A few things are dependable in higher education, no matter what the high-level trends are. One is that some faculty members are going to do outrageous things, leaders on their campuses are going to get mad and Inside Higher Ed’s readers won’t be able to get enough of it.
Another is that administrators at some colleges are going to make decisions that are foolish or short-sighted, professors are going to get mad — and Inside Higher Ed’s readers won’t be able to get enough of it.
A look at the best-read content in Inside Higher Ed in 2022 finds both of those realities to be alive and well. The list below has examples of both. But alongside those perennial winners, another topic dominated our headlines and attracted readers like no other: the tumultuous state of the higher education workforce. Three of the top 10 pieces of original content we published in 2022 were related to the themes of faculty and staff turnover and burnout.
That’s probably not surprising: Employers of all kinds struggled with vacancies as workers left for higher pay or more flexibility in a job market that was white-hot most of the year. And higher education institutions — which have often been able to attract employees with promises of work/life balance and a sense of purpose despite lower pay — often lost that edge because they viewed many jobs as impossible to do remotely.
What follows, in reverse order, are the 10 articles Inside Higher Ed published in 2022 that drew the most readers. Bonus content below, in the box at right, are the five pieces of content published in years past that continued to find a large audience because they remained relevant.
We hope you find the content engaging, whether you’re encountering it for the first time or being reminded of why you read it before.
Happy holidays and New Year.
10. “Turnover, Burnout and Demoralization in Higher Ed:” In this transcript of an episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, shared his research and insights into higher education’s version of the economy-wide “Great Resignation,” though he thinks “great disengagement” is more apt. Among his warnings: “We cannot rest on this notion of job benefits that is decades old. We’ve got to update some of our assumptions and do a much better job of thinking about the people that we bring in as talent, and how are you going to develop and keep that talent…. [T]here are places that maybe higher ed once thought it had an advantage over in terms of flexibility and benefits. And that advantage doesn’t exist anymore.”
9. “A Win for Academic Mothers:” A federal jury’s ruling requiring the University of Texas at Austin to pay $3 million to an engineering professor it didn’t promote because she was a woman and pregnant drew readers because of the huge award, and for what it said about bias against women in the academic hiring and promotion process.
8. “First Came the Stunt, Then the Suspension:” A 74-year-old professor’s discomfort about returning to the physical classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic led him to produce an expletive-filled video for students — and prompted Ferris State University to suspend him for what its president called a “profane, offensive and disturbing” rant. Our article contained a warning at the top about the explicit nature of the content, but that didn’t deter readers.
7. “UCLA Pummeled Over Adjunct Job Without Pay:” This headline largely speaks for itself: the University of California, Los Angeles, last spring announced its desire to hire an “assistant adjunct professor on a without salary basis.” The reaction was swift and savage: “@UCLA. Are you for real?” one assistant professor wrote on Twitter. “An ‘assistant adjunct professor w/o pay’ but require a PhD, 3-5 letters of rec + a packet one puts together for a TT job?! Shame on you for taking advantage of people. Ph.D.s are already underpaid enough.’ In the face of the blowback, the university reversed course, apologizing for the ad and clarifying that it “always offer[s] compensation for classroom teaching.”
Top Reads from Earlier Years
These articles were published before 2022 but drew significant readership this year:
5. A 2017 essay from Derek Bok, Harvard University’s former president, offered advice on how to improve the quality of higher education.
4. This 2019 blog post from Eboo Patel of Interfaith America carried the provocative headline “Who Counts as a Person of Color?” The question still seems to captivate readers.
3. A 2020 news article explored controversy surrounding a professor’s classroom use of a Chinese “filler word” that for some students sounded too much like the n-word.
2. One of Inside Higher Ed’s most-read pieces of all time: an essay from two professors about how to help students avoid sounding silly when they write emails.
1. A pandemic holdover that continues to have relevance for professors striving to get better digital learning: An August blog post by the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Mintz on “eight ways to improve your online course.”
6. “What Will Biden Do on Loans?:” That question loomed over federal higher education policy for much of 2022. This particular article appeared in July as the deadline approached for the resumption of federal student loan repayment that had been suspended because of the pandemic and related recession. But it also connected to the larger debate over whether the Biden administration could, should and would cancel student loan debt, which it ultimately decided in late August to do. The policy has been challenged in courts and the Supreme Court is poised to hear two cases that could test not only the debt relief policy but also the limits of executive branch power.
5. “Academe, Hear Me. I Am Crying Uncle:” This anonymous essay by a tenured professor framed the issues raised in news articles (see No. 4 below) and podcast conversations (No. 10 above) about demoralization through a decidedly personal lens. The author describes how her child’s diagnosis with a severe illness in late 2021 turned her prior struggles with a “simmering stew of burnout and discouragement” into a “full-blown professional crisis” that led her to declare what she called “academic Chapter 11.” “I must go to my colleagues and ask for a release from overdue tasks, to find another reviewer, to find another person to judge the poster session, to do that planned manuscript without me or not at all. Even more unthinkable: I must return grant money, because the planned work just can’t be done.”
4. “Calling It Quits:” In her typical fashion, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty scanned the landscape of faculty turnover and disillusionment in search of good data and, while finding it largely lacking, profiled a group of professionals worn out by a mix of “institutions’ pandemic responses, low pay, expanding job duties coupled with lack of support, mental and physical health concerns, burnout, toxic cultures, and discrimination.” She spoke to some professors who were leaving for what they hoped would be greener pastures, others who were staying with fingers crossed and institutional leaders who were striving to create more supportive cultures. “What I’ve also experienced and observed with some of my clients is that when you have that kind of healthy, welcoming culture,” one consultant said, “when things get a little bumpy, people don’t run for the exits. They sign up to help solve the problem.”
3. “No Love Lost:” The mention of some names brings readers out of the woodwork, and the psychologist and YouTube personality Jordan Peterson is clearly one. They clicked to read about his op-ed explaining that he was retiring from the University of Toronto because his controversial stances on racial and ethnic diversity and other topics had made him “persona non grata.” The article analyzed many of Peterson’s assertions and found some of them wanting.
2. “An Off-Brand Hire:” Morehouse College’s selection of a white woman from outside higher education to head up marketing for the historically black all-male institution infuriated some alumni and stirred debate about what it meant for minority-serving institutions. Some suggested the choice showed that the increased visibility of HBCUs was attracting top talent the institutions might not have recruited before; many others argued that institutions are best represented by people who understand “the language of HBCUs and cultural touchstones of HBCUs,” as one critic put it.
1. “How Federal and State Policies Judge Colleges’ ‘Value:’ “ With multiple polls showing growing public doubts about the value of a college credential, Inside Higher Ed’s Key podcast dedicated several episodes to exploring various angles of that issue. This one, featuring a former official in the Biden administration and other policy experts, appeared to capture the attention of the broader public, with many readers coming to it from such social media sites as Instagram and even Pinterest.