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Author Topic: Decided to abandon ship  (Read 7134 times)
prof52
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« on: April 21, 2012, 12:59:27 AM »

I wrote perhaps two months back about deteriorating conditions in my department and asked how quickly one ought to jump ship.  After some thought, discussing things with my significant other, and seeing the department board the crazy train yet again this month, I've decided it is time to make a full push to leave.  I have had some encouraging feedback about my professional mobility, and there are a couple of viable possibilities looming on the horizon.

Sadly, the department has moved from stewing to borderline toxic in less than six months.  While I continue to get on well with my colleagues, I need to leave so as not to get caught up in the quicksand.  It is important to me in the meantime to distance myself from the more political issues within the department. 

At this point, my saner colleagues are openly knocking the department at conferences and other public settings.  At one time, I really thought I might make my career here.  We are in an enviable location, get great students, and have a low administrative load.  But, my research is suffering from the atmosphere more than it is benefiting from the good working conditions.  I've even been advised to leave for the sake of my career by well meaning colleagues.

Does anyone else find it difficult to believe that dysfunction can creep up on a department so quickly?  It amazes me how strong my desire to move is as a consequence.
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voxprincipalis
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« Reply #1 on: April 21, 2012, 6:55:21 AM »

Does anyone else find it difficult to believe that dysfunction can creep up on a department so quickly?  It amazes me how strong my desire to move is as a consequence.

It doesn't creep up quickly (that might even be a contradiction; can one creep quickly?) -- rather, it grows under the surface for a long time without looking like it's all that serious. Then something cuts it open and suddenly you see how big the cancer has grown.

You are just now (and maybe not even now) seeing the full extent of the problem.

If it's fixable, work towards fixing it. If it's not fixable, get the hell out of Dodge.

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cranefly
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« Reply #2 on: April 21, 2012, 7:51:25 AM »

My  department had a major meltdown a couple of years ago (thankfully I'd kept out of the conflict). The university called in an outside arbitrator who listened to everyone and then just said, "this is what you're going to do." Things improved rather quickly after that. Is this  something you can suggest to your Dean?
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prof52
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« Reply #3 on: April 22, 2012, 12:47:47 AM »

Does anyone else find it difficult to believe that dysfunction can creep up on a department so quickly?  It amazes me how strong my desire to move is as a consequence.

It doesn't creep up quickly (that might even be a contradiction; can one creep quickly?) -- rather, it grows under the surface for a long time without looking like it's all that serious. Then something cuts it open and suddenly you see how big the cancer has grown.

You are just now (and maybe not even now) seeing the full extent of the problem.

If it's fixable, work towards fixing it. If it's not fixable, get the hell out of Dodge.

VP

Your metaphor is more apt, if less visually appealing.  I have decided to leave as soon as is feasible, precisely because of how very deeply entrenched the revealed dysfunction is.  We had to make some important decisions last year about hiring and other issues that concerned the direction of the department.  At the time, it seemed to me that some of the painful discussions that we were having about what our standards were and how we saw ourselves moving forward heralded the start of a new openness about many issues that needed to be tackled head on.

Instead, the result has been a paralysing mix of apathy and anger among many of my colleagues that caught me wholly unawares.  Every issue now has a political tinge, and I think it will be a long time before we function normally enough, for example, to make much needed curricular changes in the doctoral degree or to constitute a committee to fill a currently vacant senior chair.  It might get better, but things seem to be rapidly moving in the other direction.

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prof52
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« Reply #4 on: April 22, 2012, 12:53:20 AM »

My  department had a major meltdown a couple of years ago (thankfully I'd kept out of the conflict). The university called in an outside arbitrator who listened to everyone and then just said, "this is what you're going to do." Things improved rather quickly after that. Is this  something you can suggest to your Dean?

This seems like a very good idea to me, and I believe a senior colleague may have tried to enlist a dean's help.  I think that what has emerged is that it is not part of the institutional culture for the deans to step into intra-departmental conflicts.  Our dean is competent and has his head screwed on straight, so it is a pity that he won't intervene. As far as I can tell, the view is that there is a slippery slope with decanal involvement and that other departments would protest at any serious exercise of even advisory authority, fearing that such might be exercised on them, but not at their behest. 

On the other hand, failing to produce a consensus nominee for department chair would trigger some direct decanal action.  We weren't far from it this last round of chair selection, and I wouldn't be surprised if nobody will be willing to do the job in the next go round.  We are also up for the periodic internal review that the division conducts.  I don't know enough about the process to provide grounds for either hope or pessimism, but it may well help.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2012, 1:00:54 AM by prof52 » Logged
seniorscholar
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« Reply #5 on: April 22, 2012, 10:43:31 AM »

My  department had a major meltdown a couple of years ago (thankfully I'd kept out of the conflict). The university called in an outside arbitrator who listened to everyone and then just said, "this is what you're going to do." Things improved rather quickly after that. Is this  something you can suggest to your Dean?

I was once part of a three-person team of faculty from three similar but slightly more high prestige departments in other states called in by a dean to do an "outside evaluation" of an unhappy department the members of which kept complaining to said dean. We did as cranefly says -- talked  to individuals or small groups of faculty in the department, put our heads together and drafted a report with analysis and some recommendations for the dean, and talked sternly to the faculty in a final meeting about the things they were demanding that were simply out of line for  departments/faculty at large public universities like theirs.

