The worldwide pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, led to substantial changes in higher education activities across the globe (Crawford et al., 2020). Beginning March of 2020, many faculty had to adopt new institutional measures to maximize the health and safety of campus communities. Studies during this time showed that the pandemic conditions were challenging for faculty because of expanded work hours to support students, transition to online teaching, heightened levels of stress and anxiety, and regression of research activities (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2021; Dalhousie Faculty Association, 2020). Despite these challenges, some studies highlighted desirable impacts from the pandemic on research and scholarship. One such impact was the increased funding and opportunities to work on pandemic-related research and some scholars shifted to focus on COVID-19 related research (e.g., Levin, 2020; Sanders, 2020). Moreover, some researchers took advantage of the time off from labs and fieldwork to explore new research directions and write proposals and manuscripts (Korbel & Stegle, 2020). This time also allowed researchers to organize and analyze data previously on hold (Flaherty, 2020).

Our study aims to focus on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on research and scholarship at higher education institutions, particularly non-essential and non-COVID-19 related studies, which are greatly impacted by pandemic measures (Basken, 2020). The study is inspired by questions raised at our institution’s faculty senate, promulgating a formal survey. Building on recent literature on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and other recent problems higher education institutions face, we aimed to identify the pandemic's impacts on research and scholarship at a public research university. The university is recognized as the “flagship institution,” the most known university in the state (Douglas, 2016). The central campus of the university is located in the rural Northeastern region of the U.S; however, the institution strives to serve the whole state with its centers and units at all geographic locations. We recruited 408 participants (anonymously reported as 177 females, 156 males, 16 nonbinary and unidentified); in a university with 620 (258 female, 330 male) faculty and 3,025 postgraduate students, including non-thesis students (1704 female, 1250 male, 71 nonbinary and unidentified). Approximately a quarter (168) of our participants reported as tenure-track faculty (60 Pre-Tenure Asst. Professor, 50 Associate Professor, 58 Full Professor), 134 graduate students, 44 research staff, 27 non-research positions including administrators and lecturers. Among the 408 participants, 118 have children, 33 elderly relatives, and 12 disabled relatives at home as dependents.

In contrast to the dominant focus on STEM education fields in previous studies, we examined the impacts of the pandemic across disciplines, including the Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts. In addition, we elaborate on the causes for work regression and individual faculty adjustments that were put in place to ensure research and scholarship productivity. We draw particular attention to the impact of COVID-related changes in health and well-being on research and scholarship activity. Specifically, we address the following research questions (RQs) using survey data collected from 408 faculty, research staff, grad students, and post-doctoral students:

  • RQ1: In what ways did the COVID-19 pandemic influence research and scholarship activities at a research university in a rural area of the Northeastern U.S.?

    1. 1)

      What were the reasons behind any reduced productivity?

    2. 2)

      What adaptations led to increased or no change in the productivity of participants?

  • RQ2: How do faculty, postdoctoral students, and graduate students allude to their health and well-being concerning the impacts on their research and scholarship productivity?

Conceptual Background and Review of Literature

Wicked Problems and Higher Education

Driven by the recent policy design studies in higher education, we conceptualize the COVID-19 pandemic as a "wicked problem" for higher education institutions (e.g., El Masri & Sabzalieva, 2020). Wicked problems are described as complex, nonlinear, and unique. If the solutions are not provided quickly, wicked problems can develop harmful consequences for the community (Peters, 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic created a wicked problem for higher education institutions where decision-makers were forced to develop urgent and dramatic solutions to prevent viral spread. These solutions included, but were not limited to, travel restrictions, transition to online teaching, and safety measures for labs and classrooms. Early studies reported the consequences of these measures. According to Korbel and Stegle (2020), 57% of life scientists reported losing some work, while 25% noted significant project delays of up to six months. Another study highlighted eighty percent of the postdoctoral students could not continue their work, mostly due to laboratory shutdowns (Woolston, 2020). For some researchers, the restrictions created challenges to maintain animals, cell lines, and cultures. Solutions included freezing cell lines or tissue cultures (Redden, 2020) and assuming the responsibilities of research assistants and lab technicians to maintain functioning labs (Grimm, 2020).

Peters (2017) highlighted that “every wicked problem may be a symptom of another problem” (p. 388), that might exist before and continue to exist in the future. Indeed, pandemic life during COVID-19 emphasized issues of enduring problems such as equity and diversity within higher education. For example, the negative impacts on research and scholarship were even more challenging for underrepresented groups, such as female scholars in science and engineering fields and international students (Milliken et. al., 2020; Oleschuk, 2020; Sotto-Santiago et al., 2021). In this study, enduring problems are considered as we sought to understand (a) how pandemic conditions can limit research and productivity; and (b) the strategies of resiliency that lead faculty and students to overcome the challenges of wicked problems.

Enduring Problems in Higher Education in the Recent Times

Because wicked problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can be amplified by enduring challenges, we first provide an overview of the challenges that higher education institutions faced prior to the pandemic.

