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Student Affairs in Flux: Negotiating Change, Values, and Ethics in the Great Resignation

February 19, 2022 Michael J. Stebleton Melanie Buford

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 1, February 2022 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

As of this writing, the Great Resignation continues to rage. In November 2021, a record 4.5 million people quit their jobs according to the US Labor Department. Many of these jobs reside across industries in service, health care, retail, hospitality, arts, entertainment, and education. According to these statistics from the Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, over 34.4 million people have quit their jobs this year (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Certain myths exists among these demographic trends. Notably, many of these trends have not been universal across all industries and worker demographics. Many individuals who have quit jobs do not possess the privilege of working remotely. Moreover, evidence exists from Insider that the Great Resignation is not a reality for many workers of color (Aviles, 2021). Another myth of the Great Resignation states that for many low-income workers, the reality is not so much that they are quitting their jobs but rather that they are searching for newer, higher-paying opportunities; from this perspective the reality focuses more on “job shifting” rather than resigning (Thompson, 2021). In any case, great turmoil is occurring in the workplace—and this is evident as well in student affairs and higher education contexts.

 In our last blog (December 2021), I (Mike) sat down with higher education colleague and PhD student Melanie Buford to discuss these latest trends as they apply to student affairs and higher education professionals. We discussed the ethics of job hopping during these turbulent times, the increased attrition rates in student affairs contexts, and the cognitive dissonance and burnout that many student affairs educators are experiencing during the last 20 months. Clearly, student affairs and higher education broadly sit at a complex intersection in terms of potential directions moving forward. The pandemic will force higher education to alter its course—and ongoing change remains inevitable and welcomed by many (LeBlanc, 2021; Levine & Van Pelt, 2021).

In this blog, we return to this conversation to discuss the challenges of educating students during these difficult times. Like we did in the last blog entry, we present our conversation in dialogue format. Some of the text has been altered to meet the format expectations of the blog.

Self-Care and the Value of Stepping Back

Mike: Educators are leaving their roles in significant numbers. We have all heard and know of colleagues who are taking this time to re-examine their relationship to work (McClure, 2021). We talked about the moral obligation of staying to support students; yet, we talked about the importance of self-care as well as care for our families and loved ones. Can you say more here?

Melanie BufordMelanie: Some educators may feel more moral obligation to, for example, be there for their families—who also need them to be healthy and well, and need them to have adequate salaries and maybe not be furloughed. There are many obligations in life that are social and ethical. But yes, I do think that people, many of us, care deeply about students, and we care deeply about each other. I feel responsibility to my coworkers to be a team player, and to protect and advocate for them, and to keep this thing going so that we can be healthy.

So, there are many elements of responsibility here and values that are threatened by the idea of stepping back. I know that many are wrestling with that, and that's keeping many of us in a position of paralysis, that it is hard even to take a week of vacation much less leave the profession. Even to take a week off can feel a little bit fraught at this point with the pace of things and the challenges that we're dealing with.

Mike: This is difficult for many educators, right? People are making life changing decisions that affect them and others, as you noted. Values become important to assess, right?

Melanie: Yes, it is difficult. These things touch on our sense of identity and our sense of obligation and, our sense of service and morality and values. That makes it all the more difficult to make decisions that are not purely about things like income or position, but really are about who we are. Regardless of some other elements, I think it's not just the technical pieces of how much do you pay and what are the benefits, but in fact, some of those adaptive or intangible pieces like do you care and not just say that you care, but actually back that up with sustained support that meets people where they are. That is tough for people to demonstrate, but it is really, really important. I think everyone wants to feel valued, and that goes for older workers and younger workers.

Generational Mind Shifts: Negotiating Differences in Approaches to Work

Mike: We often talk about differences in generations and diverse approaches to work—and the meaning of work. Some Millennial writers such as Sarah Jaffe (Work Will Not Love You Back) believe that we should de-invest in our work lives and not tie identities to work and capitalism (Horgan, 2021). In other words, we should not expect meaning as an outcome of work (Cech, 2021; Jaffe, 2021). As a lifelong educator, I find this difficult to accept and I remain skeptical (I am a Gen Xer, after all). What are your thoughts on generational attitudes and potential differences?

Melanie: Yes, I think that there's a generational shift happening that is not happening to everyone. Obviously, we speak in generalizations, but I do think there's a kind of cultural zeitgeist, at least in the US and I really believe that it's in many countries, that we are moving. Global challenges are becoming sufficiently pressing that we are moving into a kind of "anything goes mindset" when it comes to trying to build a career. We see many of workers' traditional expectations being questioned, eroded, and threatened. I think the response is, “Well, okay, all bets are off, right?” around trying to just have basic things like healthcare and a place to live and food and safety and belonging.

