The Fall of Hogwarts: How the Great Resignation Has Come to Academia
A university may seem like a place of wonders to young students— a real-life Hogwarts where astronomers delve into the secrets of the universe, mathematicians unveil arcane truths, and chemists invent magical new materials. Prestigious schools like Harvard and Yale go to great lengths to maintain this impression, as do less famous (but still pretty) campuses. Virginia Tech, where I visited for part of my graduate school years, employed local stone for it’s gothic building facades to give it that castle-like vibe, though professors often complained to me that it was all veneer and little substance. Their classrooms were drafty, ill-equipped, and in need of repairs. Perhaps the school has taken the castle aesthetic a little too far.
But more and more often, it’s not just the old dorm rooms that prove disappointing, but the college experience itself. Students are beginning to wonder if the 5–6 figure price tags are worth it, and at the same time faculty are wring their hands over the long working hours and ever-growling list of responsibilities. Something is rotten in the state of academia and it’s not just the dining hall food.
At the university where I did my PhD work, there were similar complaints about all aspects of campus life. Campus buildings were crumbling, sometimes with visible grime accumulated on the outside. Simultaneously, core classes were often taught by graduate student TA’s and adjunct professors — neither of which had tenure, quality pay or benefits. While the school had managed to keep tuition at relatively reasonable levels, it was part of the trend across the nation of jacking up student fees, including on their graduate student staff. Want a gym that doesn’t feel like a high school facility? We’ll tack on a fee for that. Want to visit the new gym just spent 4 years paying for? That’s a fee too. Need a special lab class to graduate? That’s a fee. How about a bus ride to school or local transit? More mandatory fees. You need to ride the bus over the summer? That’s not included, sorry. But if tuition isn’t maintaining the old buildings, paying living wages for the teachers, getting mandrakes and unicorn hair for your potions class, or even supplying gym equipment or a ride on the bus, where the hell is the money going?
More and more, the answer seems to be clear: it’s the administration. This is leading to discontent not just among students, but also faculty. While studies in the past have recommended a faculty-to-administrator ratio of 3–1, many universities have headed in the opposite direction and have far more administrators than actual professors. For every Snape, Lupin, or Dumbledore, there are three Argus Filches. Worse, despite these burgeoning lists of staff, administrative duties are falling on faculty members themselves. If Professor McGonagall seems distracted or unwilling to help, in many cases it’s not because she doesn’t care. It’s because her primary job isn’t to teach, but to acquire grant money to supply the university with overhead. In addition, she has assignments to grade, committees to chair, laboratories to manage, student workers to oversee, admissions letters to read, papers to write, papers to review, student clubs to take charge of, faculty to hire, colloquia to run, expenses to track and submit, conferences to plan, and press releases to consider. I come at this from the perspective of a scientific researcher, but my understanding is that it’s no so different in the humanities.
Despite the lazy, absent-minded professor being a common stereotype, the reality is there’s a reason those professors have other things on their minds. They would love that to be their research — to be some adventuring Indiana Jones or charismatic Feynman with new ideas popping up left and right (though hopefully with less grave-robbing and ogling of the graduates) — but they simply do not have the time. Even as research is being required of faculty at “teaching only” universities, many find they do not have time to get it done.
This has led to a trend that might have seemed unthinkable 10–15 years ago: mid-career professors with tenure and safe job prospects are choosing to leave. In a recent headline in Nature, the editors pose the question “Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?” The answer seems like a clear yes.
You might ask if perhaps Professor Moody is just bad with time management. He looks a bit loony, after all, doesn’t he? But the reason his eye is zigzagging in every direction is probably the slew of emails hitting his inbox, the requests from administrators to justify his expenses on Defense Against the Dark Arts props, and the students knocking at his door to ask where the TA’s haven’t sent out their recommendation letters. In my own experience, administrators also often created more work for us. To name one egregious example, we had to fill out detailed time-sheets explaining our working hours as graduate assistants, but were forbidden to enter more than 20 hours a week, though everyone knew the expectation was closer to 60. It was essentially administrative fraud. But suppose your fraudulent time sheets had a mistake — perhaps you listed 3 hours of work during a mandatory Hogwarts holiday — ah, too bad, you’d have to re-do it. And despite all this paperwork done on my part for the giant administration, horrific errors repeatedly occurred. During one point of my career, they informed me that they mistakenly paid me from the wrong pot of money while they hadn’t got the proper grant money to actually pay me… A few people tried to help and send money from the proper grants (so I could pay them back…), but it never balanced out, and after 7 years of wages below the cost of living of course I did not have the savings to send the school thousands of dollars to make up for an error on their part.
Some folks I know are leaving for private industry, and seem happier there. One friend got a job at a local company rather than finish his PhD and now makes 4–5x what he did, teaching and grading for multiple classes. Another colleague recently wrote me about wishing to transfer, and wanted to speak about her problems at her current job and whether things might be better at my current posting. A third just messaged today to say she was leaving her faculty job and the US entirely, to seek a better opportunity abroad.
I’d like to think that awareness of the problems or perhaps market forces (HAH!) would rectify things sooner rather than later. But alas, the phrase “no one will work” still seems to be the de facto explanation for the ongoing surge of resignations in both the public and private sector, despite stagnant wages, poor health benefits, and limited leave time. In the short term at least, people are going to keep quitting, even if that spells bad things for the universities. Perhaps in the long run this will work out and we will re-balance our work-life expectations. Perhaps we’ll start to focus on teaching again at teaching institutions. Perhaps…
Before I end, I want to acknowledge my privilege. I’m lucky both to have gone to college and to have gotten a job as a researcher afterward. Only about 1/3 of the middle-aged folk in the US have gotten a college degree, and far fewer have internationally. While degrees are certainly not a must, they do help open up career prospects. Additionally, for every graduate student that puts endless hours into TA’ing and researching and working for low pay, there are many more who put in the work but don’t manage to finish, sometimes for completely unfair reasons like sexism, harassment or being financially unable to continue in their posting. Stress and mental health are also huge issues in graduate school. I was lucky to have supportive family and friends and a stable home to retreat too when things got too rough. Many are not so lucky.
Here’s hoping it gets better, and that the Great Resignation is a sign things need to change.