Financial Instability in Higher Education

Referred to as “the Great Recession,” the economic crisis in 2008–2009, was detrimental to many higher education institutions (Geiger, 2010). Wealthy private schools lost significant endowment resources due to low rates of return (Barr & Turner, 2013). Although endowments typically make up a small percentage of the operating revenue for public institutions (Rosen & Sappington, 2019), these institutions saw a dramatic decrease in state funding (Geiger, 2010). In addition, the crisis caused a domino effect that severely impacted higher education institutions and resulted in (a) widespread budget cuts, (b) significant staffing changes, and (c) changes in the student admission process. Once flourishing endowments, the mainstay of wealthier institutions, experienced significant losses, “translated into long-term budget cuts” (Geiger, 2010, p. 10). State revenues decreased across all avenues, similarly affecting public institutions (Barr & Turner, 2013). Facing these budget crises, colleges and universities were forced to address these shortfalls through staff terminations, hiring freezes, project and building cancellations, and tuition increases (Geiger, 2010; McGlynn, 2014).

A few years following the Great Recession, State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) annual reports noted a steady decrease in state and local support in higher education (Carlson, 2019). Although there was a sign of recovery in 2013 and slight increase in some state’s budgets for higher education, this was mainly offset by the inflation (Carlson, 2019). Until 2019, some states continue to increase support for higher education mostly in the form of student financial aids. However, the state support was 8.7% below the pre-recession rates (Cummings et al., 2021). To offset the state reduction, four-year public institutions continued to increase student tuition and fees. Nevertheless, the increase was not sufficient to make up for the lost state funding (Webber, 2017). The higher education institution in this study also relies mostly on tuition and fees for its operating revenue source. A recent town hall on the budget reported that 57% of the FY2021 budget is expected to come from the tuition and fees, while state appropriation is expected to contribute to 27% of the revenue (University of Maine Office of the President, 2021).

Many colleges and universities opted to not fill full-time faculty positions and instead hire and rely heavily on adjunct faculty (Stenerson et al., 2010). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.), from 1991 to 2011, the numbers of part-time faculty increased 162%, whereas full-time only increased 42%, highlighting this significant staffing change. Hiring adjuncts, at less cost than salaried faculty, helped higher education institutions save money during the economic downturn. Therefore, today most of the faulty with teaching responsibilities on part time appointments. (McComb, 2020). Adjunct faculty often juggle full-time careers, possibly multiple contingent positions, and do not have the additional time-resources or support to engage in activities and responsibilities typically performed by the full-time professoriate (Stenerson et al., 2010). Currently, the part-time faculty at our institution is around 30%, while it fluctuates slightly between the fall and spring semesters (University of Maine System Strategic Planning Data Book, 2021).

The resultant increase in hiring contingent staff has worsened how institutions experience future wicked problems. Decreases in full-time faculty positions have led to fewer faculty members available to fulfill important administrative roles and contribute additional responsibilities, such as service to units, the institution, and the community (Stenerson et al., 2010). In addition, faculty members that are hired for full-time positions may feel overwhelmed, underappreciated, burned out, and left to balance the overflow responsibilities that at one time would have been distributed among several members of their academic community. The graduate students of this great recession period experienced the effects of less full-time faculty present in higher education, and students spent less time with professors for advising or mentoring (Stenerson et al., 2010).

Inequalities in Higher Education

The institution of Higher Education in the United States has been characterized as socially elite and prestigious (Brown, 2018). There are multiple facets of inequality including but not limited to gender, race, and academic rank. While inequality in higher education is a complex problem, there are apparent depictions that can be characterized through faculty stratification. Women and Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately represented in academia (Brown, 2018). Research finds that women are less represented in the higher faculty rank and their salaries are lower than men across all academic ranks (Fox-Cardamone, 2010). According to data, female faculty made 0.844 to every male faculty’s dollar (Fox-Cardamone, 2010). Salary discrepancies can also be linked to inequity in promotion, which may be more difficult to achieve for women in higher education, specifically when reaching the rank of full professor. Fox-Cardamone (2010) reported males are 40% more likely to be promoted to full professor than females. A more recent study looked at the gender pay gap for senior faculty in administrative positions and found a similar gap female administrators earned approximately 80 cents on every male administrator’s dollar (Bichsel & McChesney, 2017).

In addition to these notable salary disparities, there are also rank inequalities regarding faculty workload of teaching, research, and service. In some cases, full professors may spend more time on research activities, including preparing manuscripts, acting as principal investigators, and participating in lab and fieldwork, while associate professors occupy more time teaching, advising, and administering courses (O’Meara et al., 2017). When gender and rank are considered at the full professor level, women faculty spend approximately seven hours less per week on research and significantly more time on campus service activities, student advising, and institutional housekeeping than their male colleagues (O’Meara et al. 2017). Because research and publication activities are heavily weighted for promotion from associate to full professor, these findings help to explain the continued practice of gender inequities and subsequent salary differences in higher education institutions (Fox-Cardamone, 2010; O’Meara et al., 2017).

Some women, however, have developed strategies to increase academic productivity and resiliency while maintaining household responsibilities. A case study examined female graduate students, who identified as mothers working towards graduate degrees through online programs where participants developed strategies to increase productivity, effectively manage time, and avoid becoming overwhelmed while working on their degree programs (Fensie & Sezen-Barrie, 2021). For example, these women utilized selective attention techniques when faced with distractions, such as not looking up from their computer screen, maintaining intense focus, and reading out loud to themselves. While more studies are needed, some females’ improved productivity during the pandemic can be explained by their strategies for effective work to achieve success despite demanding responsibilities assigned to them.

