One of my colleagues is leaving RU. This isn't actually the first of my tenure-line colleagues to take a job elsewhere, but it feels like it: the others were people I wasn't close to, and they weren't here long, and neither their presence nor their absence materially affected my sense of my department's identity.
This colleague, on the other hand, turns out to have been pretty integral to my sense of my department's identity, which is maybe a way of saying integral to my own sense of identity. We were hired at more or less the same time, we have similar training and research ambitions, our teaching interests overlap, and s/he has been an admirably dedicated member of the department. We're also personal friends.
And though we are friends and though it's normal to regret the loss of any cherished coworker, I'm surprised at how shaken this colleague's departure has left me and how much it's destablized my feelings about my department.
There's no reasonable reason for this: my colleague is moving in order to be close to family--not because of any dissatisfaction with our department--and we're almost certain to get a replacement hire. Indeed, I've argued before that it's actually a sign of health for a department occasionally to lose a talented person. It means we're hiring well, that we provide our faculty with opportunities for growth, and that we're remaining competitive. Obviously no department wants to be a revolving door, but a limited amount of turnover is to be expected.
So why has this felt, at occasional moments since I got the news, like it might be The End of Everything?
Well, the thing about hiring talented people is that they can leave. And I look around my department, and it seems possible that, if the stars aligned in just the right awful combination, we could lose three or four people in a two-year period. Those of us with seemingly intractable two-body problems are likelier to leave than others, but who's to say? Any one of us could leave even if most of us aren't planning to.
And the prolonged jobs crisis means that even those of us who have been spared haven't been spared. My department has hired something like fifteen tenure-line faculty in ten years, many of them for entirely new positions. Even in the depths of the recession we've had continuous cost-of-living raises, as well as a pool of competitive merit raises. And our institution's financial picture is only improving.
But it still feels precarious, probably because it is precarious. We're okay now, but for how long? We might stop getting replacement lines, nevermind new ones. We might lose the upper-administrator who has been most enthusiastic about promoting the humanities. And as education jobs dry up in this state, we might lose English majors (since a great many of our majors are also pursuing their teaching certification). And then what?
Losing this particular colleague may not be a tipping point--in fact, it almost certainly isn't. But it's made me feel anxious and vulnerable, reminding me that nothing is forever and that bad news is more likely than good in higher education.
I'll get over it. But it's hard to believe that things are getting better at one's own institution when they're getting so much worse elsewhere.