A Provost Leaves Academia: A #Postac Post

Dr. Terri Givens is a consultant in higher ed, and soon to be former provost at Menlo College. She has been a professor at the University of Washington and University of Texas at Austin, and is the proud mother of two teenage boys.

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KK:  I encountered Dr. Givens’ story of imminent #postac departure on social media and immediately asked her if she’d be willing to share thoughts of her transition with us. She generously agreed, and this is her first of several posts. I encourage you to click through all of her links, especially on the theme of mental illness and higher ed.

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My story of leaving academe is not the typical one – I’m not a graduate student, I didn’t get turned down for tenure, and I’m not retiring. I’m at the top of my career, a provost who could return to the faculty, or try for another administrative post. But there’s something to be said about leaving when you are at the top of your game. As an athlete, I like to use sports analogies. I ran a good race, quit while I was ahead, etc. I am grateful that I am leaving academe on my own terms. When people ask me why I don’t want to try to be a college president, I tell them that would be the worst possible move I could make at this point in my life. It would mean that I would have to move, and I am very happy with where I am living (Menlo Park, CA), my kids are going to great schools, my husband has a great job, and we are close to relatives.

As a first-generation college-goer I have always been acutely aware of my need to learn norms as I make my way through worlds where I have no experience. Luckily, I have had many friends and mentors who have helped me make my way through this crazy world, but I also feel that I have been too quick to follow the rules and jump through the hurdles without much thought to whether they made sense or not. It also became clear over time that the rules applied differently to men and women, as well as other categories that arose, e.g., people with children vs not, etc. I worked very hard and always managed to do more, despite having children, taking on major service duties and publishing like crazy.

The reality is that I haven’t been happy in academe for a while. Perhaps the last straw was losing my friend, Mark Sawyer, last year. He was a successful political scientist who had struggled with mental and physical health issues. His untimely death forced me to review my own path in academe, and I did it in a very public way (a series of columns in Inside Higher Ed), hoping to help others to see that successful academics often faced serious challenges. Mental health issues have been a serious concern of mine throughout my career, given the challenges I have seen in my own family and with friends. I have always tried to maintain a healthy approach to my priorities but the issues that were raised strengthened my resolve to pursue what I felt was right for me.

In many ways I feel sorry for the institutions that have lost me. They struggle to nurture talent and aren’t necessarily prepared to support the careers of women leaders. Upper levels of administration and boards of trustees or regents tend to be predominantly white males who don’t understand how or care to support racial and gender equity. Although I did have many men who were supportive of my career, I had to develop a strong sense of my own abilities, and not allow myself to be defined by the judgement of those whose opinions I didn’t respect. My field of political science is particularly negligent in terms of supporting the careers of women and minorities, although it is getting better for early career faculty. I have done a lot of mentoring and sharing experiences at our annual meeting on how to recruit minority and women faculty, and I will continue to do so, along with others who are picking up the torch.

I can only point to one period in my career where I felt that I had full support from my department chair, dean and provost. It was from the time that I arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 until the year after I left the provost’s office in 2010.  I call those the golden years, for both me and the university. It was a time of growth in the faculty and the development of new programs, some of which I created. My career took off like a shooting star.

Then politics, budget cuts and a new chair and dean meant that support went away, and I felt betrayed. Once a campus leader, I was left to fend for myself and go on the job market. I worked toward completing my research so that I could go on the job market as a full professor. I landed a good job, in a location that was good for my family, but one of the things that I found frustrating as a high-level administrator, was my inability to be outspoken during a time of political crisis. In my next post, I’ll discuss my political activism and how it helped me to decide to leave academe.


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