• August 1, 2014

Giving Up Tenure? Who Does That?

As it turns out, quite a few professors have been leaving academe for new careers

Giving Up Tenure? Who Does That? 1

William Brown for The Chronicle

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William Brown for The Chronicle

My academic career has been absurdly idiosyncratic. Fifteen years ago, I accepted a half-time tenure-track position. (Idiosyncrasy No. 1: Some small liberal-arts colleges like mine offer split appointments on the tenure track.) Twelve years ago, I was awarded tenure, and on the exact same day, divorced. (That's Idiosyncrasy No. 2, one I wrote about for The Chronicle back in 2004).

Tenured but unable to support myself financially, I began to do freelance writing to supplement my income. I enjoyed it—so much that it became increasingly hard to juggle my professorial and freelance duties. The language of traditional scholarship was sounding increasingly foreign to me, and it became a tongue I no longer wanted to speak. I revised my writing courses to reflect the work I was doing in narrative nonfiction, cultural criticism, and book history. But then, when departmental and service duties ramped up, and especially when it was my turn to become chair, I found myself pulled in too many directions. As a divorced mother with joint custody, I am geographically restricted (Idiosyncrasy No. 3), so the job market was not for me.

To stop the juggling, I chose to expand my freelance career and took an extended leave of absence from Oberlin College. I have been supporting myself with my writing since 2011. But in the fall of 2012, it was time for me to make a decision: Should I give up my faculty line at Oberlin?

In my mind, my curvy odd career made me an outlier, so giving up tenure would be as idiosyncratic as the rest of my story. I mean, Who does that? Who gives up tenure? I kept tripping myself up on the oddity of the move, the seeming illogic. So many want what I have, and so few will attain it. Who am I to give up the golden prize? Nobody does that, I told myself, over and over.

But I was wrong. As soon as I started looking around, I could not stop finding examples of tenured professors who had resigned their posts.

Statistics are hard to come by, and I can make no claim about a trend or percentage. But Nature recently profiled four scientists who gave up tenure. John Jackson wrote a blog post for The Chronicle about three faculty members in the humanities and social sciences who did the same. Ann Daly gave several interviews about her recent decision to quit.

Blog posts announcing one's departure are becoming a micro-genre. Robert Kosara posted about quitting to join Tableau Software. Terran Lane wrote a post elucidating his reasons for leaving academic science, which The Chronicle subsequently published. Lane then wrote a follow-up for Times Higher Education on the enormous number of people who responded to his story: "The majority response came down to 'me too.' Many people said that they had left or were going to leave academia, or that they knew someone who had or was, for many of the same reasons." Lane concluded that "erosions of resources, autonomy, flexibility, vision, and respect for learning" were "beginning to force a generation of scholars out of the field."

To continue the woes of academe, a Chronicle article titled "Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?" discussed the struggles of the posttenure years.

I took to Twitter to see if I could flush out more examples. "Anyone know of profs who gave up tenure?" Those few words elicited a torrent of responses. Within two hours I had been given the names of, or been contacted by, two dozen people who had given up tenure. Dozens more wrote to let me know they were very interested in the topic, and could I keep them updated on what I found?

My tweet persuaded one lurker to make her own announcement (which she followed up with a blog post). Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced that she had resigned (effective in June) from Pomona College to work for the Modern Language Association. Her news set off a new wave of tweets. Everyone cheered her on, congratulated her for her decision.

The chorus in my head—those abrogating, "Nobody does that" voices—were silenced. Not only do people do that, but when they do, others cheer them on.

Fitzpatrick's move was motivated not by a distaste for changes in higher education but by her passion to pursue an academic issue outside the confines of her faculty position. She is now director of scholarly communication at the MLA. When she made the decision, she had just been promoted to full professor. "It was clear to me, with a few possible forks, what the path ahead was," she said. "I could keep teaching the same classes but update them, keep doing research and service with some changes. Or I could decide I wanted to move into administration. These were predictable, carved-out paths." When the MLA opportunity arose, it "allowed me to do work at a much larger scale and a national level where it might have some impact beyond my specialized field. I could actually do the things I had been writing should be done. That seemed way more important than lifetime job security."

She did not make the decision lightly. "At first it was really terrifying to contemplate it, to think about taking that chance. What if I decided it was a mistake? After this job, what next?" She added: "I realized that the fear was a productive fear. 'I don't know what I would do next' means I could do anything. That was the moment I realized, somewhere in the back of my head without realizing, I'd made the decision."

