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There appears to be a genuine maelstrom affecting most institutions of higher education in the US. While clear data are elusive, there is emerging evidence that colleges and universities are seeing greater-than-usual faculty turnover.
As Colleen Flaherty (2022) reported in Inside Higher Ed, “19 percent of provosts say faculty members are leaving at significantly higher rates than in the past. Sixty percent indicate that faculty are leaving at higher rates. (The percentages were larger for questions about staff turnover.” In the same study, 80 percent of respondents said that their campus has more open positions this year than last, and 84 percent stated that hiring for administrators and staff jobs has been more difficult in the past year. The reason may be forthcoming if we drill down and think through what the respondents said: 77 percent—among them presidents, deans, human resources leaders, and other senior officials—indicated that higher education is a less appealing place to work than it was a year ago.
The sudden pivot from primarily in-person teaching to remote learning that began in early 2020 with the spread of COVID-19 created many challenges. Fifty-five percent of faculty currently considered changing careers or retiring early since the pandemic began (Furstenberg, 2021). Salary increases of 0.69 percent for faculty is the lowest increase since 2010. Wages for full-time faculty fell 5 percent in 2022. Many existing faculty are determining whether they can afford to remain in the academy, and graduate students are reconsidering whether they even want to become faculty in view of the above. The current rate of inflation is a major factor for faculty thinking about leaving the academy altogether. The Professor Is In, an academic career consultancy that has a long history of aiding PhDs attempting to secure jobs within academe, started a private Facebook group in late 2020 specifically for scholars trying to transition out of academe. In May 2021, they reported they had about 170 responses from people interested in transitioning out of higher education. In early 2022, they had more than 450 people stating their desire to leave higher education, about half of them from tenure-track and tenured professors. Some of the reasons (not a complete list) professors say they are leaving higher education are as follows:
I am relatively certain that people reading this list can add others.
Some academicians may see chronic underfunding as the root of higher education’s woes; in this view, an influx of money from state and local agencies would do a lot to recommit faculty to academe. But a more honest assessment of the major reasons people are leaving higher education in such great numbers may have to do with a poor culture and climate and a lack of collegiality. Of course, these are not new issues, though the pandemic may have brought them to the forefront. Below, we will explore these concepts more deeply and provide strategies for what those in leadership positions in higher education can do to mitigate problems and challenges related to them. We will look more closely at these issues and demonstrate how resolving them will be crucial to recruiting and retaining faculty post-pandemic.
Culture, generally understood, is a set of assumptions, expectations, perceptions, and practices that distinguish one group from another. In higher education, we can think of culture more precisely as the set of values that helps faculty and staff understand which actions are acceptable and which are not.
Culture versus climate:
What is collegiality?
Department chairs can develop and maintain a productive and positive atmosphere in their departments. They can do this by modeling the characteristics they wish their faculty, staff, and students to exhibit. Department climate is the chair’s responsibility.
Research has shown (see Cipriano, 2013) that a department chair is in a strategic position to promote a collegial and civil department, thus allowing faculty to remain engaged in the welfare of the department. Logically, faculty are less likely to leave if they are in a department that is collegial and where faculty, staff, and students are civil to each other. A seminal study conducted at Harvard revealed that climate, culture, and collegiality are more important to the satisfaction of early-career faculty than compensation, tenure clarity, workload, and policy effectiveness (Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, 2008).
It is logical to assume that chairs are in the best, most enviable position to help their departments avoid faculty from leaving as well as facilitate the hiring of new staff. A 12-year study of department chairs (see Cipriano & Riccardi, 2018) indicated that the two most important reasons, in order, for remaining as chairs were (1) to make a difference and (2) to shape the department’s direction. The more than 2,000 respondents indicated that the five most important competencies, in order, chairs need to be effective were as follows:
It is important to note that for each of the 12 years of the study, the number-one reason chairs
left their positions was dealing with non-collegial faculty. It is not extreme reasoning to think that working within a non-civil department would also lead to faculty leaving this toxic environment.
Current circumstances present a new challenge for department chairs and academic leaders. It is more important now than ever that academic leaders communicate with faculty and staff on a regular basis for each individual to feel that they are a valued member of a community and have colleagues who care about their welfare.
The confluence of a wave of Baby Boomer retirements and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a disproportionate number of faculty leaving higher education. It is clear to me that there is a systemic collapse of the political, social, and economic model that used to exist throughout higher education.
It is safe to say that the “Great Resignation” has not spared higher education. More people are leaving higher education, and many people are not applying for faculty positions either. When a position opened at a university there used to be a minimum of 25–40 qualified people applying for the position. Now that number of applicants has dwindled significantly. I wonder whether academics in their 50s or 60s would choose to again become faculty members, chairs, or deans. This once-dream job—a tenured full professor—has lost its glamor and prestige and is no longer an enticing and rewarding career for a great number of people. To invoke an oft-repeated phrase: “that ship has sailed.”
Can the changes brought about since the global pandemic began in early 2020 revivify the landscape of higher education? Or will the lugubrious, injudicious, and ubiquitous view that the good old days were far better for working in higher education persist? Whatever one believes, the core reality is the higher education from the 1960s through 2019 is pretty much gone. It is now 2023. Will this be the peak moment of your dream, and is it still possible to think of your career in higher education as still being possible?
Cipriano, R. E. (2013). Facilitating a collegial department in higher education: Strategies For success. Jossey-Bass.
Cipriano, R. E., & Riccardi, R. (2018, Winter). The department chair revisited. The Department Chair, 28(3), 18–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30176
Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. (2008). Highlights report 2008: Selected results from the COACHE Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey. Author. https://coache.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-coache/files/2008_highlights.pdf
Flaherty, C. (2022, July 5). Calling it quits. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/07/05/professors-are-leaving-academe-during-great-resignation
Furstenberg, F. (2021, April 8). The era of artificial scarcity. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-era-of-artificial-scarcity
Gappa, J. M., Austin, A. E., & Trice, A. G. (2007). Rethinking faculty work: Higher education’s strategic imperatives. Jossey-Bass.
Robert E. Cipriano, EdD, is a senior partner in ATLAS—Academic Training Leadership & Assessment Services consulting. Contact: email@example.com.