Going Home

The next few days are Alumni Weekend at my alma mater, and I’m heading out to attend the 25th reunion of my college class. Like anyone who had a good experience in college, over the years I’ve thought sometimes about returning for this kind of event, though I’ve actually set foot on the campus perhaps just three times since I graduated. My most recent visit was 15 years ago.

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree. That is not terribly surprising, since “elite” undergraduate institutions produce alumni who go on to earn doctorates at a rate greatly disproportionate to the number of graduates, and the strongest doctoral institutions, in turn, produce a large percentage of the faculty members at colleges and universities of all types.

My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.

For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

However—and this is why I’m writing about my nostalgia for my alma mater in the On Hiring blog—I have found exceptional rewards at all four colleges and universities where I’ve worked in the past 20 years. Once I was able to make peace with the fact that I would never return to an institution recalling the bucolic and basically untroubled days of my undergraduate life, I became able to take a look at the places I have worked and find the advantages of each, and have reaped tremendous personal and professional rewards.

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people.

But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

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