I have been asked by readers to describe the qualities of a “toxic” campus or job. I have thoughts on this, and someday plan to write a post about it. But for now, I offer this anonymous guest post by a client, which she titles, “The Bad and the Ugly of Academia.”
I did the unthinkable. Walked away from a full-time tenure track position at a medium-sized liberal arts college. I do mean walked away. I quit.
Why? I decided that my mental, emotional, and physical well-being was more important than putting up with what had become regular teaching overloads because of short-staffing, an abusive dean, uncollegial and pettily competitive colleagues, lack of research support, and a generally unhealthy environment. That was five months ago. Since then, I’ve picked up an adjunct teaching gig as well as a part-time academic research position to help to make ends meet. I’m finally getting to write the articles that had been languishing because of oppressive teaching and service requirements. I’m searching for a new position. In general, my health and outlook on life have improved immensely since making the somewhat terrifying decision to leave.
Now, I wasn’t alone in leaving. A grand total of 15 mostly full-time tenured or tenure track faculty members left the college at the end of the Spring semester. These were largely voluntary departures. Four more tenured faculty members have indicated that they will be resigning at the end of the Fall semester. Considering that there are roughly 90 tenure-track positions, this could be considered full flight.
In one of her blog posts (It’s Okay to Quit), Karen wrote that the culture of higher education is becoming “increasingly soulless.” When I look back, I think that I must have been delusional to thing that “things are going to get better” despite the warning signs. In the past several years, the majority of faculty members who went up for tenure were denied: two of 13, one of nine, two of eight, zero of seven. These are not good numbers.
The tenure numbers were a reflection of a pattern that began several years ago. The college was chronically short-staffed across all departments when it came to full-time tenure-track faculty members due to difficulties in hiring. This meant that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members were being asked take overloads practically each semester. In my own case, a 4/3 turned into a 5/4 or even a 5/5 load. Saying no was not an option. Because of the rules governing committee service at the college level, a smaller number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty were being forced into serving on those committees in additional to their service obligations at the school and departmental level. Again, saying no was not an option. It was likely to lead to substandard evaluations by one’s dean and denial of a merit salary increase.
New hires were being brought in and told that they would have ample time and resources for research, only to find that the other obligations left very little time for it. Teaching expectations, in terms of the numbers that had to be “hit” on student evaluations, didn’t leave a lot of room for attempting to balance teaching and research by cutting back on the teaching end (e.g., fewer assignments). If a faculty member couldn’t’ make the “numbers” (on most student evaluation scales, between a 5 and a 4), it meant a visit from the dean and a mandate to improve or be terminated.
This played out in the tenure decisions in an interesting way. The Faculty Handbook stipulated that faculty members were required to have a minimum of two publications when going up for tenure. Proceedings and lesser publications were allowable under these guidelines because of the teaching expectations. However, the rules in practice that the deans were using were in clear violation of the Faculty Handbook. The deans had begun to use impact factors to assess faculty publications. In my case, my dean told me that I had to have published a journal article in a journal with an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. As a colleague at another institution pointed out, there are no journals in our field that have an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. Across the college, faculty members who had been told on evaluations that their research was noteworthy or satisfactory were suddenly being told that they were “unsatisfactory” when it came to research by their deans. In one case, a colleague in another school was told that the book that he spent three years writing and had published was not going to count favorably toward tenure because the published was not “prestigious” enough. Since the faculty was not unionized, and the faculty governance committees relatively ineffective in dealing with an administration that backed the deans, there was very little that could be done outside of independent legal action.
Also, a disproportionate number of tenure denials were being made to female faculty members. Several did sue, and were awarded settlements in Federal Court. Most of those who had sued decided not to return to the college when given the option since they knew from female colleagues who had sued and returned that life was going to be miserable if they chose that route. The deans and the administration were unforgiving of any faculty member, but especially females faculty members (and even staff), who dared to object to or question the system and ever-changing rules in practice. One individual who complained about being sexually harassed by her superior actually received a letter from the college’s attorney outlining in detail the consequences of taking her complaint any further. These included immediate termination and loss of tuition benefits for the child enrolled at the institution. She did file a complaint with federal authorities, and the college made good on the threats contained in the letter. The woman later sued and the college was forced to pay the largest settlement ever awarded against it, but she certainly had no desire to return.
I myself was sexually harassed by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs (aka the guy who makes final tenure decisions). This unwelcome and unprofessional behavior went on for months despite my making it well known that I have a significant other and that we were living apart at the time because he was employed by another institution. For my lack of responsiveness, I was called into my dean’s office (good buddies with the VPAA) and told that I appeared to be “unhappy” at the college, and that it’s “just a game…. Just play the game.” He then proceeded to outline just how I was going to be harassed and set up for termination based on teaching if I didn’t “play the game.” Well, it certainly wasn’t a “game” to me, and he obviously hadn’t taken a good look at my teaching evaluations, which were among the best in the entire college. He did manage to find grounds for giving me an “unsatisfactory” rating on research because I hadn’t accomplished the impossible in terms of impact factor of publications.
I made the decision to “walk.” Things were not going to get any better. Shortly after I made my decision, a colleague in another school informed me that he had been given a terminal contract because, in the words of his dean, he “didn’t fit” at the college. This was a highly productive individual who could have gotten tenure at just about any R1. He told me that his dean objected to his having married his partner over the summer, and that he had been told that his openly gay lifestyle was objectionable to several senior administrators. He threatened to sue, and was given a settlement to leave the college and to not speak about either the institution or its administration and the reason for his dismissal. Several other gay male staff and faculty members who had married their partners also mysteriously” resigned” during this period.
Since leaving, I learned that one of the people denied tenure had decided not to return despite being given a year-long terminal contract. In response to his letter of resignation, the Associate Dean of his school called the custodial staff to have his office cleared out before he had a chance to remove personal items. The custodial staff was removing items from his office when another faculty member happened to be walking by and stopped them. She called him to come and get his stuff because it was going to be thrown in a campus dumpster. In coming to the college, he had been told that he would be instrumental in founding a new and innovative academic program. He did develop that program, which was approved and is slated to begin accepting students. What he got for his work was a denial of tenure and a trashing of his office. And so it goes…..
What about the rest of the faculty? They take it. The faculty culture is a culture of fear and perceived powerlessness. Many are tenured and are looking to keep their heads down and make it to retirement age. Some have spouses working in the area, making it difficult to leave in a bad economic climate. Others are quietly looking for new positions elsewhere. But if the Spring exodus is any indication, more are finding a way to walk away from a bad situation rather than continue to put up with academia at its ugliest.