Paul L. Caron

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why I Am Leaving My Tenured Faculty Position At Age 53

Following up on my previous post, They Offered Early Retirement To Faculty. Here’s Why I Took It At 51.:  Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  On Why I’m Leaving Academe, by William Pannapacker (Hope College):

PannapackerHow do you know when it’s time to leave a tenured position and find something else to do?

In Born Standing Up (2007), Steve Martin writes about no longer finding creative fulfillment in his comedy act and sensing that it was already on the downward slope: “I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now.” He went on to pursue a more satisfying career as an actor, producer, writer, and musician.

While I have experienced nothing remotely comparable to Martin’s success, his memoir resonated with me because I am facing a similar career decision. After more than 20 years on the tenure track at a liberal-arts college — climbing from assistant professor to endowed professor — I have decided to go on unpaid leave to write, retrain, and look for new career pathways. ...

Apparently, I am part of a trend: professors leaving academe even though faculty positions are so difficult to obtain and seemingly so secure. To walk away from a tenured position, especially in the humanities, is to accept that you probably will never work in the profession again. If I leave, and my faculty line isn’t discontinued, hundreds of highly qualified people will apply for my position.

As a working-class, first-generation college student who somehow ended up in a doctoral program at Harvard, I will be forever grateful to those who helped me find my way into an academic career. But I also want to reflect on some generalizable reasons why — after 18 months of pandemic life — some tenured professors are leaving to find other careers. I am even hearing that a growing percentage of new Ph.D.s are skipping the tenure-track job market entirely — and not simply because those jobs are so scarce.

Higher education has stopped being an attractive place to work — if it ever was, for most — and its prospects for improvement were bleak even before the pandemic.

After months of online and hybrid teaching, there’s ample evidence that many faculty members — especially women with small children — feel overworked and underappreciated. Added to that is a common perception that online and hybrid approaches are less effective than traditional, face-to-face teaching, especially for first-year and at-risk students.

At the same time, faculty members have been returning to the classroom under awkward and depersonalizing circumstances: face masks, screens, difficulty hearing and being heard. Moreover, many professors, especially the older ones, are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable to Covid-19, or they have family members who are. A forced return to working on the campus — with so much uncertainty and ineffective enforcement of vaccinations, masking, and social distancing — seems reckless to many of us. Already, tenured professors are resigning over what they perceive as a moral issue, as well as a public-health one, in higher education’s handling of Covid.

Other faculty departures have been motivated by administrative inflexibility about remote work. Many professors have found working from home too productive to face returning to the campus, and once again incurring the costs of commuting, professional attire, and child care. ...

You leave a job not just because you are no longer flourishing but because you believe you can find more-fulfilling work somewhere else.

Perhaps it’s a leap of faith that more longtime professors should be taking.

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