Challenges to Build a Strong Community of Practice in Higher Education

Universities prosper when there is commitment to facilitating programs and interactions focused on developing social connections and a supportive community for faculty (Buckley, 2020; Himelein & Anderson, 2020; McCauliff, 2020). While not always consistent or successful, faculty development strategies include creating programs where small groups interact to share information and experiences to aid in community building within the institution (Himelein & Anderson, 2020). However, time availability and persistent commitment is a barrier to creating and sustaining these social connections. Exacerbating these challenges is the increasingly adjunct staffing model, where the transient nature of their employment and exclusion from many engagements hinders a community building atmosphere (Culver et al., 2020). The confluence of these issues results in higher education increasingly becoming plagued with community building issues (Thelin, 2001).

To mitigate these challenges, Himelein and Anderson (2020), created small, academically focused groups to interact for short periods of time. This concept required less time commitment and went beyond a social gathering to build learning communities that were “valuable for teaching development as well as personally or professionally rewarding” (p. 28). As teaching is the dominant role of adjunct faculty, smaller community connections with a development focus could be attractive to this group.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing requirements decimated most community interactions. University campuses closed and Zoom meetings prevailed. Establishing and sustaining supportive communities at colleges and universities became more problematic due to working from home, a lack of casual social interactions on campus, and additional work and home related pandemic responsibilities. Faulty perceptions of organizational support during the pandemic have been an environment that combines research productivity with healthy work-life harmony (Culver et al., 2020). Due to challenges imposed by the pandemic (e.g., increased responsibilities, financial instability, and lingering inequalities), community building continues to be challenging in the current environment of the persistent pandemic.

Study Design and Methods

This survey study examined the contextual impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on research and scholarship at a public research university in the Northeastern U.S. With a central campus in a rural location, the university participates in outreach efforts across the state, contributes to national and international research agendas, and provides comprehensive undergraduate and graduate programs. The university houses international scholars who lead cutting edge research across disciplines. It is important to note that the research and development funding trends at this institution have increased during the last five fiscal years, including the pandemic years of 2020–2021, with funding generated and spent during the pandemic at an all-time high (University of Maine System Strategic Planning Data Book, 2021). Despite funding trends, challenges in carrying out and completing research and scholarship activities were raised by the university community with the institution’s faulty senate. We administered a survey with qualitative and quantitative components during January–February 2021, at the beginning of a third academic semester under pandemic conditions.

The rural state and the county the research university is located observed a low number of COVID-19 cases until early 2022 (COVID-19 Case Trends, 2021). While businesses, university facilities, and K-12 schools were shut down during the first six months of the pandemic, the phased opening started with precautions (e.g., mask-wearing, social distancing, regular testing) during the summer and fall of 2020. Starting at the beginning of the 2020–2021 academic year, the State Department of Education allowed in-person schooling for counties with low risk for COVID-19 spread and prepared to apply all pandemic measures. The small classrooms in the rural counties around the institution made it possible for in-person school options. However, most of the after and before-school programs were canceled and allowed limited care-free work hours for parents (Maine Department of Education, 2021). The University also had a phased opening for its research facilities, where labs and classrooms became available for research and teaching as long as COVID protocols were administered starting the 2020–2021 academic year. These facilities will be shut down if there is a sign of community spread. Students, faculty, and staff coming to campus were tested regularly for COVID-19. Despite the advantage of low COVID-19 cases, more online courses and remote work options were created to be preventative as the rural state's hospital facilities are not as extensive as in other locales (University of Maine COVID-19 Research Continuity Update, 2021). The participants responses may reflect the times of completed shut down and restricted opening thanks to low COVID-19 most of the time.

Participants of the Survey

We recruitted from a pool of all employees who conduct research and scholarship (see Introduction for the total numbers of faculty and grad students). We were able to recruit 408 participants. The distribution of participants across genders, university positions, and academic disciplines—as well as their home dependent responsibilities—are provided in Table 1.

Table 1 The demographic distribution of the participants of the study

Our participants are from various academic disciplines and positions, including graduate students and research faculty. This is because all research activities conducted by all positions in all disciplines are critical for a higher education institution working towards the goals of a “very high research” activity or R1 Carnegie Classification. To limit non-response bias (Matsuo et al., 2010), we used inclusive email listserves, made announcements at faculty senate meetings with representatives across disciplines, and used graduate school listers to access graduate students. The respondents represent their gender, disciplinary, and rank groups within 2–3% variability compared to the population (University of Maine System Strategic Planning Data Book, 2021).

Survey Design and Development

A web-based survey was developed in Qualtrics using the design process of Lumsden (2007). The first step was to define the affected area of research and variables (e.g., position, gender, …., etc.) using groups of experts in the faculty senate and independent research meetings. Once defined, we identified the research questions and the target participants. Our initial question of "how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the research and scholarship activity at a research university" was distilled to more specific queries (e.g., reasons for reduced research activity). The initial plan of targeting full-time faculty and graduate students was expanded to all employees conducting research and scholarship, including postdoctoral scholars and research staff. The survey was comprised of six subcategories: demographics, research planning disruptions, logistical challenges, mentoring opportunities, workspace changes, and mental and physical health. Twenty-eight survey questions were developed to address these subcategories. Education researchers and members of the faculty senate reviewed the survey questions, and the Institutional Review Board gave their approval for participant recruitment after integrating feedback on the study design. A pilot-test was first conducted with five faculty and graduate students from other higher education institutions that resulted in further revisions of the questions. The survey then was published through Qualtrics and distributed to an email list with all university employees and graduate students.

