Recognizing Our Humanity
How the pandemic helped us value each other
February 16, 2023
As academic institutions navigate the pandemic’s everchanging phases, college and university employees are often asked how work in higher education has changed in a positive way. When considering this question, we—a group of academic leaders from two universities in the Midwest—focused on how the pandemic caused administrators, faculty, staff, and students to remove the professional armor we had so deftly donned to keep our many personas hidden from view. The pandemic forced everyone from classrooms and offices into private spaces as we met online from our bedrooms, porches, and cars. In doing so, our personal realities of children, pets, multigenerational households—the proverbial “second shift”—took center stage while we tried to find a balance for continuing our work. What we witnessed was a necessary letting down of our guards combined with genuine honesty about shared and unique struggles. Aspects of our personal selves, including how we were coping and paying attention to mental health, bubbled to the surface.
So how do college and university employees not lose sight of the gains made to see each other as complete humans? How do we continue to recognize the humanity of ourselves and others? How do we fight the pressure to return to “normal” and a rigid divide between the personal and professional? How can we value each other as fully dimensional human beings?
First, we propose a working definition of recognizing humanity. We characterize this as:
Displaying genuine empathy, grace, and compassion toward ourselves and others; realizing that we’re complete, complex human beings and letting go of expectations to check our personal lives and obligations at the door when we’re “at work”; acknowledging that we need to be flexible and generous with one another as life happens to us all.
Second, we suggest that college and university employees must consider why holding firm to recognizing humanity matters in our society. As higher education professionals, we’re supposed to be preparing citizens to think critically and engage in the world. That means modeling a world we want to see. Particularly in the current moment, when academic leaders witness how inhumanely people can treat each other, higher education institutions must reprioritize recognizing humanity as part of their educational mission. Academic institutions need to put humanity back into the humanistic endeavor of higher education. Doing so allows us to share our whole selves, enabling us to build shared trust and mutual respect. We can thereby be more engaged with colleagues and students, develop deeper connections that foster belonging, and cultivate loyalty to our people and institutions.
When we in higher education recognize the humanity of our colleagues and students, we simultaneously engage in both self-care and community care, making explicit that we all face challenges and that these challenges are normal. This includes helping each other navigate work and life as an integration and not separate domains. At the same time, by recognizing our humanity, we effectively dismantle the myth that anyone has (or can have) everything under control at all times. The reality is that we’re humans with good intentions who are making the best choices we can with the information and resources available.
Writing this article has itself been an exercise in recognizing our humanity. The three of us authors met through participation in a yearlong, multi-institutional academic leadership development program prior to the pandemic. During the writing period, we experienced increased caregiving responsibilities for chronically ill family members, an unexpected parental death, mental health concerns, and personal bouts with COVID-19. Through words and actions, we offered empathy, grace, and compassion by showing up to listen, continuing to check in, shifting responsibilities, and anticipating our peers’ needs. We extended deadlines, shared meals, and checked in on the young children who had cameos in our Zoom meetings. We were able to do this, in part, because we took the time to see each other beyond our academic roles and prioritized getting to know each other as whole people, providing a sense of community.
We argue that when difficult circumstances arise, college and university leaders must extend a similar sense of grace, curiosity, generosity, and empathy to all colleagues. Administrators must work from a place of shared mission and purpose. To do that, we as authors propose the following principles and practices as essential to effective, humanistic leadership in higher education.
- Prioritize clear communication. Be honest, direct, and authentic in all interactions.
- Lead with humanity. Serve as a role model for what it means to be humane and empathetic. Communicate that it’s OK to be imperfect, not automated—to be human.
- Model work-life boundaries. Send messages during standard work hours. Avoid dropping Friday afternoon bombshells that require nonessential employees to react during nonwork hours. Acknowledge struggles and the fact that the job can’t (and shouldn’t) always be a top priority.
- Trust team members. Believe that individuals are competent, and trust they’re doing their best.
- Foster diverse interactions. Create an environment in which diverse groups regularly interact and share responsibility for mutually beneficial solutions. Realize that new models and ways of thinking help us grow.
- Engage in respectful, compassionate confrontation. To communicate effectively and humanely, we must be direct, honest, and curious with our dialogue. We must not confuse niceness with kindness. Niceness is about surface politeness, while kindness is about engaging with rigor, clarity, and direct expectations.
- Value diverse perspectives. Extend to acquaintances the same grace, curiosity, and support given to members of your inner circle. Listen to and learn from diverse viewpoints.
- Be flexible. Embrace imperfection, and acknowledge when it’s necessary to adapt due to unforeseen circumstances. Don’t confuse rigidity with fairness or transparency.
- Maintain boundaries. Understand the importance of creating healthy boundaries between work and personal time. That might mean creating a “no committee” of trusted colleagues to strategically decide which new commitments to embrace and which to decline.
- Triage incoming information. Consider urgency. Which requests must truly receive immediate responses? Rarely is our work a matter of life or death. We must take time to reflect rather than reflexively respond to every request.
- Take calculated risks. Reject the mindset that “we’ve always done it this way” in favor of new approaches. Minoritized academic leaders, faculty, and staff have always faced additional barriers and scrutiny. These individuals risk more in revealing their full selves than those who have traditionally held greater social, cultural, and institutional power. For example, regarding metrics such as teaching evaluations, service demands, and tenure review, we know that Black and Indigenous faculty and other faculty of color are held to different standards than their White counterparts and that women are held to different standards than men. By helping to test new methods and metrics, chairs and other middle-level administrators play a crucial role in working against existing biases.
- Use policy to acknowledge humanity. Create policies explicitly acknowledging that employees have nonwork lives that deserve respect, recognition, and accommodation. This means setting regular meeting times in advance that don’t interfere with typical childcare drop-offs/pickups or long commutes. One effective, equitable solution is to create a “dead” time in the typical workday schedule for meetings, during which classes aren’t scheduled. Where many schools once had a “chapel hour” for spiritual contemplation, we now need a designated time for collective service work. This would provide a holistic solution that doesn’t put the onus on individuals to work additional hours (often evenings and weekends) and that emphasizes the institution’s commitment to work-life balance.
- Prioritize principles rather than rules. Administrators should always frame policies in relation to values and purpose.
- Policies must emphasize growth, development, and continuous improvement.
- Deadlines should be tools for learning or accomplishing tasks and shouldn’t be mistaken for outcomes.
- Abandon mental models of productivity. University leaders must remember that higher education is a community, not a factory. At its core, higher education should focus on helping people learn and succeed. This means embracing different goals and work styles, providing individualized pathways to help all employees and students succeed.
- Compensate employees in ways that reflect their value. Pay living wages to those in precarious positions, including adjuncts, non-tenure-track faculty, graduate students, and staff, and provide resources that create a safety net, such as health care, transportation, and childcare. Practice shared governance by including all constituent groups in decision-making about working conditions and compensation.
- Build flexibility into policies. Make clear how employees can request accommodations, exemptions, and support resources. Higher education institutions need fair, equitable, and transparent processes—and administrators willing to teach their people how to navigate those processes—in order to level the playing field.
With these principles and practices in mind, we can create colleges and universities that support the intellectual and social development of not only students but every employee. The true model of a university as a beacon to the world is the foundation of a healthy, productive society.