Dear Kerry Ann,
I appreciate your challenge for those of us with “revolving doors” of underrepresented faculty to take a hard look at retention. One thing you suggested hit home for me: having a conversation with people who are leaving (or have recently left) about why they chose to move on.
One of my colleagues (who is African-American) just announced she is leaving at the end of this academic year. She is the third person we’ve recruited who has left in the past five years. I was surprised and a bit disappointed because I chaired her search committee. I assume that she’s leaving because she got a better offer elsewhere, but now I wonder if my assumption is part of the problem.
I want to have a conversation with her about it, but I don’t want to create awkwardness between us because I respect her work and want to continue collaborating with her even after she leaves. Should I ask why? And if so, how would I do that in a way that isn’t awkward for both of us?
Trying to Do the Right Thing
Thanks for your question, for being honest and for wanting to do the right thing. Having traveled to more than 100 campuses over the past five years, this is a common question that I typically get asked in hushed tones, behind closed doors or at small dinners after a few drinks. It’s a recurring subject, as search chairs, mentors, collaborators and even department chairs who have warm professional relationships with underrepresented faculty members are surprised when someone announces their departure. But instead of creating a space for open and honest conversation -- much less having any meaningful exit-interview process -- the reason for the departure becomes the stuff of gossip, speculation and assumptions.
I’ve observed a few patterns in departments with revolving doors. Faculty members in the department that people are leaving have a wide range of feelings about the departure (surprise, frustration, anger, relief, confusion, etc.…). Those unresolved feelings lead to avoidance of any direct conversation with the colleague who is leaving. With no policies in place that require an exit interview, when a faculty member leaves, the department is left to create an explanation why. Oftentimes, the story that emerges is favorable to the department, emphasizes individual-level issues and preferences, and absolves the unit of any responsibility in the matter.
It sounds as if you’re committed to breaking that pattern and want to have a real conversation with your colleague. And let’s be honest, if your department has a revolving door of underrepresented faculty, there may be some problems that need addressing. Let me suggest a few questions for your self-reflection as you consider this possibility and move forward.
What Are Your Intentions?
It’s important to clarify your intentions before you decide whether (or not) to have this type of conversation. That starts by asking yourself: Why do I want to know the reason my colleague is leaving, and what am I going to do with that information? You’ve given some indication of why you want to know, but let’s get clear. If it’s just curiosity, nosiness or because you think you should ask (because nobody else has), don’t bother. In other words, unless you plan to act on what you learn -- personally or collectively -- it’s an exercise in futility. A plethora of quit lit will allow you to peer into the decision-making processes of those who have left and want to make the reasons why publicly known.
That said, it’s worth having the conversation if you: a) truly care about why your colleague is leaving, b) are open to idea that the department’s and your colleague’s stories may differ, c) recognize the possibility that you may uncover problems in your department, and d) are willing to do something about those problems.
When I started to ask faculty members at my former campus why they were leaving, I quickly noticed a gap between their exit stories and those that the department chairs told. While there was typically a combination of reasons for people’s exits, the explanations that the chairs gave tended to emphasize pull factors: a strong outside offer, intense recruitment by other institutions or a personal reason for wanting to be in another location. But when we asked faculty members directly and confidentially why they left, their exit stories emphasized push factors: a hostile environment, devaluation of their work, lack of community and the like.
Then when we systematically explored the gap, we uncovered an additional pattern in who was (and was not) receiving counteroffers. Often, counteroffers were not being extended based on flawed assumptions: “We just can’t keep them,” “They don’t want to stay here” or “Why bother? They will just come back with another outside offer in a year or two.” But the failure to extend a counteroffer only reinforced and served as a further push factor to a faculty member leaving.
I’m not saying this pattern exists at your institution. I’m using this as an example of being open to what you learn. If problems are uncovered when you start having honest conversations about why someone has chosen to leave, they may require further exploration. When I started to have these conversations with faculty members at my university, they raised important questions that I felt deserved systematic study. Those findings became a basis for conversation about what types of policies and procedures the institution needed to put in place so that we did not continue to lose faculty members whom we could retain.
How Do You Have This Conversation?
Once you are clear on your reasons for wanting to have the conversation, I recommend setting up a coffee meeting with your colleague. It’s hard to say how easy or difficult this conversation will be, but there are ways to prepare. Like all potentially difficult discussions, you want to observe the facts, state how you feel and invite a genuine interchange. For example:
“I’m so glad we can connect over coffee today. I heard the news that you are heading to __________ university next year, and I honestly was __________ (insert your feelings). I want to be sure that you know how much I value you as a colleague because you are __________, __________ and __________ (fill in their best qualities). I want the best for you and this department, so I’m wondering if we could talk about why you are leaving and what we might be able to learn from it?”
If your colleague doesn’t want to talk about it -- she responds negatively, or says, “I don’t want to talk about it” -- then affirm her choice. Let her know that if she changes her mind at all (even in the future), you’re always available as a listening ear.
If your colleague wants to tell you why she is leaving, you should stop talking and listen. This isn’t the time to argue whether her interpretation of incidents is correct, to question whether she might be “too sensitive,” to give professional development advice, to share your story or to get personally offended by anything said. If your feelings come up and you experience the urge to do any of the aforementioned things, just remind yourself: this conversation is not about me.
As you get to the end of the conversation, ask directly: What could the department have done to retain you? Again, this isn’t time to assess ideas -- this is listening and learning time. And if you want to communicate seriousness, pull out a notebook and take some notes.
When you come to the end of the conversation, clarify explicitly what aspects of the conversation are confidential (not to be shared with another living soul) and which parts you may repeat as you and your department consider change. Be sure to thank the person for their candor and set the intention for what you want moving forward in the relationship. If you want to remain in contact, have possible future collaborations, catch up at conferences or whatever, say that out loud. It matters.
As much as your department has invested in recruitment and start-up costs, it just doesn’t make sense not to know why your colleagues are leaving. If you have the conversation, learn your colleague’s perspective and hear her suggestions, the only question left is: What are you going to do with that information? That step is up to you, but I’m sure readers will share their stories and retention ideas in the comment section below.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
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