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Faculty members have been leaving higher education for decades, but Pannapacker’s story stands out: He was tenured. We have become accustomed to the exodus of graduate students, postdocs, and adjuncts, but before Covid it was still possible to see tenured and tenure-track faculty members as relatively immune from the stresses of working in higher ed. No more. A 2020 study by The Chronicle and Fidelity Investments found that more than half of all faculty members surveyed were seriously weighing options outside of higher education: either changing careers entirely or retiring early. The study showed that faculty members share a great deal with the millions of American workers whose life transitions have been described alternately as the Great Resignation or the Big Quit. Though it may be true that most faculty members have chosen to disengage from their work rather than quit outright, as Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar recently argued in these pages, the story of those who have quit during the pandemic remains largely untold. I am one of them.
Like Pannapacker, I earned tenure and full rank at a small private college in the Midwest where I taught American literature and creative writing for 16 years before resigning at the end of 2021. The top factor in my decision was geographical distance from family members. The pandemic brought that sacrifice into brutal focus, compounding my sense of doom about the future of the humanities. Such feelings are pervasive: Covid-19 did not transform faculty attitudes toward higher education as much as it deepened longstanding concerns about disrespect, inadequate compensation, and an unsustainable work/life balance. Nearly everyone who has shared a resignation story with me has grieved the loss of a calling. But the reasons given by those who left during the pandemic (or are now planning their exit) differ very little from those expressed in at least 20 years of “quit lit.” Our stories highlight problems that stretch back decades and that, if left unaddressed, will plague academe for years to come.
Others reach this realization sooner and forgo the job search entirely. Amanda Welch was a Ph.D. candidate when one of her mentors gushed about his wife taking their children away for the summer so he could devote himself to research. She thought, That sounds awful. A few years later, while working as a postdoctoral fellow, Welch made a breakthrough discovery in the lab that could have been her ticket to a long faculty career. But she dreaded replicating her results. Welch recalls, “I felt like the only person who was thinking, Oh, my God — I have to do more of this.” She eventually turned down a job offer at a medical school in southern Florida. If academe is a pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie, she realized that she no longer wanted to win.
Near the end of her fellowship, Welch helped edit a colleague’s grant application. “This is great work,” he said. “How much do I owe you?” It was a watershed moment in her professional life. Welch now owns Scientific Dispatches Consulting, which offers a range of editing services and support for all stages of the research process. If she had stayed on the academic track, Welch would be living far from her family, approaching the fifth year on her tenure clock, and wondering how she might bring in grants for a lab that had been closed during much of the pandemic. Instead, she enjoys a more integrated work and personal life as a business owner than she did as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow. “It used to be dropping kids off to Boy Scouts, leaving it all to the den mother,” she says. “Now I realize that we’re all trying to balance personal demands with work demands. I’m much more OK with saying to a client that I can’t make this because I have to take my kid to trumpet lessons.”
Women have been leaving academe at higher rates than men for years, particularly in the sciences, and the pandemic has only worsened the structural inequities that already bedeviled the profession. But now men and women increasingly agree that academic careers place unreasonable strains on private life. Even the tenured pie-eaters have begun to feel that they’ve had quite enough pie. That’s been the experience of a senior professor whom I’ll call Smith, who plans to resign from a private university in the Midwest within a year. Smith told me that he’d like to be able to do what anyone in any other industry does: Move somewhere else. “It’s unbelievable that we are stuck to one job,” he said. “That’s more grating as the years go on. Why can’t I do my job in Minneapolis or Miami? It doesn’t make sense.”
Jennifer Askey, a life coach now based in Edmonton, Alberta, chose mobility over security shortly after receiving tenure at Kansas State University, in 2011. Askey was encouraged to apply for an open position as department chair, but instead took an unpaid leave to move with her family to Canada, where they decided to stay. It was a rocky transition, Askey recalls, but the existential crisis she endured has made her a better coach for faculty members who are contemplating a similar move. All of her clients are academics, and a quarter of them are working with her on immediate or near-term plans to leave the professoriate. She says that many of them are asking themselves, “Am I doing the research that I love, or am I just doing the administrative stuff that keeps the institutional wheels turning?”
