Why I Stay


In recent months a number of people have written about quitting academia. A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed indicates that this represents a particular genre of academic Dear John letters: “Quit Lit.” It could easily be imagined that this means that people are leaving the professoriate in droves, but there is little evidence of that. They are beginning to leave less quietly.

That’s probably a good thing. Certainly, they may be accused of sour grapes, and it is easier to attribute their criticisms to cognitive dissonance than it might be when you hear the same criticisms from those who continue to teach. But it would be short-sighted to dismiss them out of hand, as this essay seems to. But that piece does end with a useful suggestion: the writing of “staypieces.”

Unfortunately, I think most people stay in academia for some of the reasons many people go to graduate school: to escape the alternative. I was certainly initially in that camp. A year in a cubicle and a suit was as much a spur for me to go to graduate school as was my thirst for knowledge. But that is not why I stay.

ABQ: Always Be Quitting

This morning I had coffee with a doctoral student and we started talking about the life of an academic. She came from the corporate world for the greener pastures of academia. She’s had conversations with faculty and students who see the corporate world as a Mecca of predictability, salaries, and benefits. Of course, neither side of the hill is all that grassy.

A decade ago, I left the University at Buffalo, just ahead of news that the college in which I was teaching was on the chopping block. Naturally, I wasn’t alone in jumping ship. I noted in a blog post that I had submitted my last grades at Buffalo, and many assumed I was quitting academia, rather than just moving to another university. I wasn’t, but not because I was dedicated to the endeavor. My Plan B, my BATNA, has always been in play.

When I was in grad school, I had a Plan B. When I got my first job, the Plan B was always there, along with C and D. Today, were ASU to suffer the coup de grace the state seems intent on delivering, it would be a huge disappointment. And I would go to my Plan B. I’ve suffered far worse set-backs, and I will again. The pessimist in me requires that I be prepared for imminent disaster, and that preparation provides me with a great deal of comfort.

So when a former chair took me aside after a faculty meeting and told me I shouldn’t ruffle the feathers of senior faculty until after I had secured tenure, I could tell him honestly (though perhaps not calmly) that I wouldn’t want tenure in a place that made not ruffling feathers a requirement of the non-tenured. I said it because it was true.

Now, with the seeming security of tenure, I’m in the same position. I make accommodations, of course. But generally, if tomorrow I was told that I no longer could research what I want, write what I want, build what I want, or teach what I want, I could walk away from the job and do something else that required less compromise.

The trick is, at least for me, being a professor strikes a balance between security and freedom that is difficult to find elsewhere. It also provides me an opportunity to change lives in a way that would be difficult in many other places.

Changing the System From Within

When I was still a grad student, I vividly remember a conversation with two of my fellow TAs. I was railing against the way in which we taught and how universities work. One said I sounded like an anarchist. (And he said it like it was a bad thing!) Another asked why, given my antipathy toward institutionalized education, I was on the professorial track. I had a lame answer—one that I’ve heard many others use—I wanted to change the system from within.

Of course, institutional capture is always looming. I find myself working in a university structure that—sometimes in spite of the rhetoric often associated with ASU—is Byzantine, bureaucratic, and technocratic. I face the same kinds of fears many academics do: Am I doing enough? Am I making the kinds of choices I should? Am I making use of the freedom and security that the university job provides?

I think now the greatest challenge to changing the system from within is changing the system within. Graduate education is the feeder for a kind of strong culture that is far more binding than the gears of bureaucracy are. Make no mistake: the greatest obstacle to a revolution in higher education is the faculty.

Job Requirements vs. Reputational Income

Part of the problem with the freedom and security of faculty positions is that people so rarely take advantage of them. We may complain about the lack of remuneration offered by work in the Academy, but that lack is balanced against relative job security and autonomy. But who collects on those fully?

There are certain things you need to do to earn tenure at a Research I institution. They almost never involve creative teaching, taking on administrative roles, or community service. I’ve done all those things because I wanted to; because the university let me. Except in the rarest of cases, we do this to ourselves.


Getting tenure is hard, to be sure, but most people seem to be determined to make it harder than it is. As Nagpal noted in The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life, treating the tenure-track job as a 7-year job, rather than the start of a life-long commitment to a single institution, makes it a much more interesting proposition. I would love to see universities desperately trying to retain their tenure-track faculty, who are fielding a range of other possibilities at that stage of their careers. Unfortunately, most have burrowed their way into the self-imposed anthill of Academia.

Most of us want open access scholarship, but we publish in commercial journals. Most of us want to just do research. In the social sciences, that very often does not require funding. But we pursue it because it is perceived (or actually) needed for either social capital within the university or for extracting resources for our students. In practice, many of the stressors that lead to 60-80 hour work weeks are self-imposed. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love for 60 hours a week, but we delude ourselves into thinking that a citation count, a funding goal, or perfect teaching evaluations are somehow required by our jobs. In most cases they are not. Many, in an effort to do everything well, find themselves in a circuit of time-consuming mediocrity.

If these needs are not directly and obviously dictated by the university (and I recognize that in some cases they are, but I think this is often the exception), where are they coming from? Mostly from our peers and a structure of competition for attention and reputation that we willingly engage in. This isn’t Hunger Games. The creation of a dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all academic structure is certainly encouraged by the policies of many of today’s universities, often with the aid of state legislatures in the US. But it’s all too often one we make ourselves.

The Joyful Professor

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

As I said, I don’t think I can claim to be all that different from the rest. I’ve played into the game as much as anyone else has. And now, in the mid-point of my three-decade-long mid-life crisis, I recognize a lot of wasted effort on things I did not love and could not change. I dream of winning the lottery and starting my own shade-tree school or university. In the meantime, I can do the same, quietly, from within.

It takes a lot to get rid of a tenured faculty member. I am staying a professor, at least today. I’m not going to get rich doing it, but I get paid plenty. I also have the freedom to do the things I want to do. If I don’t do those things, that is no one’s fault but my own. I don’t want to increase my h-index. Things being what they are, I don’t expect I’ll ever catch up to the leaders in the field when it comes to publications or citations. I don’t want perfect student or peer-teaching reviews. If someone wants to give me grant money, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to waste time writing grants with little chance of being funded just to support a university that needs it to offset the lack of public funding. That’s not what I signed up for.

If I don’t use the freedom that makes academia so attractive to so many people, that’s not the fault of the institution. And I strongly suspect that if more people had that attitude, the institution would be a much better one.

The Hagakure, which lays out much of the “way of the samurai,” gives clear advice on this front:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

We enter into something of a contract as a faculty member: we trade income for autonomy and security. If we do not use the latter, we enter a fool’s bargain. This is why I stay, and why being ready to quit is an important part of staying.

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One Comment

  1. Fie Upon This Quiet
    Posted 9/14/2015 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m in my fifth year on the tenure track, and I have never held back my opinion for fear of ruffling feathers. Like you, I have said that I would not want to stay at an institution that expected me to be quiet and compliant for seven years so I could earn the right to speak via tenure. To me, that’s such a waste of time and energy. It’s certainly risky, though, and I’ve felt the sting a time or two. But overall, it’s paid off. We’ll see if it continues to do so.

2 Trackbacks

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    […] enter into something of a contract as a faculty member: we trade income for autonomy and security. If we do not use the latter, we enter a fool’s bargain. This is why I stay, and why being ready […]

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