Data Analysis Approach

The quantitative aspects of the survey data were analyzed after cross-tabulation and frequency analysis using Microsoft Excel (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2017). Embedded in this analysis were insights to how demographic information and dependent care at home relate to increased, reduced, or steady productivity in research and scholarship. Although the analysis of multiple-choice items provided general trends across disciplines, analysis of the qualitative data from the participants provided richer insights into research and scholarship experiences. Therefore, our findings are predominantly derived from the analysis of qualitative data.

The analysis of the qualitative data started with an initial reading of all the qualitative excerpts and memos that were written to identify preliminary themes. These qualitative data then were organized in Dedoose (qualitative analysis software) by creating an entry for each participant. Guided by our initial themes and research questions, the excerpts were coded independently by two researchers. The disagreements in coding were discussed and often led to revision of the codes until both researchers reached 100% agreement. As a further check for validity, we triangulated our codes with different sources of information in the recent literature and higher education blogs in consultation with the other faculty senate members. The codes were then organized under three themes: (a) reasons for reduced productivity, (b) adaptations for sustained or improved productivity, and (c) health and well-being during the pandemic. The codes under each theme were sequenced by frequency (i.e., how many participants’ excerpts were tagged with a code) and interconnectedness to each other. The findings provided detailed descriptions of each theme with sample excerpts from the participants (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


Most participants reported reduced research and scholarship productivity during the pandemic (78%), while far fewer reported unclear effects on productivity (12%). Although low in numbers, some participants experienced sustained (5%) or even increased productivity (5%) (Fig. 1). We looked at the change in research productivity across University positions (Fig. 2). The breakdown showed that the tenure-track faculty was the group that mentioned the reduced research productivity the most (83%), followed by graduate students (77%). Respondents in research positions were the group that said reduced research productivity the least (66%). We see the documentation and consideration of these patterns and adaptation outcomes as important to community wellbeing, particularly with the juxtaposition to the institutions’ success in research and development funds during the pandemic years. Earlier studies show differences in pandemic effects on faculty research and scholarship productivity based on gender and dependent care (e.g., Viglione, 2020), so this question was examined here. The findings show similar research and scholarship productivity effects across genders and dependent care for untenured assistant professors, associate professors, research faculty, research staff, and postdoctoral students, but gender differences at the full professor rank and for graduate students and lecturers. Full professors reported increased and sustained productivity (21% for male, 14% for female), while graduate students reported increased productivity (5% for females, 0% for males). Dependent care factors appeared to only influence male lecturers in that those all reporting no dependent responsibility cited increased productivity.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Frequencies of researchers with reduced, unclear, sustained, and increased research productivity

Fig. 2
figure 2

Change in research productivity across different positions

Reasons for Reduced Productivity in Research and Scholarship

The analysis of the 408 qualitative responses revealed that 257 (63%) of the participants gave reasons for reduced productivity (Fig. 3). The most frequently cited reason for reduced productivity was ‘Increased Work Responsibilities’ (33%) due to the rapid transition to online teaching, increased attention to students' emotional well-being, additional administrative requirements for safety, decreased staff availability, and other increased administrative tasks. It is important to note that almost all excerpts in this category were from the faculty (tenure and nontenure track) and staff. Graduate students only made references to decreased staff availability. For example, one faculty member from the Sciences, explained how increased workload due to transition to online teaching left no time or mental energy for his research and scholarship activity as:

Teaching a large course load remotely takes almost all of my time, very little time / energy / mental bandwidth / motivation / ambition left over for research. Research / scholarship is becoming increasingly trivial and decreasingly rewarding. After devoting time / attention / effort to my students/classes (not to mention home responsibilities!), I'm burnt out and have no surplus attention to devote to much else. Diminishing marginal returns to increased research. [male, associate professor, caring for children at home]

Fig. 3
figure 3

Reasons for reduced research and scholarship activity during COVID-12 pandemic

Another frequently mentioned theme for reduced productivity was ‘Limited/Inconsistent Access to Research Field’ (21%), including fieldwork cancellations, inconsistent access to K–12 classrooms, laboratory limitations, and travel restrictions to research fields (particularly those in foreign countries) and conferences. The following is a representative excerpt by a faculty member in the Social Sciences focused on the disruption of access to K–12 schools as a research field:

I had a five-year pilot project for a school-based intervention effectively shut down by the pandemic. We were going to run a quasi-experimental evaluation of the project in the schools we partner with after 4 years of work this year and are now unable to because of the disruption schools have experienced. We still had to pay our full-time project staff for this year and will not receive additional funds from our previous funding sources, so we effectively will never know if the intervention (a $750K investment) we worked on for years on had "gold standard" effects. We couldn't even collect outcomes for Year 4 because of the March shutdown in 2020. [female, associate professor, caring for children at home]

Related to lack of access to the research field, participants wrote about delays in ‘Project Timeline and Funding’. A faculty member from the Sciences wrote “Project delays have tied up capacity to an extent that I have no time for proposal development, but no additional funds coming in” [female, assistant professor, with children as dependents at home]. Challenges to research field access and delays in project funding along with hardship to recruit reviewers during the pandemic, led to ‘Publication Delays’. As highlighted by a faculty member from the Sciences, “Several datasets which were to be collected were delayed, thereby delaying ultimate data analysis and publication by at least a year” [male, assistant professor].