Our faculty was asked to identify which academic majors to eliminate, and something like the Hunger Games ensued.
Indeed, a common theme among those who have voluntarily resigned from a tenured post, or plan to do so soon, is a waning sense of purpose. One word for this mind-set is burnout. Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout and a former theology professor, found the gap between his vision of faculty life and the reality of it so enervating that he ultimately quit his tenured position and turned to freelance writing. In a recent essay for The Review, he recalls, “my students’ perpetual lack of interest felt like a rebuke to everything that mattered to me.” While Malesic left academe in 2017, he believes the pandemic has only exacerbated the conditions for burnout. “A sense of purpose might sustain someone through the challenges of the pandemic,” he writes, “but, paradoxically, it can destroy a career, too. It’s not easy to reorient your vocation around a series of tasks you never trained for, on minimal sleep, while months become years, with no relief.”
Pannapacker, the former English professor, discovered that the autonomy he enjoyed early in his career had been replaced, as the years passed, by a sense of urgency about student recruitment and financial solvency. As the number of classes offered by the English department shrank, he found himself assigned to teach more and more introductory courses. By the time he retired, he was teaching one upper-division literature course every four years. At Smith’s institution, faculty members are sometimes encouraged to advertise their courses with fliers around campus. “Right now,” he said, “the measure of our worth as teachers is how many warm bodies we have in our classes. I did not expect that I’d have to come up with ridiculous course titles and sensationalize subject matter and beg and plead with students to take my courses.” For Askey’s clients, these crass measures of effectiveness damage a sense of purpose more profoundly than an increased workload from administrative or service responsibilities. “The ‘prove yourself or else burden’ eclipses the calling part of it,” she told me. “It leads to a sense of ‘This is not fulfilling.’”
While few academics enter the profession expecting to retire wealthy, poor compensation can feel like yet another form of disrespect, chipping away at purpose. “I didn’t go into it for the money,” Smith said, “but my salary is embarrassing. I’m in my 50s, and I make what some of my students will make their first year out of college. If I were compensated better and rewarded or incentivized to do what I do, I would have a lot more second thoughts” about leaving. When I asked if he might continue his research even if he wasn’t paid to do it, Smith laughed. That is essentially what he feels he has been doing all along.
The pandemic has also made the classroom feel physically unsafe. Karen Kelsky, an academic-career coach and author of The Professor Is In, told me that many faculty members she has worked with over the past two years have begun to think of their jobs as “literally a life-or-death issue.” Irwin Bernstein, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, made national news in August 2021 when he resigned, in the middle of a lecture, after a student in his class refused to wear a mask. The fall semester then saw a rash of similar resignations over the health risks to faculty members of in-person teaching. A tenure-track professor whom I’ll call Jones feels that her state university has forced her to choose between self-care and productivity. While recovering from major throat surgery last year, Jones received a call from her department head, who explained that the administration had requested additional justification for why she was unable to return to in-person teaching after two weeks. For Jones, such disregard for her health inflamed a sense that the interpersonal aspects of her research — nurturing trust with participants and their communities — were not valued as part of her professional development. Jones became a scholar to help people, but after just two years on the tenure track, she has concluded that her university cares less about the wellness of its faculty and students than about its image and its bottom line.
You’d think that plunging job satisfaction among faculty members would alarm administrators, but this isn’t always the case. For universities facing tight budgets, some degree of attrition can be a boon: Voluntary resignations may mean that administrators can avoid axing tenured faculty positions. Deans and presidents still reeling from the pandemic’s economic turmoil also find themselves facing the 2025 demographic cliff. In light of what’s coming, the most important task for many administrators is eliminating as many faculty positions as possible. One of my sources reported that even after campus-climate surveys continued to yield alarming results, an administrator confessed to him, “Why would I want to improve morale? I want these people to leave.” Such thinking recalls the strategy recommended by corporate consultants in the movie Office Space, when Milton Waddams is not terminated outright but instead faces a series of humiliations that his superiors believe will “fix the glitch” by pushing him away.