And if she had internalized peer pressure—the "Nobody does that" in my head—it was dispelled as soon as she tweeted. "I have been extremely surprised at those who wrote me via Twitter or left comments on my Web site to say congratulations. It's not that I don't think it's a great decision. I'm just surprised that it seems like such a positive move to so many others. I worried some would think of it as squandering of a benefit they're still working to get close to. It feels like an extraordinary luxury."

Most of the dozen people I subsequently interviewed about leaving tenured jobs echoed the same sentiment: Their news was received with congratulations and, often, envy. Kosara admitted he was "scared" when he met with his department chair and dean, but both surprised him. "They were calm, supportive, and very interested. They wanted to know more." So did other colleagues: "I expected more people to say, 'Are you sure?' But I think a lot of people are thinking about giving up tenure, even if not consciously. And they are a bit envious."

When Carin Ruff was considering whether to leave her tenured position in medieval studies at Cornell University, friends and colleagues advised her to go for it: "They said I should do this now and not wait until I'm 50." When Peter Suber left his faculty job in philosophy at Earlham College, "some said, 'Gosh, I wish I could that, too.' Nobody said, 'You're making a big mistake.' Nobody said, 'What a terrible thing to do.'" His wife, Liffey Thorpe, quit her tenured post in classics at Earlham, too.

"All of us know senior faulty who are ready [to leave] but feel immobile," Suber said. "We were ready and didn't feel immobile. It was a scary leap, and that's the equivalent to being immobile for many people. I won't pretend that we weren't scared. We were."

Kosara acknowledged those fears as well but said he was "not risk averse"—unlike many academics, for whom tenure is an important form of security.

For everyone I interviewed, the risk of giving up tenure allowed them to pursue something more meaningful. For Suber, it was to pursue his passion for open access. When he made the decision with his wife, they "gave up salaries, tenure, and tuition remission. We had nothing to take the place of it. Neither of us had new jobs. I had a cause, not a job. I had to apply for grants to fund me for that cause. Ever since, I have lived on grants and fellowships." (He is now director of Harvard University's Open Access Project and a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Thorpe, his wife, is director of communications at George Stevens Academy.)

Of his decision to leave academe for a software company, Kosara wrote on his Web site: "I like doing stuff, but at the university I spent most of my time telling other people what to do instead of doing things myself." He wrote that he had "struggled to see my work have an actual impact." At Tableau Software, he has "more interesting and better" opportunities for his work.

Ruff, who left Cornell and now works in historic preservation, "feels so much better about life, and that trumps not writing that book. Out in the world it's normal to change jobs several times. Now the sense of who I am comes from myself, and not my work, and that's such a relief." She is also relieved of the persistent survivor's guilt she had felt since receiving her first tenure-track job. "My sense of lack of accomplishment by the time I got to tenure was influenced by having come up in this world where getting a job is a crapshoot," she said. "I got a job, but I knew 20 others who didn't. There is a high infant-mortality rate among medievalists. I felt complicit in an unattractive system, and so tenure did not feel like a relief."

The risks of leaving tenure are not just professional. They are financial, too. Although the vast majority of Americans think nothing of working under contract or at will, professors find the prospect frightening. What if they were to get fired? Many who have made the move prepared beforehand. Eileen Joy, who left her tenured job at Southern Illinois University, "laid the groundwork." She paid off her debt and sold her house at a loss. Now she stays with friends as she travels to give talks or stays at her partner's home, in Cincinnati. Fitzpatrick noted that she had little personal debt, paid off her educational debt, and did not have children. (The majority of people I interviewed do not have children.)

Few of the people I interviewed expressed any regrets about giving up tenure. Yet they didn't link their decision to frustration with academe, beyond the frequent refrain of "kind of bored." None saw themselves as opting out of academe. They saw themselves as opting in to something else, which seemed more exciting, fruitful, and productive. Few had qualms about how others might perceive their decision, and none thought of it as any kind of failure or shift downward.

It would not be going out on a limb to say that academics can be self-important. To frame the question as "Why leave? Who does that?" as I did—and as the articles I mentioned do—reveals a certain exceptionalism and a tinge of arrogance. It is a job, being a tenured professor. Just a job. Why not leave?

And so I will. I may still teach at my old college, but I will resign my position as a tenured professor. It would have been an unthinkable move for me when I received tenure; now it seems not only imaginable but obvious. My interests have evolved, and I am simply moving along with them. I am not diverting or opting out or making a statement by resigning my tenured post. I am simply taking the next logical step. It's not such a big leap after all.

Anne Trubek is the author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses" and the forthcoming "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting." She is on leave as an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College.

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