Another theme frequently cited was ‘Inadequate Resources’ (13%) in terms of decreased library resources, internet connectivity, and shortages of needed supplies (caused by the limited access to build and shipping delays). One research staff in the Social Sciences saw some of the inadequate resources as an alarming problem, especially considering the university’s attempt to move to a higher research rank at a national classification. She wrote “…budget reductions have drastically affected research and scholarly activity given the loss of book budgeting, databases, and journals. This is alarming given the needs of us at an R2, but also as we move toward R1 status” [female, research staff, caring for children at home]. In some instances, lack of resources led to ‘Matriculation Extension’ (2%) for graduate students. One student from the Humanities commented:

I've had to abandon my thesis altogether, for lack of access to research materials, and switch to completing my degree by coursework alone, which has set me back about 18 months (counting the pre-pandemic research time that was retroactively wasted by the changeover). [male, graduate student]

Due to limited access to offices, scholars needed to use their home as a workspace. The home environment, however, was not conducive to an effective working environment for everyone. Therefore, one of the themes for reduced research activity was ‘Work from Home Issues and Family Responsibilities’ (9%). There were varying reasons for why working from home was not feasible for research and scholarship production. The reasons included lack of physical space, dependents being at home, difficulty separating home and work life, and other distractions, such as noise. A faculty member from the Social Sciences mentioned:

I'm effectively leasing a home office for myself - it's expensive and mentally costly shift to working from home to accomplish research tasks impacted the following aspects of your family or personal life: Complete inability to separate work from life now. I am not working at home; I functionally live at work instead. [male, associate professor, caring for children at home]

For this faculty member, the attempt to work from home led to family and personal problems and led him to rent a separate office space, despite the costs. Related to ‘Work From Home Issues and Family Responsibilities’, participants highlighted ‘Decreased Social Connectivity’ (7%) as another major reason for reduced research and scholarship activity. Faculty and staff who were in the institution pre-pandemic, such as the faculty member from the Sciences [female, associate professor, caring for children at home] mentioned “loss of community” in their department, which led to “loss of informal interactions” and “less opportunity to share ideas.” The new members of the institution also experienced social disconnect that created barriers in getting to know the local culture of their program. A student from the Medical Sciences said:

As a first-year grad student, it's been much harder to interact with other members of my cohort and of my program in general. I've been mostly okay with this so far because I am in contact with other friends I made before grad school, but I suspect that there will be long-term consequences in terms of identifying with the program and [the university] in general. [female, graduate student]

Other than social disconnect, working from home led to blurred schedules and created ‘Scheduling Difficulties (4%)’ for some, but was rarely mentioned as a reason for reduced research and activity. A faculty member from the Social Sciences wrote: “schedules have been less predictable, so it is more difficult to create and keep to a timeline for work” [female, associate professor, caring for elderly at home].

Adaptations for Sustained or Improved Productivity

Among 408 survey participants, 73 (18%) of those talked about adaptations to sustain or improve their productivity. Figure 4 illustrates the frequencies by the type of adaptations with the most apparent theme being ‘New Research Opportunities’ (19%) thanks to the more frequent and efficient use of virtual tools. The virtual collaborative environments led to new networking opportunities among scholars that are geographically distant, and for some, these networking opportunities resulted in research and scholarship products. One faculty member who is affiliated with the Sciences and Social Sciences wrote:

I have been leading a grad seminar to improve my understanding of equity in my field, with the ultimate goal of producing an article on the topic with the grad students and colleagues who are participating. Now that we are all accustomed to Zoom, the seminar is international in scope, with leading experts from around the US and the hemisphere leading us on particular topics and often participating weekly. We also have grad students from other institutions. I doubt this would have happened before the pandemic. [male, full professor]

Fig. 4
figure 4

Adaptations for increased or sustained research and scholarship activity during COVID-19 pandemic

With greater use of virtual spaces as a collaborative environment, researchers did not need to be limited to their geographic region to start new projects and build new partnerships. Another related theme that emerged in participant responses was ‘Conference Accessibility’ (10%). Since the distance and the affordability of the conference venue was not a concern for the virtual conferences, some researchers were able to utilize these opportunities to improve their research and scholarship productivity. One professor from the Sciences explained this benefit as:

Scientific conferences going online is a huge boon. Saves TONS of time and money and creates great opportunities for undergrad and grad students to attend whereas they otherwise would be excluded due to the high costs. I hope conferences never go back to in-person. [female, associate professor, caring for children, elderly relatives, and disabled family members]

In addition, increased use of virtual environments created the need for gaining knowledge about and developing practices to navigate digital tools. Therefore, ‘Increased Knowledge and Skills’ was mentioned by 11% of those participants who have adapted to pandemic conditions to continue or improve their research and scholarship. A research staff in the Sciences explained how increased skills for using Zoom expanded opportunities to access researchers and teachers across the state:

I've developed methods for remote use of our research instrumentation using Zoom remote control features. This is important not only for training but also for our outreach component of our recent NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] grant. This opens up access to our NMRs to researchers throughout the state, as well as to teachers at other colleges that offer courses in organic and other branches of chemistry. [male, research staff]

Other than improved Zoom skills, participants seized learning opportunities for remote instrumentation use, and digital data collection strategies to adjust to a working from home environment.

