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Are faculty and staff members at our nation’s colleges and universities leaving their positions in higher numbers because they are no longer fulfilled in their careers and see better opportunities elsewhere, or are they throwing in the towel due to frustration, stress and disillusionment?
We pose this question acknowledging that neither one of us was on campus for the long haul during the (ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic. One of us retired from a full-time, campus-based career in 2019, and the other announced his retirement (effective June 2020) six months prior to COVID’s official onset.
Together, we have more than 85 years of experience on college campuses, helping various institutions achieve their enrollment and net revenue goals while being motivated to see students realize their educational and career dreams. Over the past decade we have spoken and written widely of the impending demographic declines and the stress that would bring to our campuses. Nevertheless, we didn’t experience the total financial, emotional and physical stresses brought to our campuses as COVID took its toll. And we acknowledge it is easier to opine from the sidelines than it is to live every day in the middle of seemingly inexorable challenges that COVID has accelerated over the past two-plus years.
Much has been written about the Great Resignation as it is playing out in higher education. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed cited the 2022 survey of chief academic officers, which found that “19 percent of provosts say faculty members are leaving at significantly higher rates than in the past,” and 60 percent “say they are leaving at somewhat higher rates.” The article cited additional evidence, some anecdotal, that faculty members are suffering from burnout—“a leading driver of resignations across sectors.”
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Lest one think faculty are alone, administrative staff members, many of whom have devoted their careers to higher education, are leaving, too. The Inside Higher Ed 2022 survey of provosts found that 45 percent of provosts reported staff members are leaving at somewhat higher rates than in the past, and 28 percent reported staff leaving at significantly higher rates.
A 20-year veteran of student affairs administration, Meredith Davis, recently wrote a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education sharing sound counsel to colleagues contemplating a career change outside the academy. While she herself did not stray too far from the industry (she became a higher education executive search consultant, who will depend on the sector’s vitality to earn a living), she hit on several major questions to ask oneself and several things to contemplate when considering a move: Do you just want to leave your present job, or do you want to change careers? Will your next move align with your values? Are you willing to experience discomfort for a while? Davis also offered advice: do an objective cost/benefit analysis and talk to colleagues and friends about what brings you joy. We further suggest weighing the risk that current feelings of frustration, anger, powerlessness and burnout could easily re-emerge in another position inside or outside higher education.
Many of us worry about higher education’s future—not so much for the brand-name, überselective and very wealthy universities—but for the other 95 percent of private nonprofit and regional public four-year institutions. Simply put, most college students attend these institutions. Our students’ futures are at stake if we can only offer them understaffed, underresourced institutions. Most of us pursued a career in higher education to make a difference in the lives of young people, providing access to opportunities that would change their lives. Abandoning that calling when the challenges are steep weakens our colleges and universities and their ability to prepare the next generation of citizen-leaders.
The world is obviously not in a good place right now, and our great country seems to be losing its competitive economic edge while its higher education beacon is dimming. COVID still has us in its grip as we desperately try to wiggle out of it. There are far more firearms in the U.S. than there are citizens, and fatal shootings have become a regular occurrence. Our government is dysfunctional; rather than just having different views on major issues (which define a democracy), lawmakers resort to lies and bullying to discredit others’ positions, which prevents anything of substance from being accomplished. Today’s political maneuvers seem all about getting elected rather than about governing.
The academy is not shielded from these problems. Political divisiveness abounds, apparent in everything from free speech controversies to attacks by legislators on what can be taught and what services can be offered to backlashes to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. There are very real financial pressures, resulting in budget cutbacks, low pay raises in a time of superinflation and raised stakes for fundraising and student recruitment. No less impactful are the expected academic and socio-emotional deficits that the COVID generation of students will bring to campus. Is it any wonder why dedicated faculty and staff members are leaving our ranks?
However, this is precisely the time for committed faculty and staff members to double down on their passions and reconnect with the core values of what drew them to the academy in the first place. If we are concerned about the future of our nation and the development of an educated workforce dedicated to our freedoms in a strong democracy, we must move beyond “I’m burned out, so I quit.”
None of this is to dismiss the responsibilities of senior administrative and academic leadership to support faculty and staff in fulfilling the institution’s mission. Financial stress is real, but college leaders need to listen to the concerns of those who teach, advise and provide services to our students, helping them to successfully navigate the choppy waters ahead and to put student needs first.
Drawing on our many years of experience with other challenges (e.g., recessions, Great and otherwise; campus unrest; pedagogical discord; etc.) we now sense that higher education is letting these external factors wear it down. In past cycles, when frustration and even hopelessness set in, the resolve to work hard explains why so many colleges and universities continued to meet the needs of students. Today, are too many not thinking or perhaps not caring about the cumulative impact of their individual actions on the institutions they serve and the students they support?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. In many ways, our life experience is shaped by our inner attitude. Our lives are influenced by how we react to the challenges around us. Upon graduation from high school many, many … many years ago, one of us received a card from a special teacher with this inscription:
Why were the saints, saints? Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful, patient when it was difficult to be patient; and because they pushed on when they wanted to stand still, and kept silent when they wanted to talk, and were agreeable when they wanted to be disagreeable. That was all. It was quite simple and always will be.
None of us are saints, of course, but leaving academe for another career in this most challenging of times could easily be for naught, since every career has its challenges. The pent-up COVID stress and the financial woes it has rendered are boundless. If we do not change our outlook and perspective along with our change of careers, then we are likely to find ourselves only seeking what pop psychologists have called the “geographic cure”—in other words, wherever we go, there we are.
In our colleges and universities, as in our nation and all sectors of our economy, we need dedicated, principled leaders, faculty and staff who can work together to deal with the realities of the day while planning for better days ahead. All easier said than done, especially by those of us not in the daily fray. But our commitment to the work we did in our active careers and to the work now being done by our colleagues in colleges and universities across the nation gives us reason for hope that, as our Great Depression–era parents used to say, “better days are coming.”