A Tale of 2 Institutional Types

When thinking about what jobs in academe to pursue, we rarely seem to consider the startling differences between various sorts of colleges and universities, writes Claire Potter.

September 29, 2022
An illustration of an urban skyline in the background with a more rural, bucolic setting in the foreground.
(jemastock/istock/getty images plus)

I read a comment the other day on Facebook to the effect that, after changing jobs, many academics experience intense regret. The author of the comment estimated that this moment of regret tends to occur about six months into the new job, when the losses and the difficulty of the transition become truly apparent.

Not me. I was happy as a clam half a year into a new position.

At the same time, I didn’t go in the other direction and view my previous job as incredibly flawed. Although everyone collects grievances, mine vanished almost entirely as soon as I loaded the last box in my car, and I now remember only the things that I liked about working there.

In fact, one of the interesting things about my reflections on Wesleyan University, where I worked until I went to the New School in 2012, is that I came to appreciate how well it does a lot of things, how smoothly it ran most of the time and the many things I learned to do. I now appreciate how collegial a place it was and how people who were often in conflict with each other on a range of issues also managed to work together pretty efficiently. I appreciate how much Wesleyan taught me about how to function as a teacher, a scholar and (yes) a minor league administrator.

I have also come to realize how dissimilar those two jobs that I held are. Elite private institutions are fundamentally different places to work than sprawling, cash-driven urban universities. So, without further ado, for those of you who are in transition or mulling a job offer at one or the other type of institution—or both—I’d like to share some of the differences among the two types of places.

If you work at an elite liberal arts college, it is a lot like being in a club. Physically, the resemblance is undeniable. There are the lawns, the gracious buildings, the sumptuous athletic facilities (tennis and squash courts, a pool, a skating rink, etc.) and the large private offices where you can keep thousands of books. There are the security and postal people nipping around in golf carts, the free umbrellas and the faculty dining room. And oh—can we talk more about the offices again? As a former program chair, I can attest that people at Wesleyan used to complain bitterly about offices that faculty members at the New School would slit their throats for.

Of course, the point is: elite schools are a club, which is why we use the word “elite,” or more commonly, “selective,” to describe them. It is why people who work at them, for all that they decry the “corporate university,” also often take on a kind of corporate mentality that is defined by the institution, its prestige and its ways—all of which are cushioned by relatively large wads of money. Even when they oppose administrative initiatives, faculty members tend not to do so from any deeply held views about education but rather from an adherence to educational traditions and pedagogical values that are fully defined and produced by the elite values of the institution.

If you work at a sprawling urban university, it is a lot like working for municipal government. Although people are spread out in dozens of buildings and rented office spaces, it can be weirdly more intimate. Pre-pandemic, at least the people who run the institution (otherwise known as “the administration”) can often be seen bustling from place to place.

Sharing spaces with strangers, as well as colleagues, has a leveling effect. Provosts and deans are often trapped on deathly slow elevators with the rest of us plebes. You might find a great place to eat at the student center, but you share that space with students as a matter of course, and everyone—including the public—mingles at restaurants around the university. And last year, when it appeared that none of my students had done the reading, I didn’t soldier through the class anyway: I took them to a local museum. There is always an exhibit in the vicinity that can not only revive students’ flagging spirits but remind them that they came to school in a global city for a reason.

Related Stories

Furthermore, there is no grass at my university. Students do not ask to “go outside” on warm sunny days, because that would mean having class on the sidewalk—no one wants to do that. But when you are on the sidewalk, running from building to building, you are constantly meeting new people. Nobody except human resources knows how many faculty members there are, and three years after I arrived, I was still meeting new people. They often greeted me by saying they had heard about me, and I could often honestly respond that I had heard about them. While in a sense, you might say we share an identity because we work for the New School, the different parts of the university are, well, so different that frequently what we have in common is a predilection for one barista over another.

If you work at an elite liberal arts college, you get to both complain about your students and humblebrag about them. Why? Because those students have been curated for you. They are mostly fabulous, and students then become a subtle reflection of your own fabulousness. Selective liberal arts college faculty members boast about the specialness of their students and the likelihood that they will go on to top graduate programs and interesting, often prestigious, jobs. Because they do.