You have seen that so many Millennials and Gen Zers and Gen Xers have, for example, in unprecedented numbers in the US, moved for work, moved out of the regions they grew up in. That has been an increasing trend, movement to cities and relocation becoming more normal, and that creates a certain element of loneliness and isolation. We are dealing with the cultural ramification of that. If you think about Maslow's hierarchy (1943), that threatens the layer of belonging. Right?

Mike: Certainly. And many students and workers are struggling right now with challenges such as food and housing insecurities. Much has been discussed about the new employee-employer contract. And I think some younger workers embrace this change. Other workers bemoan it as a loss of community or commitment to an organization. I know you have a strong interest in generational issues and career development. Please speak to this.

Melanie: We’re seeing a rapidly shifting landscape. I think the dotcom bubble burst and in the, was it in the 1990s, and then in the late 2010s when so many Millennials graduated. Gen X is sort of known for having acquired an unprecedented amount of education-related debt in the US. I think they at least had for a time the highest levels of debt. Some Millennials were then known for distancing from work in a way. And that depersonalizing of (work environments) makes a lot of sense. With movement and relocation, you may be meeting your boss and employer and organization for the first time in a totally new city. In that context, you may not have any family ties to that organization. You have no history there. It is a different landscape, right, than the idea that perhaps you inherit your parents' organization, if they had one, or that you work at the same place for a long time, or even go to the same schools as other members of your community. This is really a different world.

Destroying Workplace Community? Or Shifting Notions of Community?

Mike: I get this, and I see this shift around employee-employer attitudes in my own students. We talk about the concept of “learning agility” and the desire to be able to move in and out of different work contexts (McGowan & Shipley, 2020). But I am also concerned about the loss of community during the pandemic and the role of community building within an organization.

Derek Thompson who writes for The Atlantic published a column in fall 2021, and he talks about soft work versus hard work, and soft work equates to small conversational talk, eavesdropping, the water cooler banter, “Hey, did you watch the last episode of Ted Lasso?” or fill in the blank. Right? Thompson contends that with remote work the norm for many, we really don't have those types of cross conversations (Thompson, 2021). There is in some ways a greater emphasis on the hard work, which is really what you're set out to do, your job tasks, or the deadlines that you are meant to meet.

And he said that it's ironic because for years before the pandemic, organizations thought that if people were working from home remotely, they would not get the hard work done. But yet what we have seen is that people are working really damn hard; in fact, probably harder and more productive than they would if they were in the office because they are not distracted. What are your thoughts here? Is there sort of a decaying of the community when this happens, or am I just being a neurotic Generation Xer and I should stop worrying?

 Melanie: Well, you may be neurotic but likely for good reason. I think there is a decaying of community now, for sure. But what I have seen though, is that with distance, even just physical distance from work, it does sometimes allow you to get emotional distance from work.

Sometimes not. Right? But if there is the ability, instead of that water cooler conversation, you're allowed to take a walk and reflect, it can exacerbate the situation for employees who are disengaged from their work. For example, if you are having a challenge with a coworker and you are forced to see them every day, you may be encouraged to want to work through that conflict to relieve that tension or work through difference or diversity to relieve that tension.

If you are working from home and your schedules do not align, you may be tempted to avoid that conflict for a very long time, and this can, to your point, erode connection and collaboration in a workplace. So, I do think that it's changing the ecosystem and it could exacerbate this issue of folks having shorter tenures at organizations because there is perhaps less of an emotional commitment because there's less closeness or less connection. I do not think it has to be, but it could be that way without deliberate attention on the part of leaders.

Mike: My Gen Z students would argue that are other ways to connect through technology and social media that do not involve in person interactions. Community takes on different ways of connecting. Gen Zers can have other ways to make those relationships meaningful to them.

Melanie: Yes, very valid, and this is where I would defer to Gen Z to weigh in. But we do know, right, from research that there's a certain curation that can happen there. You can curate your responses, control your responses. You can curate your identity in digital environments perhaps a little more than you can in person, and that might not result in authentic connection always (Gentina & Parry, 2020). Certainly, tons of authentic connection can happen in digital communities. I would never say that it can't. But we may be tempted, especially in times of struggle, to conceal challenges or to shape messaging in ways that might not support authentic connection with everyone.

Mike: I want to shift the topic slightly here. We talk about the experiences of these last 20 months that have been traumatic for many educators, but especially BIPOC student affairs leaders and the concept of emotional labor. I'm wondering, and you can share more generally or personally if you're willing to, what has this been like based on your experiences as a BIPOC educator, or observations?