I didn’t do a Ph.D. to become an academic administrator or manager. I became an academic to work on scientific problems.
Despite the many factors that contributed to their decisions to resign, all of my sources continue to grieve the loss of a calling. Leaving higher education was not their first choice. Pannapacker wrote his dissertation on Walt Whitman in part because they both had ties to Philadelphia. “I was born in Camden, and I felt I had some geographic claim on him,” Pannapacker said. “His worldview articulated the one I was groping toward. Even now, walking along the waterfront in Chicago, something from Whitman comes to mind. My education gave me that.” Askey especially loved the creative energy of discussion that came from teaching German literature and film. “There was this work of art that I got to take apart and put back together with students,” she said. “It was collective meaning-making. A sense of ‘I’m imparting something beautiful to you.’” She now brings a similar mind-set to coaching and relishes the opportunities for learning and growth. But teaching was her first love.
I thought I had found that life when I accepted a tenure-track job at a small liberal-arts college in Iowa. My experience as a first-generation student meant that I was well suited to mentoring young people from the rural Midwest. I loved building relationships with students beyond the classroom: traveling with my senior seminar to Red Cloud, Neb., the childhood home of Willa Cather, or rerouting a nature trail with football players to protect a patch of endangered prairie willow. If my own intellectual hunger as an undergraduate was not always mirrored in my students, and if the growing cultural indifference to the humanities made me work a little harder to persuade nonmajors that the material was worth their best effort, I generally felt that I could win over anyone by the end of a 15-week semester.
Then the pandemic hit, raising existential questions about why work was more important than living close to family members. I was trained as a graduate student to regard tenure as a treasure that, once earned, should be relinquished only from my cold, dead hands. But at a time when everyone was losing loved ones, when my family in Montana had to sing “Happy Birthday” to my grandfather through the window of his locked-down nursing home, and when a holiday visit to my wife’s family required a 10-day quarantine, with testing at either end, I found it difficult to privilege my calling over the chance for my young children to build close bonds with their elders. Who could say that there would always be more time?
Like Malesic and Pannapacker, I felt the stress of budget woes at my own institution. Anxiety about enrollment required faculty members to sacrifice weekends volunteering at recruiting events, where I often felt more like a salesman than a scholar. Like Smith, I felt forced to promote upper-level courses to students and their advisers, hoping I could hit the enrollment minimums that would allow those courses, the ones for which I was uniquely credentialed, to continue. All of this diminished my sense of purpose.
Then our faculty was asked to identify which academic majors to eliminate, and something like the Hunger Games ensued. Faculty members in departments whose majors had been cut remained tenured or tenure-track, but found themselves perpetually dogged by the “prove yourself or else” imperative. The English major was spared — but after weighing family priorities against the future I foresaw in my program, I joined those who chose to leave.
Rebecca Costantini, formerly an assistant professor of communication at the University of the Sciences, never wavered once she learned that her position would be eliminated after USciences merged with Saint Joseph’s University, another institution in Philadelphia. Even though she had endured only one cycle of the academic-job market, Costantini felt she had to try something else. “I know some folks who have cycled through seven or eight times,” she said. “That takes a mental and physical and emotional toll on you. I just couldn’t do it again.” Instead, she reframed her work experience, drafted a résumé, and started scanning job postings on LinkedIn. After 120 job applications, Costantini was hired as a user-experience researcher with a software company. Three months in, she finds the work engaging and her new colleagues welcoming. “But I will always grieve this transition,” she said. “It’s a combination of mourning and celebration. It’s a messy feeling.”
My working-class family frowned when I changed my major to English during my sophomore year, but the only thing I wanted was the life my professors had.
