A Midcareer Change

Brian Taylor

February 07, 2013

It took two years of searching, and I had to give up tenure to do it, but I've finally managed to make a midcareer change.

Not only have I switched institutions, but I've also switched from my lifelong career in teaching to a full-time position in my chosen field of honors-program administration.

About 10 years ago, when I was an overworked assistant professor trying to find a different sort of teaching job, I wrote several pseudonymous columns for The Chronicle. Worn out by teaching more than 250 students a semester (and sometimes more), I wrote about seeking a job with a lighter teaching load that would allow me to do more research. I was unsuccessful in that search, but shortly thereafter, back on my own campus, I was ultimately promoted and tenured. My last column in this space was a bemused reflection on that reality.

In the eight years since then, I was promoted to full professor and, about four years ago, accepted an appointment as director of my university's honors program. During those four years I oversaw a program that grew from 50 students to more than 200. I added courses, made curricular changes, worked with fantastic colleagues, and, above all else, met many engaging and capable students.

I enjoyed everything about the job with one big exception: I had to manage the program with only a quarter-time release from teaching. I was still teaching three courses with nearly 180 students a semester while trying to manage a growing and vibrant program.

I liked my administrative gig so much that I wanted to learn more about honors administration. I became an active member of the professional organization for honors programs and began to network with colleagues around the country. At the group's annual conferences, I discovered that most of my fellow honors-program administrators did not have the teaching load that I did.

I went back to my university and spoke with senior administrators only to hear that there was no chance of more money for my program, or more release time from teaching for me at any time in the immediate future. They were apologetic and appreciative of my efforts but said they could do nothing more for me.

I realized that, in order to advance in my new field (or at least keep my sanity), I would need to find a job at another institution. That was not an easy decision. I had been at the university for 15 years and had gotten rather comfortable.

One of the first things I had to do was inform my department chair (a good friend), my dean, and my provost that I was looking for a new position. They promised to help me in any way they could and delivered on those promises. That part was actually pretty easy. Telling my faculty colleagues, who were all good friends, was actually a bit more difficult. Many of them thought I was crazy for wanting to leave a tenured full professorship for an administrative position without tenure. And maybe I am.

But I would contend that tenure is great if you want to spend the rest of your life at a particular institution. If you don't, tenure actually doesn't mean much. My state had been in such bad straits financially that we were facing a fourth year without salary increases of any kind. (The administration has since eked out a very small pay increase for faculty and staff members. Unfortunately, in order to afford it, they laid off dozens of employees.)

Let's be honest, if administrators really wanted to get rid of you, tenure would not stop them. I've been in the business long enough to know that. The way I see it: In my new untenured job, I'm in the same situation as the vast majority of the world's work force. If I'm not good at my job, the bosses may let me go. And, really, what's wrong with that?

Like many academics promoted to full professor during the economic crisis, I was several thousands of dollars off the salary matrix. Over a series of years, our state legislature had made things even tougher for public universities by capping tuition and cutting institutions' base appropriations across the board in a major way.

In that difficult fiscal environment, our senior administrators—the only folks on the campus with six-figure salaries—made it clear that raising faculty and staff pay was not a major priority and neither was adequate staffing. That became increasingly clear last year, as the administration terminated staff members and some untenured faculty members. Presumably for fiscal reasons, most were let go without so much as an explanation. The university is short-staffed at nearly every level and in every office. Except, of course, in upper administration. Like corporate America, despite the crisis, we still had plenty of well-paid folks up top, and there were no cuts in personnel made there.

So leaving wasn't as difficult a decision as it might otherwise have been.

About two years ago, I began to apply for jobs in my new career track. Honors administration is not a large field, and there aren't many positions advertised annually. Furthermore, as is the case for many administrative jobs, most appointments in honors administration are made internally, so I knew it might take quite a while to find a position. External candidates, when there are any, are often at a significant disadvantage.

Over those two years, I had several near misses, a couple of campus interviews, and numerous phone interviews for positions across the country. I viewed every one of those experiences as a way to polish up my interview skills and make contacts and friends.

I still have friends I made during a campus interview in the summer of 2011. It had gone very well until, two weeks later, I received a phone call on the exact day that my annual faculty contract was due. It was the provost calling to tell me I would not get the post: "You really did a nice job and are an excellent candidate and wowed my committee. However, it is my decision, and I decided to hire the internal candidate. I thought he'd paid his dues over the years." Such experiences are disheartening, but you have to understand that a major change in personnel can be pretty frightening to people, so they often go with the candidate they know.

It took an additional year before I landed another campus interview, but it was a good one. It was at an honors college with an excellent national reputation and a healthy budget. I knew going in that the program was interviewing three other candidates, all of them internal. The odds were against me, but, at the very least, I would have another opportunity to work on my interviewing skills and meet new faces. What is that old slogan of Publishers Clearing House? "You can't win if you don't enter!"

You can imagine my excitement when, a few weeks later, I was offered the position. After a bit of negotiation (I'd never done that before!), I accepted the job. My decision was made even easier when, true to form, my institution's upper administration decided to downsize my spouse's position on the same day I received the job offer.

So how did I handle the interim period between jobs?

Despite the obvious temptations, I did not cut and run. I fulfilled all of my duties through the summer at my old institution, working with new students to get their class schedules in order and so forth. I owed it to my students, my program, and my institution. Needless to say, my dean was pleased because it gave him time to find a replacement and, in the meantime, the work was getting done. It also allowed me to teach one more course before I left.

After what had just happened to my spouse, one of the hardest things I faced was trying not to burn my bridges. Understandably, I was angry with some administrators for what had happened both to my spouse and to many other friends, and, on top of that, I was happily leaving for greener pastures. I could say whatever I wanted now, couldn't I?

In the end, I held my tongue. To me, it's better to be pleasant and professional, even when the folks in positions above you are not, and even when they are making enormous mistakes that you would love to point out to them on your way out the door.

My dean was gracious about everything. However, several upper administrators, despite my 15 years of hard work and many achievements at the institution, decided not to acknowledge my departure in any way. No reception. No letter. Not even an e-mail.

I actually get more resentful of that as time goes by. It was astonishingly shabby when I think back on it. Admittedly, I was part of a fairly large exodus last summer, and I wasn't the only one they consciously snubbed on the way out, although I think I had the most years of service. In stark contrast, my academic department, always a supportive and wonderful place to work the entire time I was there, had a nice dinner for me and my family that I deeply appreciated.

Feeling unappreciated was one of the reasons I had decided to leave in the first place. For me it was one more thing that confirmed I had made the right move.

I have enjoyed my first few months in my new position and believe I have made an excellent career move. There are days I greatly miss my students and former colleagues, but I have new ones here. Every day feels like a new day, and, for a change, I am enjoying every one of them.

Lewis Harper is a pseudonym for a professor of history at a regional state university. In 2002-3, he chronicled his midcareer search for another tenure-track job.