For an economist, nothing is more integral, more essential and more illuminating than data. Unless, of course, that economist is a professor and a mother of school-aged children during a global pandemic. Here the data only tell a very small part of the story—usually the more pleasant part.
New data suggest that higher education is bouncing back after three turbulent years. Campus life is back. Classes are in person. In a recent Gallup survey, more than 85 percent of people who dropped out of certificate or degree programs during these years say they are hoping to re-enroll. Moreover, at least 40 percent of adults who have not enrolled would like to do so.
Most large colleges seem poised to meet the challenge. While the virus was raging, senior administrators made strategic cuts to personnel budgets and restructured their real-estate investments. The financials look solid.
That brings us to the unpleasant part: those new classrooms will soon need professors. Returning students will need advisers. Someone’s going to have to teach macroeconomics.
Full-time faculty, as best I can tell, are not vibing with the moment. This isn’t just about those budget cuts. Many aspects of our lives—research, publishing, administrative support, teaching and family support—have been upended in these three years. The earliest pandemic-induced changes were refreshing, maybe even exciting. But as the virus mutated, the challenges morphed into some problems that I am now about to name.
Scientific research has changed. It started promisingly enough. Some researchers were more productive, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. Eventually, however, COVID exacerbated inequalities within the professoriate. Women experienced steep declines in productivity, largely due to the collapse of the caregiving industry.
Even before the pandemic, my profession—economics—was already facing urgent questions about gender inequality. Women are a minority: we account for just 35 percent of Ph.D. students and 30 percent of assistant professors. Such numbers have been stuck for two decades. Those of us who make it through the “leaky pipeline” are concentrated in practical fields like labor, health and education. They were far more disrupted by the pandemic than more theoretical—and masculine—areas like econometrics and finance.
My field of development economics has long been a haven for underrepresented minorities. Many of us do fieldwork in low- and middle-income countries. Right before the pandemic struck, things were getting particularly exciting in my field. The 2019 Nobel Prize in economics, awarded to scholars in our discipline—Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer—endorsed their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” We were writing research grants, hiring research assistants and accumulating frequent-flier miles.
Then the pandemic changed all of that. Shuttered universities stopped the flow of a lot of grant money. Research assistants were unavailable. Travel restrictions rendered fieldwork impossible. As mortality soared in cities like Washington, D.C., my conscience led me to question the ethics of traveling to places like Rajasthan, India, to do fieldwork.
I used the lockdown months to think of new questions. I also retooled. Those academic soul shifts however, occurred alongside considerable personal upheaval. My physician husband was frequently working. My special-needs adolescent adoptive children needed me. (Adoptive parents devote more time, effort and resources to children than families with biological children.) I also struggled to support my family in India as they battled repressive lockdowns and then a COVID surge that left some of them fighting for life outside overcrowded hospitals. The statistics about declines in productivity, I regret to say, apply to me.
Publishing is in flux. In the pandemic’s early stages, the gates to publishing unexpectedly opened. Researchers shared papers with preliminary results on preprint servers and institutional websites at unprecedented rates. Journals fast-tracked pandemic-related manuscripts. Many papers were suddenly free to read.
As economists, we found that thrilling. Change was welcome! For many of us, tenure and promotion hinged on publishing in the top five economic journals. That had already been difficult before the pandemic. Submissions had been growing; acceptance rates were below 5 percent, and women were writing just 17 percent of papers.
Unfortunately, our early optimism was short-lived. The gates closed quickly. By early 2022, submissions were again reaching record highs. Women’s contributions declined in all fields.
There are some obvious solutions: more outlets, more female editors, more mentoring within the profession and a commitment to valuing originality. We also need to get over the obsessive, accelerating preoccupation with “impact-factor” status. Everyone is talking about the need for changes, but they have not occurred yet and will probably be slow in coming.
Dangerous multitasking. In March 2020, we moved our work home. It was fun at first. Working in pajamas with my dog at my feet was comforting—for both of us. I adapted. Like millions of other workers in the American economy, I continued this way of life and even liked the flexibility. I went to my campus only to teach and attend essential meetings.