Another highly mentioned theme concerning adaptations was ‘Purchasing New Computer Equipment’ (18%) to accommodate a similar quality of work while at home and enhance virtual collaborations. The creation of effective home offices also meant a new cost to the employees. As one student in the Sciences wrote: “Costs associated with workplace shift to home: Audio/video equipment (quality web cam and mic for teaching online)” [transgender female, graduate student]. Our survey explored the type and the amount of costs associated with the design of home offices. Among respondents, 89% selected costs associated with new furniture, increase in utility bills, and an upgrade of internet access. Less than 10% of the respondents who mentioned costs to create a work environment from home mentioned costs related to construction at home (e.g., to create office space), materials for research and teaching, digital equipment such as new keyboards and a larger computer screen. While less than 1% of the respondents estimated the cost of this change being more than $10,000, 22% of the participants estimated costs between $1,000–10,000, and 69% of the participants estimated costs between $100—$1,000.

Despite the low traffic, rural setting of the university, the third most common theme for increased productivity was ‘Less Commuting Time’ (17%) to prevent extra time in traveling a distance, particularly during wintertime when the roads are icier. A faculty member from the Social Sciences wrote that “No time lost to commuting to/from campus. It is somewhat easier to get small writing/thinking tasks done in between meetings because there are fewer interruptions from people stopping by my office” [female, associate professor, caring for elderly relatives at home]. Relatedly, 15% of the participants, who chose increased and sustained productivity, mentioned that working from home led to ‘Efficient Meetings.’ As highlighted by a lecturer from the Humanities and Social Sciences, people were “able to have more meetings as well as more productive meetings online (Zoom)” [male, lecturer, caring for children at home].

Although more rarely mentioned, survey respondents talked about recognition of needed ‘Digital Updates’ on campus resources (7%) and ‘Relaxed Requirements’ (3%) during the pandemic. Attending these needs helped some scholars continue or improve their scholarship and research. For example, one research faculty from the Social Sciences mentioned updates in digital library resources as helpful for remote access: “The pandemic has given our library time to do much needed updates to exhibits and cataloguing. It's also allowed us to focus on digitizing materials and created an online resource hub for researchers and teachers to still access remotely” [male, research faculty]. The ‘Relaxed Requirements’ code included situations where deadlines were extended and virtual participation in meetings was welcomed. A researcher from the Humanities talked about the benefits of relaxed requirements as: “Increased flexibility/accessibility of distance partners; increased willingness to meet virtually with colleagues; generally, more relaxed attitudes toward project difficulties, deadlines” [male, research staff, caring for children at home].

Health & Well-Being During the Pandemic: Challenges and Affordances to Productivity

The analysis of the qualitative responses also showed that health and well-being issues during the pandemic were mostly challenging and often led to reduced research productivity. One hundred and eighteen of 408 participants (29%) highlighted mental health issues; 108 (26%) of these were obstacles for research productivity resulting from anxiety and fear about the pandemic, burnout/exhaustion, increased stress in working to meet the new demands, feeling overwhelmed due to unrealistic expectations, lack of motivation because of decreased social connectivity and lack of institutional support. Below is an example of how a student referred to the feeling of being worn out due to lack of social interactions during the pandemic:

The current state of the pandemic has decreased social interactions via face-to-face interaction, which has severely impacted mental health and productivity. The inability to separate work from home has also impacted research quality. The output of research has been relatively high because it is constantly happening, but that has worn on individuals and is affecting the work that gets done in a laboratory setting because we crave the social interactions we get in a laboratory environment. [male, grad student]

This excerpt suggests that mental health issues limited the work on research and scholarship during the pandemic. At the same time, there were rare benefits of working from home. The remaining 12 participants (3%) who highlighted mental health issues wrote about resilience for surviving through a pandemic as a motivating factor to improve or sustain research and scholarship productivity. For instance, a female full professor from the Humanities, with elderly dependents at home, felt the resilience “as time progressed” and when her students adapted to the new normal and “still achieved high proficiency levels.” Furthermore, she noticed that despite the imperfection of the Zoom platform, “there will be aspects of this platform that will be integrated into future planning.”

In addition to mental health issues, a few scholars (5% of all participants) highlighted physical health changes; 4.6% of which were challenging and often led to reduced research productivity resulting from eye strain during long screen time, lack of access to fitness facilities, and inaccessibility to health care. The remaining 0.4% of the physical change were more positive such as increased time for exercise while working from home.

Finally, we decided to present "Work-Life Issues" as a separate theme under health and well-being. Although work-life issues can be related to physical and mental health, we noticed that a significant number of survey respondents specifically highlighted a challenge due to work-life conflicts and/or an affordance pertaining to establishing a new work-life harmony during the pandemic that impacted their research and scholarship. Seventeen percent of the participants highlighted work-life issues, 6% of which mentioned better work-life harmony during the pandemic, leading to higher productivity. A student from the Sciences said, "By having the flexibility to work remotely, I am able to have more control over my work schedule and have more access to home amenities. These amenities and the additional flexibility have allowed me to be more productive" [male, graduate student]. For this participant, the home environment leads to efficiency.

