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Public Administration Faculty: Drained and Burnt Out!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
May 10, 2024

It is that time of year, when one year is ending and a new one is beginning. This inevitably brings a lot of dwelling on the part of university faculty regarding what matters and the way forward. As a public administration faculty member, I often reflect on how my many colleagues and I feel drained and burnt out. While drafting this article, a colleague pointed out an interesting IJPA article recently published by McDonald III et al. (2024) focused on how PA faculty are exhausted and overwhelmed. And what novel am I reading currently? “The Burnout” by Sophie Kinsella, where she describes how holidays these days are either one of two things: Either a situation where you do the same work but are sitting in an uncomfortable beach chair, with the laptop skewed, and the sunshine making it challenging to see the screen; or a situation where you drop everything completely during the vacation, and then go back a week later to find a mountain load of accumulated work tasks. More and more, true winter and summer breaks at universities are becoming a thing of fiction, just as Kinsella describes.

Officially, there are usually three main categories of tasks expected of each faculty related to teaching, research and service. Full-time university faculty are tasked with teaching two to three courses per semester. Unless they receive release time—purchased through external grants or granted by the university for performing administrative roles—they must fulfill these teaching obligations. Although most universities emphasize the importance of balancing teaching, research and service, research matters the most when it comes time to certain aspects of career development such as promotion and tenure. As for service, this relates to service provided to the community, university, school, department and students. 

It often strikes me that university faculty, including PA faculty, work around the clock and defy the principle of unity of command, where each employee should report to only one supervisor. Instead, faculty often report to multiple stakeholders, each with different expectations, taking a toll on the faculty member’s limited time. 

Internal Stakeholder Groups Include:

  • Students who are the end-all, be-all of any university have the upper hand when evaluating faculty performance at the end of each semester. A pattern of negative evaluations for a faculty member may get them into trouble and may be the reason their contracts are not renewed. Dealing with students does not only mean meeting with them in class, during office hours, grading papers and exams, supervising theses and reading and re-reading several drafts of their thesis work. Over the years the expectations have escalated to also encompass mentor-mentee relationships.
  • Program Director/Department Chair/Dean of School: Faculty must collaborate and discuss/negotiate their teaching schedules with the program directors and department chairs. They have to get involved in committees at the departmental and school level, either as members or as chairs. They have to participate in departmental and school meetings, seminars, conferences and workshops organized by the department. And committee work takes time!
  • University Provost & President: Faculty get invited to participate in or lead committees at the university level and get involved in initiatives led by the top-level administration for different purposes. 
  • University Human Resource Department: If faculty are holding administrative positions, it means they are responsible for staff appraisals. Since the appraisal system gets more complicated by the day, they must agree on goals with their staff, assess their competencies and discuss the evaluation results in a participatory manner. 

External Stakeholder Groups Include:

  • Accreditation Bodies: When it is time to renew programs’ accreditation, all faculty must join the effort to comply and report on the different accreditation requirements.
  • External Funding Agencies: Faculty are expected to raise funds for research and service activities. They write concept notes and prepare proposals and budgets. If they succeed in getting grants, they have to implement the grant requirements, report periodically on progress achieved and coordinate the relationship with the external funding agency through the responsible office at the university. 
  • International Public Administration and Public Policy Associations and Societies: Faculty must engage, network and participate in international conferences and be part of the global public administration and public affairs networks. 
  • Research Partners: When conducting research, faculty often co-author with colleagues from different institutions and different countries. Face-to-face and Zoom meetings have to accommodate different global time zones. 
  • Government and Nonprofit Organizations: Since the field focuses on how government programs are managed and how nonprofit organizations serve citizens, faculty have to maintain links to government entities and nonprofit organizations. Many engage in consultancy work and advise government and nongovernmental organizations. They need to practice what they teach and be on top of developments in the field. 

Work in Public Administration is time-consuming, exhausting and with multiple stakeholders to engage with and report to, this work often defies the principle of unity of command. Advanced time management skills are crucial to try to avoid burnout. Nevertheless, the job is gratifying, especially when students appreciate what they are learning, and faculty get their work published and cited. These small tokens matter a great deal and keep everyone going.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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