Now Is the Time to Make Yourself Too Valuable to Lose

Higher Ed May 20 / Special / May 28, 2020

– Thomas Mennella –

There you are, anxious and concerned. You are trained in one area, expert in that area; in fact, but your future is uncertain. COVID-19 has disrupted education, the fallout is unknown, and the end of these times is nowhere in sight. Are you feeling nervous about what comes next? In one year’s time, will you be without an income, without a job? This might sound dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be for educators who are taking steps to plan right now. The near future of higher education is in flux and difficult to anticipate. The question is: how will you weather this storm? How can you make it through this disruption unscathed?

Higher education, in its current state, is in peril and it is unlikely that higher ed will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic unchanged.  As Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz reports in the Chronicle, approximately 73 percent of surveyed colleges and universities plan on resuming face-to-face instruction in the fall semester. Yet despite that, faculty and staff at those same institutions express grave concerns and misgivings. When prompted for their biggest issues this fall, employees of higher education expressed concerns ranging from effectiveness of instruction to fear for their lives. And it’s not just those of us who work for higher education who are feeling this uncertainty. Writing for Education Dive, Jeremy Bauer-Wolf summarizes the current state of college recruitment efforts in a series of articles, and it is not encouraging. Bauer-Wolf writes, “With the coronavirus, and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, throwing the country into economic turmoil, the pool of students colleges are battling over will likely become much shallower.” In 2018, tuition made up approximately 47 percent of public colleges’ total revenue, as compared to 36 percent in 2008, and international student enrollment, a major tuition revenue driver for many institutions, is down significantly. Bauer-Wolf notes, “Colleges in precarious financial positions likely couldn’t afford even a mild enrollment slide,” and we’re about to experience a major one. This lost revenue, coupled with unexpected costs of IT infrastructure needed to support the rapid transitions to remote instruction that most institutions embraced, has already led to some worrisome fallout. The Chronicle’s Emma Pettit highlighted the steps that colleges are tracking to make up these budgetary shortfalls. She describes instructors being non-renewed for Fall 2020 at UMass-Boston, the City of University of New York system’s plans to eliminate hundreds of adjunct positions, and “thirty-one faculty members [being] laid off at Missouri Western State University, while 20 others will receive terminal one-year contracts.” And, it’s not just faculty and instructors. At Ohio University, 140 custodial staff members are being laid off and “the university will also impose a tiered furlough in the next fiscal year, which [its president] estimates will save around $13 million.” I am not Chicken Little…. The sky is falling.

So what can you do to protect yourself, to protect your livelihood, and to weather this higher education storm? I am reminded of some sage advice I received from a colleague many years ago. I was a tenure-track junior faculty member at a state university, and my institution was experiencing a fairly dramatic enrollment downturn. The administration was prepared to take drastic action and I expressed concerns about my job security. This colleague chuckled and said, “You have nothing to worry about; you’re valuable. You just want to make getting rid of you a bigger headache for the administration than keeping you. And, you certainly do that.”  Clearly, I’ve never forgotten those words, and never have they been more apropos than now. Be valuable. Make losing you worse than keeping you. That’s the secret to weathering this storm. But how?

Diversify – Instructional Design

Does scholarship and research (and everything else that pulls you out of the classroom) spoil your day? Is your happy place in front of your students? Do you love teaching? Consider a lateral career move to instructional design. Instructional designers are the hidden army of educators marching us forward to effective and high impact remote instruction. IDs live and breathe pedagogy, creating robust and engaging online learning environments that facilitate student learning and instructor engagement. And, IDs are leading the charge in this current grand experiment that higher education has been thrust into for online learning. Do you want to keep working in higher ed? Become an ID. The title of Peter Decherney and Caroline Levander’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed says it best: “The Hottest Job in Higher Education: Instructional Designer.” They write, “The field of instructional design has exploded over the past few decades. Since 2004, demand has been on the rise — up by more than 20 percent nationwide…Because of the black swan event that is COVID-19, this new field of academic labor has received a boost previously unimaginable. While universities institute hiring freezes and dangle the threat of layoffs, those same universities are posting new advertisements for instructional designers, learning designers and instructional technologists.” The safest port of refuge right now in higher education is in the Bay of Instructional Design. There are a number of wonderful online masters degree programs specifically in this field that grease the wheels of this career shift (and shameless plug or not, here is one that I helped to design). 

Diversify – Go Grad!

Perhaps we’re all using too broad of a brush as we predict this hurricane swooping down on higher ed. It’s safer to say that undergraduate instruction is in peril. Graduate education is a different story. For starters, many of the most successful non-science graduate programs were already online long before COVID-19.  In these programs, instructors and students barely noticed the pandemic (academically speaking, at least). Furthermore, graduate programs appear poised to do phenomenally well amid this crisis. Emma Whitford, also writing for Inside Higher Ed, notes that “more than half of Americans have lost jobs, hours or income as a result of the pandemic. Of those people, graduate and professional degree holders are more likely to have started a new job in the past month than people with a bachelor’s degree, associate’s or vocational degree, some college education, or a high school diploma or less.” [my emphasis] The economy is crashing and many people are retreating to graduate education to bolster their credentials and improve their marketability. Whitford goes on to quote Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director at the Strada Center for Consumer Insights, “You would expect, typically, that any kind of higher education would really be giving people a boost in terms of jobs. And [for]… people who have graduate and professional degrees — that is true. But we’re not seeing the same kind of bump for people with bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees.” It is extremely likely that we will see an increase in graduate program enrollments soon after the pandemic ends, just as we’ll see an undergraduate enrollment downturn. Position yourself to leverage this scenario.  Request graduate course teaching assignments now. Make yourself valuable to graduate program directors at your institution. Recast yourself as an effective graduate-level instructor.  The weather looks bright and sunny in the world of graduate education. 

Relationships and Effective Instruction

Hidden in the subtext of all the advice above is the overarching importance of relationships and solid instructional and educational practices. These include relationships with your students, with your colleagues, with your supervisors, and with your administration. Be flexible, be accommodating, pitch in and be valuable. Simply create the environment where losing you costs more to your institution than keeping you, and you’ll be safe for now. The pages of this issue, and all the past pages of FLR, are full of sound and immediately actionable advice for being the very best teacher you can be. Embrace that advice. It may not be easy, but what’s the alternative? Work hard, teach hard, be kind and kindness will come back to you. Strong relationships and the effective and impactful instruction that you deliver is your own personal shelter from this storm.

There is no doubt. A hurricane is coming. Higher education is going through disruption, and the end is not yet in sight. But that doesn’t mean you have to get swept up and away by the current.  Being of value to your institution helps you, your students and your college or university. It is one of those rare instances with no losers, no victim, no downside, and no risk. Yes, it will be hard and take some extra work and effort. But that’s the cost of value. That’s the cost of basking in the calm after the storm. 

Join us as we discuss the ideas in the article with educators around the global at the Second Wave Summit | 2020


GEEFL best practices covered in this article


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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