Another 11% highlighted difficulties that reduced productivity, such as lack of office space and caring for young children. Parents, particularly women, unequally experienced childcare and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic (e.g., Langin, 2021; Lechuna-Pena, 2022). This trend didn't appear in our quantitative findings for all except full professors and lecturers. This finding might be due to low COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the pandemic that provided in-person school and childcare options to parents after the initial six months of closures. Although our quantitative findings showed that female-identified faculty were only disadvantaged at the full professor level and dependent care made a difference only for lecturers, most of the qualitative excerpts (10% out of 17% that highlighted work-life issues) highlighted work-life conflict from female-identified scholars. The majority of these females (6%) were in lecturer positions. A lecturer from the Humanities and the Arts wrote about her difficulty focusing while she had kids at home:

As we negotiate my work being remote, our children being remote, and my husband still working away, our marriage has also been impacted. Because my work is so fragmented (by merit of working in the same place I live while simultaneously having my children attempt school in the same location), I find it incredibly difficult to find sustained periods of focus for detailed thinking and planning. I can, then, hobble along with highly routinized work, but innovation, analysis, and problem-solving are challenging. [female, lecturer, caring for children at home]

Qualitative analysis also highlighted tenure-line faculty who experienced work-life conflicts. The excerpt below from a pre-tenure faculty talks about not being able to keep up with the demands of building a career for tenure and highlights the difficulty in completing research with two young children at home:

This is a time in my career where I need to be publishing a lot, getting grants to support my research, and making crucial networking connections at conferences. None of this has happened, and it concerns me with tenure. I don't want to get a year extension to tenure because it impacts my earning potential for the rest of my career (which I don't believe is fair because of a pandemic that I had not to control over). Everyone is experiencing their own demons during this pandemic. But it can not be stated enough how hard it has been getting any research done with a 2 and 4 year old at home. It is mentally hard to see colleagues without kids being more productive and just having absolutely no way to get there. [female, Assistant Professor, caring for children at home]

The excerpt above refers to the university system's guidance on the choice of stopping the tenure clock for one year during the COVID-19 pandemic (University of Maine Promotion and Tenure Guidance, 2022). Although this option is provided, the faculty mentions the unfairness because stopping tenure will have negative financial impacts. Previous research highlighted the long terms impacts of stopping the tenure policies in creating gender and racial differences in pay raises (Freund et al., 2016). A recent study looked at faculty decisions on application to a tenure during the pandemic in two research universities in Colorado. The study found that over half of the pre-tenured faculty accepted the option to stop the tenure clock. Furthermore, ethnically minoritized and women-identified faculty in Social and Behavioral Sciences were more likely to accept the offer. The burden of the work-life conflict unequally forces some faculty to accept the stopping the tenure option. While this option allows the faculty to continue their career, it might lead to long-term consequences such as lower pay.

Discussion and Implications for Future Directions

This study reports on data from a public research university that has state-wide and nationwide recognition and impact. Since the university’s largest campus is located in a rural town in the Northeastern region of the U.S., some results might reflect the advantages and challenges of being located in a rural geography. Before we discuss the findings of this study, it is important to note that surveys are designed to reveal respondents’ perceptions rather than their actual behavior (Rubenfeld, 2004). While this characteristic of surveys might be seen as a limitation, understanding how faculty, staff and students perceive their productivity is crucial for the wellbeing of higher education institutions. Despite increases in research and development funding during the pandemic, the results from the survey we conducted indicated that the pandemic led to perceptions of reduced research activity across all disciplines, genders, and academic positions. However, some male full professors and female graduate students reported an increase or sustained research and scholarship activity during the pandemic. Qualitative data from the survey suggested that the increased and sustained research and scholarship activity can be attributed to these participants’ efforts in adaptations to pandemic conditions, such as looking for new research and scholarship opportunities (synthesis of review papers), utilizing online resources and collaborations, and investing in equipment for effective virtual collaborations. We suggest future studies to explore why these demographics were more likely to be able to adapt to pandemic conditions than others.

We draw on the concept of the “wicked” problem to understand the impact of the pandemic on research and scholarship activity in higher education institutions in preparation for future widespread societal disruptions. As a wicked problem requiring urgent solutions to life-threatening situations, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored several ongoing issues in higher education and clarified how faculty and staff experience these problems in some cases. Financial instability has been a struggle for many higher education institutions in the U.S. leading to a decrease in faculty and staff hires or leaning to part-time or adjunct positions (e.g., Stenerson et al., 2010). This trend has continued during post-recession as a mitigation strategy for budget shortfalls (Cummings et al., 2021). The decrease in faculty and staff from previous years can be one factor for why participants in our study stated “Increased Work Responsibilities” as the main reason for reduced research and scholarship activity. For faculty, transitioning to online teaching is the main reason for reduced research activity. In addition, limited administrative support staffing, researchers in higher education had to undertake new responsibilities in the form of additional meetings, managerial responsibilities, and online teaching preparation and execution. These new roles that are often recorded as service can be in a conflicting direction than faculty’s research program (Sotto-Santiago et al., 2021).

Similar to findings from other recent studies (Ramlo, 2021; Sotto-Santiago et al., 2021), a substantial number of our participants mentioned that pandemic-induced additional responsibilities, such as simultaneous coordination of academic and household duties, have produced mental and physical exhaustion, burnout, and the sensation of being fundamentally overwhelmed. It will be important for higher education institutions to respond to the wicked problems created and clarified by this pandemic event. The survey outcomes suggest it would be prudent to consider strategic development of administrative support capacity, backup planning for operations related to research and scholarship activities, and scenario response evaluations for circumstances that might predictably affect research and scholarship activities.

Work-life harmony was disrupted for many students, staff, and faculty during the pandemic and required individuals to create novel strategies to conduct research and scholarship activities. Multiple responses highlight struggles with childcare. The qualitative data on these work-life conflicts were mostly by female respondents. Understanding work-life issues has implications beyond the pandemic due to another enduring problem of day care/afterschool shortages that have been particularly daunting in small rural communities (Becker, 2020). Family responsibilities can limit the deep thinking needed for research and scholarship activity (Woodthorpe, 2018). On the other hand, flexibility created by virtual options can reduce stress for academic professionals that have considerable family responsibilities and limited childcare options.

