Paul L. Caron

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Big Quit: Even Tenure-Line Professors Are Leaving Academe. 'Why Would I Want To Improve Faculty Morale? I Want These People To Leave.'

Following up on my previous posts:

Chronicle of Higher Education Op-Ed:  The Big Quit: Even Tenure-Line Professors Are Leaving Academe, by Joshua Doležal (Author, The Recovering Academic Newsletter (2022)):

When William Pannapacker landed a tenure-track job as an English professor, in 2000, it felt like a religious experience. “Suddenly,” he writes, “I was an academic ‘born-again.’” Pannapacker thought he had escaped his blue-collar roots after completing a Ph.D. at Harvard University, but even with Ivy League credentials he struggled for years to find work. The job offer renewed his conviction that he had been called to faculty life, and he embraced it fully — publishing widely, securing more than $2 million in grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and eventually earning an endowed chair. Yet this year he retired from that position to face an uncertain future at the age of 54.

Faculty members have been leaving higher education for decades, but Pannapacker’s story stands out: He was tenured. We have become accustomed to the exodus of graduate students, postdocs, and adjuncts, but before Covid it was still possible to see tenured and tenure-track faculty members as relatively immune from the stresses of working in higher ed. No more. A 2020 study by The Chronicle and Fidelity Investments found that more than half of all faculty members surveyed were seriously weighing options outside of higher education: either changing careers entirely or retiring early. The study showed that faculty members share a great deal with the millions of American workers whose life transitions have been described alternately as the Great Resignation or the Big Quit. Though it may be true that most faculty members have chosen to disengage from their work rather than quit outright, as Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar recently argued in these pages, the story of those who have quit during the pandemic remains largely untold. I am one of them.

Like Pannapacker, I earned tenure and full rank at a small private college in the Midwest where I taught American literature and creative writing for 16 years before resigning at the end of 2021. The top factor in my decision was geographical distance from family members. The pandemic brought that sacrifice into brutal focus, compounding my sense of doom about the future of the humanities. Such feelings are pervasive: Covid-19 did not transform faculty attitudes toward higher education as much as it deepened longstanding concerns about disrespect, inadequate compensation, and an unsustainable work/life balance. Nearly everyone who has shared a resignation story with me has grieved the loss of a calling. But the reasons given by those who left during the pandemic (or are now planning their exit) differ very little from those expressed in at least 20 years of “quit lit.” Our stories highlight problems that stretch back decades and that, if left unaddressed, will plague academe for years to come. ...

Women have been leaving academe at higher rates than men for years, particularly in the sciences, and the pandemic has only worsened the structural inequities that already bedeviled the profession. But now men and women increasingly agree that academic careers place unreasonable strains on private life. Even the tenured pie-eaters have begun to feel that they’ve had quite enough pie. That’s been the experience of a senior professor whom I’ll call Smith, who plans to resign from a private university in the Midwest within a year. Smith told me that he’d like to be able to do what anyone in any other industry does: Move somewhere else. “It’s unbelievable that we are stuck to one job,” he said. “That’s more grating as the years go on. Why can’t I do my job in Minneapolis or Miami? It doesn’t make sense.”

Indeed, a common theme among those who have voluntarily resigned from a tenured post, or plan to do so soon, is a waning sense of purpose. One word for this mind-set is burnout. Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout and a former theology professor, found the gap between his vision of faculty life and the reality of it so enervating that he ultimately quit his tenured position and turned to freelance writing. In a recent essay for The Review, he recalls, “my students’ perpetual lack of interest felt like a rebuke to everything that mattered to me.” While Malesic left academe in 2017, he believes the pandemic has only exacerbated the conditions for burnout. “A sense of purpose might sustain someone through the challenges of the pandemic,” he writes, “but, paradoxically, it can destroy a career, too. It’s not easy to reorient your vocation around a series of tasks you never trained for, on minimal sleep, while months become years, with no relief.”

You’d think that plunging job satisfaction among faculty members would alarm administrators, but this isn’t always the case. For universities facing tight budgets, some degree of attrition can be a boon: Voluntary resignations may mean that administrators can avoid axing tenured faculty positions. Deans and presidents still reeling from the pandemic’s economic turmoil also find themselves facing the 2025 demographic cliff. In light of what’s coming, the most important task for many administrators is eliminating as many faculty positions as possible. One of my sources reported that even after campus-climate surveys continued to yield alarming results, an administrator confessed to him, “Why would I want to improve morale? I want these people to leave.” Such thinking recalls the strategy recommended by corporate consultants in the movie Office Space, when Milton Waddams is not terminated outright but instead faces a series of humiliations that his superiors believe will “fix the glitch” by pushing him away.

Despite the many factors that contributed to their decisions to resign, all of my sources continue to grieve the loss of a calling. ...

Then there’s the money question: Many faculty members cannot afford to leave a stable job, especially if they’re not sure what comes next. In nearly all of my conversations, faculty members brought up the importance of a financial safety net — usually a partner’s employment. ...

[A]ll signs suggest that the long-term impact of pandemic stress on the faculty will be profound. If a return to normal simply means restoring the burnout conditions that the pandemic inflamed, then the rumble of faculty members leaving may build to a roar that no amount of magical thinking can explain away.

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