In Higher Ed, Loyalty Is a One-Way Street
Loyalty of students and faculty is often demanded. Is it returned?
I’ve always felt a little emotional charge when walking onto a college campus.
I’m being romantic about this, of course, but the energy feels special. Interesting stuff is happening all around me: students learning, knowledge being created, relationships forming. The research universities where I’ve previously worked with their sprawling campuses and impressive buildings evoke a kind of awe.
College of Charleston, my current employer, is older than the United States of America.
The Drillfield at Virginia Tech where cadets have marched since 1894, the University of Illinois Main Quad with the Illini Union on one end and the neoclassical beauty of Foellinger Auditorium on the other, I remember walking these, and even as an untenurable instructor believing that I was part of something that mattered.
We know a sense of belonging is necessary for success. A recently published study on first-year students at Michigan State found that “fitting in” is an important pre-requisite to retention and academic excellence, and that this feeling can be fostered even prior to the students setting foot on campus.
Ideally, that initial belonging turns into something more powerful, “loyalty.” Institutions put great effort into nurturing this emotion: mascots and merchandise everywhere, the alma mater sung with arms thrown over each other’s shoulders at every game. Undergraduate “school spirit” morphs into alumni loyalty, which ultimately takes the form of cold hard cash.
One of my other former employers, Clemson University, recently unveiled their $55 million football complex, complete with HD theater, barbershop, golf simulator, laser tag and bowling alley, paid for largely with money donated through their IPTAY alumni organization. A single alumni pledged $2.5 million all by himself. Loyalty to the football team and not the school itself, but loyalty nonetheless.
Clemson fans are said to “bleed orange,” not literally true, but you get the feeling that for the team they might be willing to open a vein and test the proposition.
Thad Turnipseed, Clemson football’s director of recruiting and external affairs said of this enterprise that was the fruit of many, “You put a lot of people together, it’s really not a job. It’s a passion that we love.”
When I first started teaching college, I was very naive about how loyalty works in academia, namely that it is a one-way street. I came out of the private sector, having spent four years at a successful marketing research firm where my advancement and concomitant raises always came before I asked for them. I was working hard, doing good work. Because this was a well-run business, the bosses recognized when this was happening and rewarded us.
So simple, so good, so effective at engendering loyalty and additional hard work from employees. I’m certain that the firm got away with smaller raises than otherwise might be required because they acted preemptively. They also retained their best employees, saving everyone time, money, effort. They knew the lost productivity at having to bring in a new person was simply not worth the risk of losing someone they wanted to keep.
I, stupidly, figured something similar could be possible in academia, and at Clemson, at least subconsciously went about acting on these mistaken principles. I went beyond my teaching duties by advising undergraduate and masters theses. I started a campus humor publication with a grant. I taught my brains out. Some in the department noticed, even made an attempt at converting me to a tenure track position, but this was nixed at some administrative level above.
For six years I taught 12 hours/semester for $25,000 per year. I published two books, co-edited two others. I was a paragon of dedication. When I told Clemson I was leaving so my wife could take a new position across the sate, all of the sudden there was indeed a different job for me, a 50% raise (with more to come), along with a course reduction to 9 hours/semester.
Maybe I could commute two days a week?
So, not loyalty, but leverage counts. This is similar to scenarios where, in order to be considered for a raise, tenure line faculty must hit the job market, secure a competing offer, and try to use it to improve their local position.
The unbelievable waste this practice entails is sort of mindboggling. When I was first informed of its ubiquity, I almost couldn’t believe it, but I now know it to be common.
The faculty member who likely has no real desire to leave, but wants or needs a raise, must carve out time from their regular duties to hit the job market. They may also miss classes to interview for these jobs they don’t really want.
On the other end of the equation, consider the hours of labor departments must put in to conduct a job search, including considering candidates who have no desire to leave their current jobs. Applicants for those same jobs who do want them may be squeezed out of applicant or interviewing pools.
There is also a psychological cost to those who are “loyal,” and simply go about their business semester after semester seeing other people who are actively “disloyal” get raises because of that disloyalty.
Think about it, the most devoted workers are treated the worst. Because they spend so much time being devoted, they don’t have the opportunity to be “disloyal.”
Now, let’s imagine that the faculty member who initially didn’t want to leave, wouldn’t have even been considering such a thing except for this messed-up system, gets a job offer that either they can’t refuse, or the home institution can’t match. More work, more inefficiency on the way.
In some cases, the home institution will decide not to replace the tenured position and instead absorb it with contingent labor or additional work from existing faculty. I suppose this is more efficient, but it certainly isn’t a move towards excellence. And long term, adding additional burdens on your faculty year-by-year grinding them down bit by bit isn’t really improving efficiency anyway.
If the departing faculty member is going to be replaced, we need a search and all the time and expense that entails. Oh, you also will wind up having to pay a competitive salary to the incoming person, maybe even a higher salary than the departing person was receiving.
If anyone wants to defend this practice with, “Well, we’re running it like a business,” not like a good business you aren’t. Good businesses know how to prioritize and hold on to their most important workers. They certainly don’t engage in costly and time consuming personnel searches unless they have to.
My advice to all faculty is to absorb what the contingent know so well. As Lee Skallerup Bessette wrote in IHE years ago, it is important not to confuse your devotion to your work which deserves great respect and is to everyone's credit, with loyalty to the institution. The system simply doesn’t support this particular value.
They likely have no loyalty for you.
You owe them none in return.
 At the lower levels where I started you either moved up or were moved out.
 They even let me have a couple of extra days off in order to finish my first book.
 I learned a different, but perhaps related lesson in loyalty here at College of Charleston. When I applied for an open tenure track position for which I was definitely qualified and would have done a great job – just ask the people who didn’t hire me if you don’t believe me – it instead went to an outside candidate. No matter how positively people here felt about me or my work, loyalty wasn’t going to be a dispositive part of the selection criteria. We can argue whether or not it should be, I can see both sides of that equation, but the sheer number of qualified internal candidates who don’t get open tenure track positions suggests that loyalty is not a factor in these decisions.
 I don’t use this term to fault those who seek out raises. They are acting as the system dictates. In other words, I am hating the game, not the player.
 A year after my departure from Clemson, at least in part to cover what I had formerly taught they held a search for a tenure track job in fiction writing.
 I have witnessed genuine loyalty among colleagues at the department level, but this is a reaction and response to the lack of loyalty at the larger institution level. They have banded together as protection from above.
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