Liberal arts college faculty often say they are “lucky” to have such wonderful students. That’s true, with one caveat: luck played no role in it. It was money, social class, alumni parents, intensive recruiting by the admissions office, student creaming programs, unpaid volunteering that students can put on their applications and intensive academic coaching that brought those students to your beautiful campus.

At a sprawling urban university, you teach whoever enrolls, and it is considered unwise and mean-spirited to complain about their abilities. It’s a liberating, compassionate and interesting experience. And not to go overboard with this, but it gives education a much more democratic feel on a daily basis, because you can do really creative things, often with students who are very bright but less well-groomed intellectually, without anyone thinking you are ignoring the entire Western canon. Many of my students want careers in fashion and think books are but one way of learning.

The pleasures of the elite college are incalculable: sometimes I think it was a strange dream that I did that for years, but mostly I think I did not appreciate it the way I should have. Yet, at the same time, it prepared me for the pleasure of what I do now by teaching me to love teaching more than I love prestige. In addition, each student that I have now actually is quite different from every other student, and in a way that highly curated students are not. Classes are incredibly heterogeneous in a way classes of highly screened and selected students are not, and I have to think on my feet every time I set foot in a classroom in a way I never did at Wesleyan, because students bring fewer common assumptions to the table. In each class meeting, I have to figure out what everyone knows before I know how to teach them that day.

If you work at an elite liberal arts college, they never change the name, and alterations to typeface, signage and stationery are so minimal as to be undetectable. This is called “tradition,” and it binds current students to past generations. The most radical change they made at Wesleyan was to put the word “Wes” in front of everything to make a new word that described some service, activity or facility. That is a kind of branding, but a subtle one—like the little alligator on a Lacoste shirt. But when they tried referring to the college as “a little Ivy” to reflect the school’s selectivity and the high quality of the education delivered there, everyone freaked out and made them stop.

At a sprawling urban university, change is the order of the day. Marketing and branding are a constantly evolving process. Practically everything we do passes through marketing at some point. The stationery changes constantly. They regularly rename divisions and schools—and sometimes even the whole university. Some years ago, we adopted a new typeface and logo, which was rolled out to great aplomb, with free tote bags and everything. And here is the coolest thing: a student showed me a MetroCard with our new logo on it. Pomona College doesn’t have that, does? No, it does not.

Tradition is OK, but it’s kind of refreshing and fun to see what marketing will come up with next. The truth is everyone knows who we are regardless of the typeface. When I say I work at the New School, people brighten up and say: “Hannah Arendt!” Happens every time: talk about a chick who created a brand. It reveals a critical fact about higher education: all of the external things that are recognizable about any institution of higher education are window dressing, and what really matters is what goes on inside the buildings.

At an elite liberal arts college, you have a mascot that represents your long tradition and heritage. That also means you are spending mucho buckos on athletics, about which faculty members complain liberally, even though they are being paid quite well compared to most academics.

At a sprawling urban university, there are few sports, and the mascot is hard to remember. In fact, the athletics program is limited to uncoached basketball, tennis and soccer teams that receive little to no money from the university as far as I can tell. You’ll find free yoga classes, sponsored rock climbing and bike trips, and a group of undergrads who build wherries and occasionally row them to New Jersey. The sports with the highest participation are elbowing your way onto an L train and running away from people who want to put you on committees.

The New School’s mascot is the narwhal, a cheerful cartoon aquatic mammal, but no one can tell me why it was chosen. Personally, I think our mascot should be Hannah Arendt. Can you imagine how cool it would be to be in a bikram yoga smackdown against Cooper Union and having Hannah Arendt revving up the crowd?

These are, of course, only two jobs, and if you are looking around (and you should be!), you will have other comparisons to make. But my message? Don’t be afraid to leave a cushy place for an institution with more challenges, because those challenges also represent opportunities.

Readers, have you ever changed jobs? What were the differences you noticed? And did you regret the change?

Share Article

Claire Potter is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and writes regularly about politics, media and higher education at her Substack, Political Junkie.

Read more by

Claire Potter

Back to Top