It has become clear, however, that this lifestyle has costs. Most notably, it has led to the near-total obliteration of the campus administrative workforce. I’m not speaking about upper administrators. Rather, I have in mind the office staff members, mainly women, who coordinated events, loaded paper into the printers, ordered office supplies and called Xerox when the printer insisted it was jammed (even if it wasn’t). In the pandemic, many universities eliminated these jobs at unprecedented rates—and we see no sign of their return. I now often do most administrative tasks myself.
I am incessantly multitasking. It feels like living at the edge of a cliff. When a family crisis needs my undivided attention for anything more than a day or two, I fall off it. One parent professor who took a two-week break to address a child’s medical crisis found they needed an “academic Chapter 11.” I could relate.
Academic women were living at the edge of that cliff even before the pandemic came along. We were usually assumed to be better at multitasking than our male colleagues, and so we were routinely asked to serve more than them. And the tasks were often more time-consuming and less prestigious.
I’ve seen no data on this yet, but my own experience suggests that the burdens of service may actually have become more unequal over the pandemic. That poses risks to our long-term productivity. Worse, it may impair executive function and contribute to loneliness. And that, in the words of Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, creates “chronic stress” that has “long-term impacts on our health.”
Students are disengaged. I love teaching. Classrooms are spaces where we can disconnect from technology and immerse in ideas. Zoom rooms were far from ideal. So I was excited to teach in person when campus reopened. But classrooms are different now. With some exceptions, students are disengaged at a “stunning” level, in the words of one professor.
Last year, I taught both graduate and undergraduate students. They were in person and online, at the same time. On most days, about a quarter of the students were in neither a real nor a virtual classroom. On each assignment, nearly half the class needed extensions. Some never turned in anything at all. Electronic office hours had frequent no-shows.
The reasons are unclear. Post-traumatic stress disorder? Academic distress? Technology? Me? While we may not know, the experiences of this past year suggest that scaling up mental health resources on campus is not enough of a solution.
Women faculty members are best positioned to re-engage students. We do more teaching and more mentoring. Women, and in particular women of color, are also heavily engaged in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that are so important to student engagement. Universities must step up and value this work. That has not happened yet.
Parents face new demands. When the pandemic first hit and K-12 schools closed, my adolescent kids could not believe their luck. Every day was a snow day! We did virtual museum visits, city tours, operas and concerts. But then came the ennui and isolation. We celebrated when schools reopened.
Sadly, that joy was short-lived. In yet another feminized profession—teaching—record levels of teacher burnout occurred. The massive scaling up of technology created new problems. My boys also started multitasking—with games, movies and social media, of course. Their struggles with impulsiveness, ADHD and anxiety worsened.
My children are not alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared child and adolescent mental health to be a “national emergency.” Economist Emily Oster’s “family toolbox”—an evidence-based approach to family life with mission statements, fact-finding expeditions and decision processes—is, unfortunately, not working for many of us.
I am fortunate to be able to consider a private school. But the high financial costs and the 30-plus miles of daily driving will leave me with even less time for research and publishing than I already have, a classic setup for a steep motherhood penalty.
From Here, Where?
Going back to the upcoming staffing challenges, it is perhaps inevitable that the lack of enthused tenured professors will push universities to recruit non-tenure-line and adjunct faculty. But this will set up the same dangerous pattern that we have seen all through the pandemic where an early “solution” mutates into a really big problem.
Relying on non-tenure-line faculty will probably work well for a while. More than 75 percent of faculty are already not on the tenure track. Those professors are often outstanding teachers. In the long run, however, their presence will significantly alter campus intellectual life. At Georgetown University, where I teach, the recent resignation of Ilya Shapiro and the firing of Sandra Sellers illustrate how that works: each made offensive statements that triggered student outrage, and they then lost the support of their administrator bosses.
Overlooked in the din of the missteps, unfortunate tweets and zealous institutional responses was one crucial fact: as non-tenure-line faculty members, Shapiro and Sellers did not have the protections of tenure. Answerable only to administrators, they served outside the structures of faculty governance. Many tenured faculty at the university were outraged on the sidelines, reminded of our shrinking role in campus intellectual discourse but unable to intervene. The American Association of University Professors is correct to warn that the heavy reliance on non-tenure-line faculty can “marginalize the faculty as a whole.”
My struggles as an economist, professor and mother are neither unique to me, nor even about me. It is about the countless women, minorities and immigrants who have staked everything on the system of higher education. We face uncertain futures after the pandemic. This is everyone’s problem to solve.