Melanie: Yeah. Somewhere in late 2020, I read an article, and I don't really remember any of it except the one line that we are exhausted. The author said something like I am so tired, and I think that is, in its simplest form, what I'm feeling. I think that's what a lot of other folks, especially BIPOC folks, are feeling. It's just a really serious fatigue from emotional labor, definitely of having to be called upon in the last year and a half. And before that, we have research to show that many, many folks of color, especially Women of Color, BIPOC women, in academia do additional mentorship and have students seek them out because of their identities, and so have an additional workload there.

Mike: And much more service is requested, right?

Melanie: Service requested, yes. I think there's also the element of the fact that historically universities, many universities, especially predominantly white institutions, were not really designed to serve Students of Color, students of marginalized identities. That can mean that a lot of us end up doing a lot of change work, intrapreneurial change work, and are often called upon to do that institutional change work. We sometimes feel compelled or volunteer to do that change work, and trying to change the institution you work for is exhausting. Colleges and universities are large and it's slow and it's daunting and you face resistance, no matter what you are working on.

I could tell you numerous stories of peers that have tried to do some of this change work and just faced so, so much attack and targeting and resistance. And Netflix, The Chair, I think, is one show that's attempting to show what that feels like and what that looks like. I had a coworker last week post a cartoon that she's been holding onto since 2013 that depicted her in very racist terms back when she was promoted as a Black woman at institution and was trying to do some social change work, and an anonymous cartoonist drew a racist cartoon to try to demoralize her. Right? We've seen that at a number of institutions. There's a kind of backlash element that shows up when you try to do change work as a Person of Color, or even just try to make your institution more inclusive of people like you. Right?

Mike: Thank you for sharing this. You often talk about some of the challenges, personally and professionally.

Melanie: Given that burden, the effort there, and then just all the challenges that we've faced, like everyone else, of caring for family and trying to manage through the pandemic and manage our health, it's a lot. And frankly, for me, one of the most difficult things in the last year and a half has been that as much as I see the value in the heightened attention to racial justice, it has also made it very present in so many of my conversations and writing projects and classroom experiences. To be constantly confronted with a reminder of all of these tragedies and challenges, or to have your identity groups continually highlighted. I walk down the street and am constantly confronted with well-intentioned images of Black Americans who have been murdered painted on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, and seeing that as I'm trying to take a relaxing walk to regroup, right, and walking down the hallways of any given space and being confronted with that tragedy that hits personally for many of us. Having to care for students who are going through these same things, having to read student comments on a regular basis that challenge the reality of all this.

These messages are constant, and they have specific implications and they specifically target us. Right? And so, I think the burden of that is almost not quantifiable. One of the best writers I've heard talk about this is Isabel Wilkerson (2020) who wrote Caste. It's so far beyond just stereotypes. This is a pervasive and deep and exhausting experience, and a painful one. Right? And having to constantly navigate pain is exhausting.

Making Change Where Real Change Is Warranted

Mike: Thank you. You talk about real change versus performative change or performative acts. We've had some conversations around what's really happening. I mean, if you say, “Yes, Black Lives Matter” and you are a big company, and you have this great marketing ad, is that enough? But if you do not treat your workers, you do not give them time off, is that really pushing the needle forward? Or is it a Band-Aid, right, kind of a performative act?

Melanie: Yeah, I think it's getting harder for many of us, and I will speak for myself, to be satisfied with performative efforts. It feels insulting at a certain point; it is certainly challenging for many. We should not take for granted that every employee, and certainly every Millennial and Gen Z employee and every, let's say, student affairs or higher education employee, feels like doing this work for colleges and universities is necessarily morally pure. I think that there is an increasing suspicion of institutions and of authority and of power, especially institutions that are very wealthy and powerful. I think that people have some real moral qualms that have become perhaps more urgent with the work that we do. This idea of get in there and fight the good fight to serve students is complicated.

I think there are people who question whether working at a university is the best way to fight for social change. I would just throw that out that I think people are having ethical qualms with the work they do, as much as they're having tension with the structures and the support and all of that. I think we are rethinking in really good and healthy ways how are we contributing to performative efforts of change, and how are we contributing to students' misery. I think as an instructor, it's been difficult to teach during this pandemic. We need to ask, “Are we adding to students’ struggles by doing things as usual?”

Mike: I agree, good question. This might be a good place to end. Anything else in closing?

Melanie: I hope we are able to move through this and feel a greater sense of clarity in the work that we should be doing and how we can really do equitable, sustainable, balanced work in a way that feels good and does not feel toxic. Thank you.


Aviles, G. (2021, December 4). The so-called "Great Resignation” isn’t a reality for many workers of color. Insider. https://www.insider.com/people-of-color-arent-quitting-like-the-great-resignation-suggests-2021-12

Cech, E. (2021). The trouble with passion: How searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequality. University of California Press.

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Thompson, D. (2021, September 21). Hard work isn’t the point of the office. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/offices-microsoft-study-out-group-connections/620137/

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