I don't believe the suggestion for outside reviewers arose from faculty of the department in question -- it was the solution grasped by a dean who was simply tired of all the people creeping into the office looking over their shoulders or sending e-mails to a home address from non-university computers or making speeches in the faculty senate, etc.
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prof52
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« Reply #6 on: April 22, 2012, 11:29:34 AM »

My  department had a major meltdown a couple of years ago (thankfully I'd kept out of the conflict). The university called in an outside arbitrator who listened to everyone and then just said, "this is what you're going to do." Things improved rather quickly after that. Is this  something you can suggest to your Dean?

I was once part of a three-person team of faculty from three similar but slightly more high prestige departments in other states called in by a dean to do an "outside evaluation" of an unhappy department the members of which kept complaining to said dean. We did as cranefly says -- talked  to individuals or small groups of faculty in the department, put our heads together and drafted a report with analysis and some recommendations for the dean, and talked sternly to the faculty in a final meeting about the things they were demanding that were simply out of line for  departments/faculty at large public universities like theirs.

I don't believe the suggestion for outside reviewers arose from faculty of the department in question -- it was the solution grasped by a dean who was simply tired of all the people creeping into the office looking over their shoulders or sending e-mails to a home address from non-university computers or making speeches in the faculty senate, etc.

This also sounds like a very good suggestion, and I expect that outside voices would be beneficial.  If there were much of a chance of something like this happening, I would endorse it strongly and would be willing to wait around to see what the result was.  I'm quite sure that nothing like this will happen.  I should explain something about the dynamics of the local situation.

Basically, the university made a kind of devil's bargain (in my view) with the faculty ten or fifteen years ago.  It didn't happen all at once, so it's hard to date precisely.  At any rate, in exchange for a favorable salary policy and a moderate amount of autonomy for departments to goven themselves, the admin does not take an active role in pursuing research excellence in the department.  Basically, what this means is that the dean's door is closed, one gets one's tenure track lines according to the divisions nearly set-in-stone allocation formula, and within those constraints it is up to us to figure out how to  produce top flight research without any further university support, save for  a few travel grants.

For there to be any higher level involvement, the department would have to melt down in one of two ways.  One would be a precipitious drop in enrolment, which is unlikely.  The other would be for us not to nominate a chair successfully during the chair selection cycle.  The dean has no capacity to force anyone to be chair, so we would fall into university receivership.  The latter  may happen during the next  selection cycle, but we did settle the chair issue for the next four  years, and that is too  long  to wait..


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observer3
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« Reply #7 on: April 24, 2012, 11:56:58 AM »

Following both strategies is the best way to go. Even amazing people don't get new academic jobs for a long time.

So of course you search for jobs. It is always easier to leave than to fix dysfunction.

But what if one doesn't work out? To get through the day you have to take incremental steps to at least make yourself think that things could get better. Like suggesting outside mediation. Like projecting an aura of zen in the midst of the crazy. Withdrawing a bit and making a good life for yourself outside of work is also useful.

And make sure that you have a good support network outside of the office. I have to admit this is the only thing that gets me through some days.
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spork
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« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2012, 3:47:33 PM »

prof52, just curious: if admin isn't pursuing research excellency in departments, does this mean that tenure is not dependent on research excellency? In other words, who or what requires top flight research?
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prof52
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« Reply #9 on: April 25, 2012, 3:57:23 PM »

Following both strategies is the best way to go. Even amazing people don't get new academic jobs for a long time.

So of course you search for jobs. It is always easier to leave than to fix dysfunction.

But what if one doesn't work out? To get through the day you have to take incremental steps to at least make yourself think that things could get better. Like suggesting outside mediation. Like projecting an aura of zen in the midst of the crazy. Withdrawing a bit and making a good life for yourself outside of work is also useful.

And make sure that you have a good support network outside of the office. I have to admit this is the only thing that gets me through some days.

This is good advice and a needed reminder that I'm not out the door until I am.  I think moving is a realistic possibility in my case, but it may take a couple of years for something to sort itself out. And, of course, a realistic possibility isn't the same thing as a certainty. My situation is a little hard to describe (not for reasons of anonymity, it's just a little unusual).  My reply below explains more.



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prof52
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« Reply #10 on: April 25, 2012, 4:48:04 PM »

prof52, just curious: if admin isn't pursuing research excellency in departments, does this mean that tenure is not dependent on research excellency? In other words, who or what requires top flight research?

This is a very good, but quite complicated to answer, question.  Tenure is in theory predicated heavily on research.  In practice, as part of the devil's bargain, departmental assessment and external letters are decisive, so it really depends on the department's report about the candidate's research.  Our department asks for an assessment based on the quality and quantity of the written work, not the quality of the publication venue (which the department judges internally). I'm at what you would probably think of as a fairly reputable research university, yet you'd be rather surprised to see who gets tenure here as a result there being no quality control on publication venue and the careful selection of external writers. 

To the extent that the university makes its own judgments, it looks at the external letters, the ability to bring in money (which in the humanities is obviously somewhat less of a factor than in the social sciences) and whether the candidate has met or exceeded the department's guidance norms for the number of publications (each department submits an advisory document stating what they regard as quantitatively normal for the number of publications by a junior scholar in their discipline).  All of the recent non-tenuring cases that I can think of involved a candidate who either did not publish enough by the department's own standards, or who received a lemon of an external letter. 

Anyone who cares more than is indicated by the tenure standards leaves.  We'll have lost five of our best department members over a three year period.  We lost our best junior scholar a little before that.  I am one of the two strongest early mid-career faculty, and I plan to leave. I believe both of our two very strong researchers in the junior ranks will leave after they get tenure.  They're only hanging around for the associated sabbatical.

Sorry for the long reply. 
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