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‘I’ve had panic attacks; I’ve lost sleep’: Professors struggle with increased workloads after loss of VAPs

When Miami University faculty found out more than half of visiting assistant professors (VAPs) would not have their contracts renewed after the spring 2020 semester, many were gutted.

In addition to losing their friends and colleagues, some worried their own workloads would increase as their departments shrank. Nearly a year after the decision was made, this fear has come true for many.

VAPs are temporary faculty on one-year contracts that can be renewed every year for up to five years. 

For that reason, the VAPs that left Miami last year were not technically “fired” — their contracts were just not renewed. This was primarily done as a money-saving measure, as Miami was forced to issue tens of millions of dollars in student refunds as a result of COVID-19.

Provost Jason Osborne wrote in an email to The Miami Student that departments were never told to reduce their VAP appointments by a certain amount, but they were asked to reduce course offerings as much as possible, which in turn reduced the need for VAPs.

“This was primarily done to ensure we were being good stewards of student tuition dollars,” Osborne wrote, “and to ensure we could weather an economic challenge of unknown severity or duration.”

Osborne also said department chairs were ultimately responsible for ensuring faculty workloads were reasonable and fair.

"Every department is being asked to update their policies to make clear what decisions lead to different teaching responsibilities to ensure equity,” Osborne wrote.

Miami’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a survey to its members at the beginning of the fall semester about how their workload has changed since COVID-19 hit. The survey asked questions about the respondent’s course load, course caps, service obligations and other aspects of faculty workload.

Of the 53 respondents, 74% said the number of classes they were teaching had increased, 36% said their course caps had increased and 47% said their service obligations had increased. Just 9% of respondents said they felt Miami’s upper administration recognized and appreciated the additional work they’d put in.

Osborne acknowledged the burnout many professors are experiencing but said they are not the only ones feeling this way, and that it is caused by more than just their faculty duties.

"I would start by acknowledging that I think most of us are feeling overburdened or burned out – faculty, staff and students," Osborne wrote. "For faculty, feeling overburdened is more than a function of teaching responsibilities."

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Stephen Norris, a professor of history, has many responsibilities in addition to those of a typical faculty member. As director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, he juggles the administrative duties of running the center along with teaching, university service and scholarship.

Due to these additional responsibilities, Norris typically has a 1-1 teaching load — one class in the fall and one in the spring — instead of the departmental standard of 2-2. But, because the history department lost its three VAPs, his teaching load has been increased to 2-2 — double what he is used to.

“Everyone [in the department] got at least one extra class, but I got two, and all of that is a direct result of not renewing VAPs,” Norris said, “and it’s not like my responsibilities for the Havighurst Center or research have gone away.”

Norris also said all the courses he taught in the calendar year 2020 were new to him, which added another layer of stress on top of his increased workload and having to figure out virtual teaching.

“For the most part, a lot of these extra courses were ones we weren't expected to teach, and in many cases, ones we’d never taught before,” Norris said. “When you repeat courses, you already have a database of sorts, but entirely new courses require creating all those things for the first time.”

Something else that’s often lost when VAPs leave a university is specialized knowledge. For example, Norris said his department’s only African historian was a VAP, so no African history classes can be taught until a new one is hired.

Despite this, Osborne said the current amount of VAPs — about 10% of the total faculty population — is sufficient.

"According to my most recent update, we currently employ 110 visiting faculty out of a total full-time faculty of around 1,000," Osborne wrote. "This allows us to meet all the current curricular needs of our students."

Mack Hagood, associate professor of comparative media studies, said the department of Media, Journalism and Film (MJF) has also suffered greatly with the loss of its VAPs. Specifically, Hagood said MJF lost many of its faculty of color, making a department that already struggled with diversity even whiter.

“Given our department's desire to respond to the events that have happened over the past couple of years, [losing faculty of color] really makes it difficult for us,” Hagood said. “There are things that whites can do as well, but diversity is an inherent good and an inherent necessity.”

Hagood also expressed worry that faculty’s increased teaching loads will leave them less time to conduct research and disrupt the “teacher-scholar” model Miami prides itself on.

“Faculty time is limited, and if the faculty have to teach more, both the teaching and the research suffer,” Hagood said. “This has long-term consequences because faculty may leave to go places where their research time is supported.”

Increased workload as a result of the loss of VAPs has also affected professors at the regional campuses — perhaps even more so than those in Oxford.

Theresa Kulbaga, professor of languages, literature and writing at Miami’s Hamilton campus, said she had a scheduled course release get canceled, saw her course caps increase and had additional service obligations this year. She said these changes were at least partly caused by having less faculty in the department than usual.

Kulbaga said most regional faculty have experienced similar increases in workload, and many fear their obligations will never return to their pre-pandemic states.

“Everyone's concerned that the enrollment caps on courses that were instituted last year will become permanent,” Kulbaga said, “and there’s a lot of concern about canceled course releases from last year or canceled leaves. People had scheduled one-semester sabbaticals that they had already earned that they weren't given.”

Kulbaga also said the increases in workload were particularly difficult for regional faculty because they receive less pay for more work than Oxford faculty.

“We're already a more exploited class, even those of us who are on the tenure line,” Kulbaga said, “so [the] workload increases for us hit particularly hard because we're already doing so much in the first place.”

Osborne said, though he does foresee a need for additional faculty hirings in fall 2021 due to current faculty taking research leaves and securing grant funding, the university does not have an outlined plan for hiring VAPs in the future.

“We do not have a specific goal as visiting appointments depend on student needs, as we continue trying to be good stewards of [students’] tuition dollars,” Osborne wrote. “I hope most students would support this goal of efficient and effective use of resources.”

Osborne also mentioned that, through the adversity of increased workload and COVID, Miami’s faculty continue to impress him with their resilience.

“The pandemic certainly has challenged us in new ways,” Osborne wrote, “but all the evidence I have tells me that, overall, Miami faculty rose to the challenge and continue to provide an unparalleled educational experience.”

Senior microbiology major Joel Pantuso said they’ve noticed an increase in their professors’ stress levels since the pandemic began, and that they seem overwhelmed.

“They were already overworked to begin with,” Pantuso said, “but now they have to deal with technology issues on top of all this extra work.”

Junior zoology major Sydney Niewiedzial, on the other hand, said her professors seem to be handling their workloads fairly well, especially compared to the fall semester.

“I feel like this semester my professors have had it together a lot better than last semester,” Niewiedzial said, “and I feel like they're doing OK.”

Norris said his increased responsibilities have taken a toll on his personal life, and that he does not feel adequately supported by Miami’s administration.

“I've had panic attacks; I've lost sleep,” Norris said. “We have lives outside of our offices, and I don’t think a lot of thought went into that. I think a lot of the thinking here was just loading up more work and then sending a nice email saying, ‘Take care of yourself.’”

Despite the struggles of their increased workload, Norris and Kulbaga both expressed gratitude that they, unlike many of their former colleagues, are still employed.

“The VAPs themselves lost far more than the faculty that remain,” Kulbaga said, “and we have some privilege as a result.”