Under the constraints of COVID-19, how are higher education institutions handling faculty personnel processes digitally? What are the traits of a well-prepared institution, and what aspects are most critical to success in a digital transformation of faculty affairs? And what lessons will academic employers carry with them even after the crisis recedes?

Interfolio recently facilitated a digital roundtable conversation asking forward-thinking leaders from a diverse combination of universities to address how they’re currently handling academic personnel processes in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. 

With discussion among academic and administrative leaders at East Stroudsburg University, Vanderbilt University, Tulane University, American College of Education, and University College London, the roundtable event painted an encouraging picture of higher education’s prospects for a digital transformation around faculty affairs.

Online faculty evaluations (and other digital personnel processes) already in place

First of all, it was clear these institutions’ embrace of digital processes for faculty work had put them in a better position to handle the pandemic before it even began.

Several panelists actively pointed out the value of this head start—among them Danielle Certa, Assistant Director of Faculty Appointments in the Office of the Vice Provost at Vanderbilt University; Alysia Loshbaugh, Assistant Vice President for Business Relationship Management at Tulane University; and Nina Seppala, Deputy Director of Academic Affair at University College London.

These institutions’ shift to digital faculty personnel processes some years earlier meant that the administrative routines around faculty work—especially review, promotion, and tenure—faced relatively little need for change or adjustment as a result of the COVID-19 circumstances.

And this modern digital framework for faculty affairs, they stressed, applies not only in crisis scenarios, but as a sustainable daily approach to processes like hiring, activity data maintenance, tenure and promotion candidacy, and committee work.

“Resistance to change is a bit of a luxury”

A recurring theme was the importance of thoughtful change management around faculty technology.

While adopting new technology is hardly painless, several panelists pointed out that it is a perennial workplace phenomenon. And higher education, while distinctive in many ways, is no exception.

“Resistance to change is a bit of a luxury, I think,” said Certa (Vanderbilt), “and I think that people now recognize that we no longer have that privilege. We have to change; we have to adapt. We keep hearing, over and over again, that there’s no going back to the way it was before, so let’s put things in place that will continue to help us move forward. Doing as much as we can digitally is the way to go.”

Speaking of the piles of 3-ring binders historically used for faculty promotion and tenure cases, Bajor (East Stroudsburg) advised: “We do not need to continue to recognize the permanence of this [paper-based] practice as the sole means for evaluating faculty talent. It’s not stated anywhere in the collective bargaining agreement, and it’s not the best method of assessing everyone’s talent.”

A key component of successful change management around faculty technology is communication, as several panelists mentioned.

When it comes to change, ventured Loshbaugh (Tulane), there is no such thing as communicating too much. She emphasized the need for an internal communications strategy, and high volume of communications, to effectively reach the people on campus whose workplace routines you want to change.

And Natalie Pelham, Senior Director of Training and Development at the American College of Education, gave the example of the dozens of self-guided training resources their institution had provided. These specialized materials walk all academic employees through how to do the full scope of their job online.

“Little treasure chests of data”

When it came to advice the panelists would give to institutions considering a move to a faculty information system, the panelists stressed the importance of consulting the right people on campus.

Seppala (University College London) spoke of the highly positive experience she had had when pursuing an innovative and non-traditional use case for their digital platform (Interfolio Faculty Search) that their institution’s situation called for.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for something that doesn’t seem to be in the system,” encouraged Seppala, “because it might be possible.”

Certa (Vanderbilt) advised peers considering the move to a faculty information system to thoroughly interview the individuals on campus who, historically, handle data and paperwork around faculty hiring, tenure, promotion, CVs, and activity reporting.

“It’s very likely,” said Certa, “that all of your areas are keeping little treasure chests of data that they have developed over time… And these might not be higher-level people in the unit. This might be your boots-on-the-ground administrative assistant.”

Faculty rising to the occasion

Overall, all panelists emphatically praised the spirit of giving and goodwill exhibited by faculty, staff, and leadership on their campus during this time.

“I can’t tell you how many faculty members have leveraged this time of crisis to become absolutely fantastic online educators,” says Bajor (East Stroudsburg).

When we asked the panel what the least challenging thing has been, all panelists said some version of “working together as a team.” In various ways, they reported, faculty and staff have displayed admirable flexibility and collaboration, regarding both their student-facing and administrative responsibilities.

“I must say,” said Seppala (University College London), “I just feel that our faculty and our professional services staff have been very flexible, and they’ve been doing more than we ever expected… There’s been a lot of goodwill and effort on the part of our faculty as well as our admin team.”

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Interfolio is committed to helping the global faculty affairs community and academic leadership continue to play their pivotal role throughout these changing circumstances. 

If you have questions about moving higher education operations online or business continuity in these trying times, we welcome inquiries or conversation at team@interfolio.com