How flashpoint response impacts faculty well-being

Expert Insight

How flashpoint response impacts faculty well-being

Across the last few years, flashpoints have become commonplace at colleges and universities. In our current landscape—characterized by heightened emotional states, polarized political environments, and perceptions among some faculty that administration may not always have their best interest in mind—academic leaders are spending more time grappling with and addressing these incidents.

Through our research with partners, we saw how the provost and other academic leaders increasingly feel community pressure to respond to complex flashpoints that occur outside of the academic affairs division, or sometimes even external to the institution (e.g., natural disasters, life-altering political decisions), especially when they want to reassure faculty that their well-being is top of mind.

What is a flashpoint?

Flashpoints are climate-related incidents or events that cause disturbances in the community or media. They span a wide range of issues, from on-campus incidents and controversy around alumni to social movements and widespread political and economic events.

These flashpoints can deeply affect individual faculty members’ well-being, and the way their academic leaders respond (or don’t) can heavily influence faculty perceptions of how much the institution cares about and prioritizes their well-being. When faculty don’t feel like their leaders will prioritize their well-being in the face of threats, it can lead to increased distraction at work due to feeling unsafe, threatened, anxious, and frustrated. While some faculty might be deeply impacted by an emerging flashpoint, others might not necessarily think the institution should acknowledge it, which further complicates the issue.

Reflect on when to respond to a flashpoint

Weighing the tradeoffs between responding or not responding to a specific flashpoint can be challenging. As a result, EAB created the reflection questions below to help academic leaders decide when to respond.

Impact on faculty

  • How will this flashpoint impact faculty perceptions of physical or psychological safety?
  • Will this flashpoint impact faculty well-being?
  • Will this flashpoint disproportionately impact any marginalized groups on campus?

Institutional context

  • Am I (the provost) the appropriate voice for this response?
  • Can I (the provost) clearly articulate why I am responding to this flashpoint and why this flashpoint matters specifically to faculty at my institution?
  • How does my response as provost align with other statements made by my institution about this topic or event and/or my institution’s mission, priorities, and goals?

Response risks and impact

  • How might choosing to issue or not issue a public response to this flashpoint impact campus climate, faculty perceptions of support, or the student experience?
  • Does this response do more harm than good if I (the provost) am unable to include next-step resources or insight into how leadership plans to take action to support faculty in response to this flashpoint?
  • Would responding to this flashpoint stand out when compared to leadership responses to previous flashpoints? For example, could responding leave some community members wondering why a similar response was not made to an earlier flashpoint in the past few years?

Consider adding these elements to bolster support in your flashpoint response

If you decide to respond to a flashpoint in your capacity as an academic leader, it’s important that your response is timely, supportive, and aligns with messaging from your cabinet and university communications. Below is a checklist to help maximize your flashpoint response.

Acknowledge the event

It can be easy to jump into your response and overlook the need to clearly identify the flashpoint you wish to address. Consider linking to a credible news source to ensure faculty understand the flashpoint.

Articulate the why

Flashpoint responses often fail to acknowledge the intent behind their message. It is important to communicate why you are responding to this flashpoint and how it connects to your institution and its community members, particularly if this response does not fit into previous response cadence. Proactively provide reasoning to get ahead of questions about why a response was made—especially when faculty are split on emotionally charged viewpoints.

Include an action step

Demonstrate that your response is more than just releasing verbal communications about the flashpoint. If possible, include information on the institution’s plans or current activities within academic affairs to continue acting on supporting those impacted.

Unify messaging and assess for accountability

Check that your response aligns with other institutional communications about this flashpoint to unify messaging. Consult with your legal and leadership teams to assess opportunities to assume responsibility for or address institutional actions and/or historical or systemic issues that have led to the flashpoint. If your response differs from other responses on campus about this flashpoint, clearly articulate why.

Demonstrate empathy and recognize that well-being is individual

Acknowledge that flashpoints will not impact every faculty member in the same way and re-enforce your institution’s commitment to supporting well-being needs in all forms. Use your response to communicate that you stand with those affected and acknowledge that faculty may be experiencing a wide range of feelings, concerns, and effects.

Highlight support resources

Encourage faculty to connect with available support resources by calling out next steps to access specific campus and community resources in your response.

Follow up

Supportive responses do not stop at a single statement. They do keep faculty informed of continued efforts, opportunities to engage, and available resources.

A strong flashpoint response helps address faculty concerns, directs impacted individuals to support, and builds trust with faculty by demonstrating commitment to employee well-being. Consider these reflection questions and checklist items before you approach your next flashpoint response.

You guide to manage campus climate flashpoints

Our roadmap will help campus leaders prepare for flashpoints before they arise, convene a climate risk team, and more.

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