Monday, February 11, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Time to Jump Ship?

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I have taught for now nearly two decades in a smaller field in
liberal arts and sciences. In my first job, I was hired to increase
enrollments and build up the department. We did that, increasing
enrollments by 500%...and then they shut the program down and dumped
us in a department that had virtually no relation to what we did.

I moved on to another job now 15 years ago. During my time in this
job, I heard the same tune: build the enrollments, build up the
number of majors, and for heaven's sake build up the graduate
program. And we did that. Last year, during an imaginary budget
crisis, my department was shut down and dumped into another; again,
this department really couldn't be more different from us.

Is it time to give up?

I love my subject matter -- I think it is relevant and important for
students. When I'm in a classroom, I'm in heaven. But let's face
it: there are 168 hours in a week, and I spend only 8 in a
classroom. The rest of the time I'm being harassed and badgered by
my new "colleagues" who don't even have a clue about how different
our subject matter is (by the way, my new dept has nearly 100
faculty). We have lost control of our curriculum, hiring, P&T, even
our space on the floor. They took away our coffee pot. Our graduate
program has no applicants for next year; our majors are fearful and
deserting. It seems to me that it's just a matter of time before we
are left teaching nothing but 100-level gen ed courses.

Part of me hopes that a new dean, somewhere down the line, might
restore sanity. But I don't know that I can hold on that long. I'm
geographically-limited and middle-aged. Is there any way to make a
situation like this bearable, or is it time to just jump ship and
work at the mall?

They took your coffee pot?

Honestly, I see a few issues here. I can address one, but the rest are entirely up to you.

I wouldn't advise waiting for SuperDean to come and save the day. Anything is possible, but I've found (to my considerable frustration) that most administrative decisions are only barely decisions at all – they're usually more or less dictated by circumstance. True 'discretion' is incredibly limited. (This is especially true when state aid is shrinking.) You refer to an 'imaginary' budget crisis, but knowing which state your school is in, I'm fairly sure that the budget crisis you're up against now is both real and long-term. Waiting for the White Knight can only lead to tears.

(That's not to say that what you've been through so far was or wasn't reasonable. I have no way of knowing that. It's just to say that I don't see any positive sea changes on the horizon.)

So the real issue is what you're willing to accept.

Could you imagine coming to peace with a changing role, enjoying the hell out of the intro courses and a stable job, and finding the challenges you need in other parts of life? It would involve letting go of earlier conceptions of what you do, but if you can manage to do that and embrace the changes, the problem solves itself.

Or you could read the changes as macro-political attacks, rally the troops, and storm the barricades. There are times when this makes sense. Whether this is one of those times is a question of judgment.

On the upside, the political crusade may restore a lost sense of purpose, even in defeat. On the downside, you'll almost certainly lose, and discover in the process that some people you currently respect are, in fact, deeply messed up. (Politics is many things, but 'heroic' is rarely one of them.) Whether it's worth the energy and risk is up to you.

Or you could retire on the job, live a life of gray discontentment, and just snap at people every so often to get the blood flowing. Anecdotally, this seems to be the most common response. It's the easiest in the short term, though it ages badly.

One of the great frustrations of academia is that it's a uniquely difficult field in which to hang out your own shingle. Lawyers who feel disrespected at large firms can start their own. Doctors, too. In many white-collar fields, people who chafe at organizational silliness often have the option of 'consulting.' Professors in most of the traditional academic disciplines really don't have that option. As regular readers know, I have an opinion or two (or three, or four...) about how colleges should be run. I'd love to start my own and see what happened. But the economic barriers to entry are simply forbidding. So the choice most of us face isn't “work for someone else or work for myself.” It's “work for this flawed institution or work for that flawed institution.” Worse, sometimes there aren't even that many choices, so it's “work for this flawed institution” or “don't work, at least on a full-time basis.” So we get a higher-than-usual proportion of cranky people sticking around for extended periods, since, unlike in most other industries, there's often no other reasonable place for them to go.

Between facing a soft academic market in your discipline, and being place-bound, it sounds like you have a fairly stark choice to make. Make your peace, or don't. Only you know your capacity to change your expectations and let go of some of your past beliefs. But don't expect a heroic figure – whether a dean or a union organizer -- to return you to a Golden Age. Rescue isn't an option. You need to make your choice and own it.

For that matter, so do I.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.