Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Decline and fall

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.


Historiann said...

I'm sorry to hear this, Flavia, for your sake. It's a difficult lesson to learn that even when you stay in place, things can change all around you. It's difficult when you're used to being the one who's moving around and moving on, too. I've been both the mover and among the movees, and it's more fun to be the one moving on, that's for sure.

I agree with you that having colleagues with other options is a completely healthy situation. (Consider the miserable alternative!)

Bardiac said...

^^What she said.

I think I expected at some point that things would be easier and more stable, but they never really are, just hard in different ways.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Great post, Flavia. Two thoughts:

I think we're vulnerable to this kind of worry about losing two or three colleagues because we take so much comfort from picking up two or three excellent colleagues. Two or three good hires feel like they can give a department real momentum, so two or three departures feel like a major loss. (And the fact that most departments are so small these days magnifies this.)

I also think you're immune to this kind of worry if you take a myopically selfish view of the profession. Some people don't think in terms of strengthening a department, or see how a stronger department strengthens them. I suspect there are some academics foolish enough to be comforted when good colleagues leave, because the shrinking of the pond permits them to imagine themselves as bigger fish.

DDB said...

I agree - certain colleagues become the de facto 'heart' or 'soul' of a department, and their departure can change the entire tenor of a place, especially if they are older, more established, and well, kind of synonomous with the place.

At my last institution, we had a few high-profile changes, and it definitely negatively impacted the place for years. That's not saying it happens that way everywhere, but it was surprising to me how much of the culture or attitude of a department can be defined by one or two strong colleagues.

Given my experience at my previous institution, I tend to fear change in academic circles, especially when the administration feels the need to bring in an external candidates for leadership positions to 'boost the reputation'. One never knows what one is getting in those situations. I am extremely pleased that our excellent Dean of Engineering is becoming the interim provost next month, and is likely on the short list for the full-time position. I think it helps to have someone higher up in the administration that is rooting for your department and school in general, and understands it's challenges.

A little off topic, but I definitely empathize with what you are saying.

Dr. Crazy said...

"I agree with you that having colleagues with other options is a completely healthy situation. (Consider the miserable alternative!)"

As somebody who lives with the alternative... YES. While change is hard - and scary - change is less scary than stagnation, at least from my perspective. One of my biggest challenges is feeling like I'm in a department (and institution) that has such a great fear of change that we always seem to be aiming for the "low middle," that we'd rather maintain the status quo than take a risk that might mean that somebody leaves after a few years. The effects of that sort of risk-averse, conflict-averse culture are really, in so many ways, debilitating.