.) Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (How College Works, Harvard, 2014) argue that student success in higher education is founded on “human contact, especially face to face,” and “the pervasive influence of [satisfactory] relationships.” Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert (Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, Johns Hopkins, 2020) find that peer-to-peer, student-faculty, and student-staff relationships are the necessary foundation for learning, belonging, and achieving in college. Alison Cook-Sather and her co-authors write compellingly about the formation of authentic partnerships as essential for student (and faculty) success (Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty, Wiley, 2014, and Co-Creating Equitable Teaching and Learning: Structuring Student Voice into Higher Education, Harvard Education Press, forthcoming).

For his part, Detweiler extends these arguments, employing a sophisticated statistical analysis to measure the impact of a liberal education on long-term life outcomes. Liberal arts study, he argues, “always involves serving a common purpose (of value to both society and the individual),” and includes both the courses taken – the content of study – and the nature of the educational environment. “Overall,” he concludes, “while both content and context are associated with significant life outcomes, the content of study has less relationship to positive adult life outcomes than the educational context.” (Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of working with Rick at the Great Lakes Colleges Association for many years.)

When considering the importance of the educational context, Detweiler argues that liberal arts learning has (over millennia) involved an “attempt to create a personally involving, community-based, educational environment” as the essential foundation from which to support learning. When he interviewed educators and social scientists about the factors that stood out in fostering this educational community, he found that the key elements identified were the relationships that developed between faculty and students, the time faculty (and staff) put into mentoring, the degree to which instructors got to know students both inside and outside of class, and their availability to discuss academic and non-academic subjects with students outside of class. For faculty, this has always required that they develop teaching methods that actively involve students, devote time to mentoring and advising students, and take an active interest in students’ non-academic lives while they were in residence at college. For staff, it often means building personal relationships with the students they serve whether in the library or the dining hall, building competencies in new areas, and taking on new tasks. All of these responsibilities require a significant time commitment, and since these efforts are generally unappreciated, often overlooked, and rarely compensated, the student success economy has always rested on the unquestioned dedication that faculty and staff have shown to the students and the institution’s mission.

And this is why demoralization matters. As much as faculty and staff are devoted to student success, when they are disrespected, condescended to, ignored, or made to feel like interchangeable puzzle pieces rather than contributing members of a community, they will have little incentive to sustain the educational environment needed to produce student success. Whether demoralization drives faculty and staff to seek employment elsewhere or, more likely, to “just do their job” and nothing more, it will not produce the kind of community that student success requires, either in the short run or over the longer term. As Timothy Burke concludes, this realization is not hidden from “people who’ve been somewhere long enough to know the difference between disengagement and commitment,” and it will only lead to “an accelerating feedback loop of demoralization—the more you know what was and should still be, the more you feel simultaneously powerless and anguished about where things seem to be going.”  


Note: All illustrations by Harry Clarke from the 1919 version of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Wikimedia Commons)


Gerard J. De Groot, “Ronald Reagan and Student Unrest in California, 1966-1970,” Pacific Historical Review 65:1 (Feb 1996): 107-129.

Richard A. Detweiler, The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment (MIT Press, 2021).

Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking (Penguin, 2022)

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton, 2018)

 Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (How College Works, Harvard, 2014)

Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert (Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College(Johns Hopkins, 2020)

Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (Wiley, 2014).

Alison Cook Sather, Co-Creating Equitable Teaching and Learning: Structuring Student Voice into Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, forthcoming).

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