Faculty report low morale this school year, survey reveals


Faculty members expressed their dissatisfaction with university policies on COVID-19 and House File 802 in a recent survey.

Molly Blanco

A recent survey of Iowa State professors revealed that many faculty have deep concerns with university policies, contributing to a significant dip in faculty morale. 

Faculty were asked to share their opinions on university administration and policies, as well as the impact of these policies on their attitudes toward Iowa State. 

Political science professor Dave Peterson emailed the survey to faculty members on Sept. 30, and data collection ended on Oct. 2. 

The anonymous survey contained questions about the university’s handling of COVID-19 and House File 802 this academic year. 

House File 802 is an Iowa law passed in June that restricts mandatory trainings and teachings related to certain “divisive topics,” such as the idea that the United States or Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.

The survey revealed extremely low morale for many faculty members and a strong disapproval of COVID-19 and House File 802 policies. 

According to the survey, 27.1 percent of respondents said their morale as a faculty member at Iowa State is “the lowest it has ever been.”

With the second most responses, 25.6 percent said their morale is “lower than a typical year,” and 18.8 percent of respondents said morale is “much lower than a typical year.”

“There’s a whole lot of people whose morale is below normal,” Peterson said. 

A small percentage of faculty members (1.4 percent) said morale is “much higher than a typical year,” while 7.4 percent said morale is “higher than a typical year” and 0.7 percent said morale is “the highest it has ever been.”

Some respondents (19.1 percent) fell in the middle, responding that morale is “the same as a typical year.” 

Peterson explained that the survey results are not yet able to be generalized to the entire faculty population. However, he shared his concern with the number of faculty members surveyed who feel morale is at least lower than a typical year.

“I’m not sure these percentages are accurate of the full faculty, but the raw numbers are the raw numbers,” Peterson said. “When there’s 121 people who reported having the lowest morale ever, even if they are the universe of faculty who feel that way, that’s still five percent of all faculty on campus.” 

Of the individuals surveyed, 50.7 percent said they “disapprove strongly” of Iowa State’s COVID policies.

A majority of respondents (61 percent) said they “disapprove strongly” of Iowa State’s House File 802 policies. Similarly, more than half (50.1 percent) of professors who teach a subject related to House File 802 indicated that they feel a chilling effect on their teaching as a result of the university’s policies on the legislation. 

About half of all faculty members surveyed said House File 802 is not applicable to their courses. 

“A lot of people don’t feel a chilling effect because their courses don’t connect to House File 802,” Peterson said. 

A chilling effect refers to the stifling of legitimate, legal speech due to imprecise or unclear rules or laws.

Current university guidelines on House File 802 directs instructors to evaluate whether discussion of a particular topic is “germane to the overall subject matter and learning objectives of the course,” according to the Provost’s Office communications. 

Further, the guidance states, “If the concepts are not germane to the course, the risk of drawing scrutiny under the Act increases.” 

The guidelines define “germane” as “relevant to the scholarly subject matter.” However, the policy does not provide clear guidance on how instructors can determine germaneness of content in their courses. 

“Unlike The University of Iowa and The University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University has decided that the law also applies to courses, limiting the content of what faculty can teach in their courses,” Peterson’s survey said. 

With regard to House File 802, professors may feel a chilling effect if they believe the university’s policies are unclear about what is prohibited, forcing faculty to censor their teaching so they do not violate these policies.

Professors may choose not to discuss certain topics in their classes, even if the topic is permissible under the law, therefore resulting in a chilling effect on classroom speech.

“The ‘disapprove strongly’ category for House File 802 is actually higher than it is for the COVID policies,” Peterson said. “People seem to be more unhappy, or at least disapprove more strongly, of the House File 802 policies than they do the COVID policies.”

Despite strong disapproval of university policies, many survey takers (38.4 percent) said they “approve not strongly” of Iowa State administrators, indicating that faculty do not correlate their dissatisfaction with the actions of administrators. 

“There’s some disagreement, but there is definitely a majority of folks who are approving [of administrators],” Peterson said. 

The survey was completely anonymous and avoided questions that could lead to the identification of any faculty member, according to Peterson.

Some faculty members had opted out of elective emails and therefore did not receive the survey. Of the 1,541 faculty members on the email list, 62 percent opened the email and 460 responded to the survey.

Peterson said he conducted the survey in an effort to research what “public bureaucrats think about their institution and their leaders,” using Iowa State as a pilot test for the study.