Higher ed is losing faculty. Some believe nontenured faculty are leaving, while others insist that tenured faculty are leaving too. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It depends on whom you ask. According to an October 2020 Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 1,122 US college and university faculty, more than two-thirds of faculty reported struggling with increased workloads and the deterioration of work-life balance, and over half were considering retiring or changing careers, with tenured faculty leading the way.
Leaving the academy has since become a trend. Some colleagues I have spoken with call it the Great Faculty Migration; others refer to it as an Extreme Exodus. I like the term most favored by Timothy Burke in a recent Substack column: the Great Resignation. Burke echoes the sentiments of Lindsay Ellis, who reports for the Chronicle and recently shared with Slate the myriad reasons—burnout, frustration, metal lethargy—that faculty are physically present but mentally absent (Stevenson, 2021).
I must admit that, insofar as I have a platform to share my love for the academy and laud it for all that it adds to my life, lately conversations with colleagues have focused on their complete disdain for the place I love so dearly. I often wonder whether we’re indeed speaking of the same academy.
That’s not to dismiss the feelings of faculty who have come to loathe a place they once loved (or believe they did). Perhaps they loved a notion of what the academy could, should, or would be. Each of us has a set of lived experiences that shape how we see the world. These experiences cause us to behave in a manner consistent with our thoughts. In such a case, it is easy to see why in addition to the Great Resignation, there is also what we call the Great Divide—opposing forces in faculty. Those who believe in and love the academy and those who no longer believe in or love what they feel it has become. Presumably, they love it from a distance.
While we debate whether faculty are temporarily migrating or making a permanent exit, we must ask whether this is cause for alarm. Should the academy be concerned? Are faculty justified in leaving? Are faculty leaving the academy, or is the academy leaving faculty by way of change, adaptation, and progression? Is it merely the case of out with the old and in the new? Other questions better suited for this dialogue are Why are faculty leaving, and What can the academy do to stop the hemorrhaging?
Why are faculty leaving the academy? It depends on whom you ask. There is, however, a plethora of social spaces dedicated to escaping higher ed. One such support group on Facebook, called The Professor Is Out, has almost 10,000 members who have either left or are looking to leave higher ed to pursue alternative employment (e.g., in federal government and high schools).
Feeling overworked and undervalued are the central reasons for faculty dissatisfaction with higher education. This is not a surprise. But for me, two themes have clarified why faculty wish to leave: the feelings associated with hostile work environments and the trauma faculty have experienced in their own educational spaces. As a part of the academy, I am saddened and ashamed. In their pursuit to be facilitators of knowledge, it appears that many faculty are, by force, surrendering or retreating.
Faculty surrender when teaching loads are ridiculously high and pay is absurdly low. They retreat when they need support but administration offers none. Bullied faculty retreat when they accept more and more duties and responsibilities while becoming less and less of themselves. Faculty surrender when equilibrium is threatened and their professional lives devour their private ones. Why do faculty leave? Faculty leave because they desire to be more. Faculty leave because they desire to do more. Faculty leave because they desire to elevate the pursuit of lifelong learning. Armed with such knowledge, how then can the academy entice faculty to remain in thought partnership?
If the academy wishes to stay the continuation of the Great Resignation, it must listen to and address faculty concerns regarding their collective needs, provide adequate support systems without penalizing faculty for their use of these systems, set realistic expectations and actively strive to meet these expectations, and reframe the higher ed faculty narrative.
The academy must give faculty an opportunity to voice their concerns. The collective needs of faculty are greater than school-issued surveys meant for data collection. You know, the ones we complete to show we are “in compliance” with respective accreditation agencies. Concerns shared should be concerns addressed. No matter how painful it might be to work collaboratively through issues, healing it is worth the pain.
Adequate support systems should be in place to help faculty. Administration should not use what they learn from faculty’s use of systems to retaliate against them. One cannot offer to help and then use said help to harm. Higher ed cannot not have it both ways. The academy should offer differentiated services as much as it requests its faculty to offer differentiated instruction. While there is no utopian system to serve, as a catchall for concerns and issues, if more were concerted efforts are in place, the academy might be able to stem the tide of exiting faculty.
It is unreasonable for the academy to request that faculty prep for and teach an exorbitant number of classes and spend such an enormous amount of time working on tasks at home that the line between work and home blurs. Higher ed must revisit the expectations of its faculty. These revised expectations should take into consider the whole faculty member—much as faculty should consider the whole student in teaching. Past, present, and future. Hopes, dreams, and fears. The personal and professional. In so doing, the academy may find a way to avert a crisis and turn an exodus in hiring surge.
Having conversed with many disgruntled colleagues, I am aware that not everyone shares my love for the academy. I do not force this love on others. I also know that colleges and universities are like many other organizations: complex and multifaceted. For those who are charting their future course and planning a possible exit from the academy, I encourage you to stop and think before you go. Remember your first love. Think about the things that initially drew you to the academy. Remember the intellectually stimulating conversations you had with likeminded individuals. Remember the excitement you experienced while prepping for your first class. Remember the days and nights you cried while writing your dissertation as you contemplated whether it was good enough. Whether you were good enough. You are worthy of the educational space you carved for yourself with your blood, sweat, and tears.
Whether intentional or not, the lack of support for faculty and the unreasonable demands placed on their time chisel that love away. The lifestyle of an academician is not without its woes, but what type of lifestyle is? Before you leave, think of the possibilities of what can be, should be, and must be. Call me an optimist, but I still think the academy is primed to stem the flow of the Great Resignation, if and only if, it takes this current opportunity to listen to the shouts of its resigning faculty on their way out.
The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2020). “On the verge of burnout”: Covid-19’s impact on faculty well-being and career plans. https://connect.chronicle.com/rs/931-EKA-218/images/Covid%26FacultyCareerPaths_Fidelity_ResearchBrief_v3%20%281%29.pdf
Stevenson, S. (2021, September 14). Why college professors have had enough. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2021/09/college-university-professors-leaving-covid-vaccines-masks.html