Studies revealed that the most demanding of the new responsibilities in higher education can be transitions to online teaching and designing effective virtual teaching strategies (Cutri et al., 2020; Sotto-Santiago et al., 2021). Our findings align with other studies showing that faculty needed a substantial amount of time to transition to online or hybrid modes of teaching. Scholars suggest that these new modes of learning will remain as critical options even when we move beyond the pandemic. Others have proposed that higher education must adapt to a new student population by remaining flexible and continuing to offer virtual and in-person options, while maintaining a community atmosphere expected in post-secondary experiences (Eringfeld, 2021). Useful modifications to teaching include virtual conferences and seminars, open access materials, and knowledge sharing through online platforms that encourage flexibility for those involved in fostering the community atmosphere in higher education moving forward post-covid (Eringfeld, 2021). Since the new demands will affect the way research and scholarship activities are conducted, it will be important for institution administrators to develop expanded guidelines and policies for hybrid working conditions for university faculty, staff, and graduate students. These guidelines or policies can be framed through forums where administrators, faculty, and graduate students provide perspectives.

Second to “Increased Work Responsibilities,” the survey we conducted reveals that limited access to research fields, in science and social sciences, was a crucial reason for reduced research and scholarship activity. The COVID-19 pandemic has had startling effects on researcher mobility, decreasing their ability to access data (Woolston, 2020). Stationery labs and fieldwork were paused for many studies due to the inability to travel (Erickson, 2020). The predicament may cause “long-lasting impacts that could transform research and collaborations,” negatively disrupting younger researchers’ productivity, particularly for graduate students or pre-tenured faculty (Woolston, 2020, p. 614). Scholars argued that it is essential to shift research and collaborations further into the virtual realm by developing larger database initiatives, online library resources, and digitizing museum archives and collections (Scerri et al., 2020). Our survey responses indicate that the shifts were being initiated by some researchers, our institution, and the organizations as an adaptation to sustain scholarly activity. The results support the need for expanded investments in research equipment that can help provide virtual data transfer from remote research fields (e.g., rainforests, the Arctic). Artificial Intelligence, though applications are currently limited, can be utilized to build such instruments that will provide virtual, effective, and automated data (Amer-Yahia & Senjuti Basu, 2021). Other than international funds, federal and state agencies can create funding opportunities to build an infrastructure for remote work. Should these advancements be completed, researchers can be prepared for the next wicked problem such as the next pandemic or severe impact of climatic changes.

Universities prosper when there is a commitment to facilitating programs and interactions focused on developing social connections and a supportive community for faculty (Buckley, 2020; Himelein & Anderson, 2020; McCauliff, 2020). Our participants mentioned that a major complication of the COVID-19 pandemic is the lack of in-person social engagement on the college campus and more specifically shifting social interactions to a virtual setting. According to Buckley (2020), virtual interactions can provide advantages yet create challenges. Zoom meetings can bring researchers together that may be geographically apart and connect with other faculty rarely seen on campus. Conversely, it can elicit awkward silences and bar side conversations that are less likely to occur in person leading to a decrease in faculty development. The pandemic conditions reveal a demand to create and maintain common guidelines for students and faculty to address the current lack of social connectedness that has impacted productivity (Milliken et al., 2020). Moving forward, it is critical to organize events and spaces where faculty and students can engage in informal mentoring and collaborative activities (Howley, 2020). In order to support faculty in the new normal, administrators in departments or units need to maintain a culture where faculty can feel agency to build a strong career and engage faculty in further learning (Neumann, et al., 2006). Faculty can feel stronger agency if their departments provide professional development resources, see models of balancing work-life priorities, perceive an aligned fit to the program’s goals, and transparency in guidelines, and tenure process (Campbell & O’Meara, 2014). Further related to the social connectivity, perceptions of collegiality are crucial for improved faculty agency (Daly & Dee, 2006; Lindholm, 2004). As we might work at distant geographic location at times, it is important to improve on these components of departmental communities.

Findings from studies that explored the COVID-19 pandemic conditions at higher education institutions agree that resuming pre-pandemic operations is not a prudent strategy going forward (Roy, 2020). There is a need to collaboratively develop new sets of guidelines to help researchers and scholars optimize operational responses based on what we have learned from the pandemic conditions. New and yet evolving digital technologies can help create effective and equitable virtual teaching and research opportunities; however, accommodations are needed for the additional time and resources required to transition into digital spaces. Finally, it is important to note that the findings of this study are limited to experiences in one institution located in a rural region. Looking at one institution across disciplines can improve understanding of contextual factors affecting responses to modern demands on higher education and illuminate inequities among demographic groups that have unique responses to stresses imposed by logistical and funding changes. The focus on individual institutions in unique settings can also provide a basis for comparisons of institutions in varied geographic settings and demographic situations to guide holistic strategies for higher education at a national level. Not all of the findings from this study are generalizable, but the conceptual approach, interpretations from multiple lines of evidence, and identification of knowledge gaps that remain to be filled informs other investigations on research and scholarship productivity in other higher education contexts and during different stages of the pandemic and other large-scale disturbances to stability in societies. We propose a synthesis of these studies in the future to examine the impact of the pandemic across settings, demographics, and time.