Christopher Jackson, formerly chair of sustainable geoscience at Britain’s University of Manchester, now works at an engineering company. “I was in academe for 18 years,” he told me. “I can honestly say it became harder to do everything, and everything became less enjoyable.” While he still valued teaching and had no trouble securing research funding, Jackson felt himself growing increasingly detached from the science he loved as he gained seniority. “I didn’t do a Ph.D. to become an academic administrator or manager,” he said. “I became an academic to work on scientific problems.” Jackson’s new position will allow him to return to his roots as a subsurface geoscientist and to preserve the best of himself for his family and friends.
The question of whether to stay or go is especially fraught for faculty members, like Jackson, who represent historically marginalized communities. While I wrestled with guilt over abandoning the first-year students who reminded me of myself as a college freshman, tenure did not signify membership in an institution that had once excluded people like me. By comparison, Jackson, whose heritage includes Jamaican and Vincentian roots, is always aware of the message that his presence sends to younger researchers. “The hardest thing about this transition is the sense that ‘Chris, you’ve done all this stuff, and lots of people look up to you, and now you’re being selfish and taking that away,’” he said. “But I’m going to go and do this other thing, and I’m going to keep being visible and vocal in a different sector.” Jones, the professor contemplating leaving a state university in the United States, feels a similar conflict: She is the only person of color in her department. “I want to be the representation that I did not have and to make students feel safe,” she said. “But I’m struggling with balancing what’s good for me with what’s good for students and what students deserve.”
Then there’s the money question: Many faculty members cannot afford to leave a stable job, especially if they’re not sure what comes next. In nearly all of my conversations, faculty members brought up the importance of a financial safety net — usually a partner’s employment. Malesic might not have left his position if he could not have followed his wife’s career. Pannapacker would not have quit if he had been single. Smith and I similarly found the courage to contemplate a midcareer move because our spouses offered a safety net. Support from parents, an extended family, or inherited wealth can also cushion the transition. The financial risk of giving up tenure is often greater for faculty members of color, who shoulder more debt, on average, than white faculty members do.
Yet the money question cuts both ways: In some cases, low compensation pushes even tenure-track and tenured faculty members away from higher education out of need. In these instances, a spouse’s employment might just as easily give others the privilege to stay in academe. As a Black scholar who preferred to remain unnamed wrote to me, the notion that a tenure-track job equals financial security is grounded in the relatively anomalous experience of faculty members at elite colleges. Such thinking, she noted, “assumes that tenure is stable, and at a lot of tuition-dependent universities, tenure is precarious. We get yearly contracts, and in recent years several tenure-track and tenured professors have had their positions eliminated. These days the fear of losing your job is a low-to-moderate persistent hum.” If financial security determines who can contemplate leaving higher education and who cannot, then the privilege that tenure has traditionally represented is depreciating rapidly.
Federal data on faculty turnover in 2021 will not be available until this fall, and those numbers will not reflect professors who are planning an exit in the next year or two. There is also danger in seeking a single story about faculty departures; higher education is hardly homogenous. Is there a material difference between the rate of resignations at major research universities and small private colleges like my former employer? Are historically Black and Christian colleges seeing the same rate of turnover as other colleges and universities, or are those work environments more fulfilling and supportive for tenure-line faculty members (or less)? Are white professors disproportionately leaving the profession because they have the financial resources to walk away, or are fewer scholars of color giving up tenure because they are less equitably represented to begin with? We don’t yet have the data to answer these questions, but we need to start gathering it.
In the Twitter thread that inspired his essay with Hicklin Fryar, McClure worried about denial among institutional leaders who seemed to be doing little to address faculty turnover and disengagement. This mind-set, McClure wrote, assumes that if “we can just get on the ‘other side’ of the pandemic, things will magically improve. Like we’ll flip the switch back on and faculty will reanimate.” But all signs suggest that the long-term impact of pandemic stress on the faculty will be profound. If a return to normal simply means restoring the burnout conditions that the pandemic inflamed, then the rumble of faculty members leaving may build to a roar that no amount of magical thinking can explain away.