I'd have to be mad to leave here, they said - and they were right

Surprise gave way to empathy when Terran Lane gave up a tenured post, full of anger and sorrow at the erosion of an institution he loved

August 23, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Earlier this year, I left my decade-long tenured position as a professor in the department of computer science at the University of New Mexico for a software engineering position at Google.

In US higher education, voluntarily giving up tenure is roughly akin to voluntarily giving up a lung, so it was no surprise that I was besieged with queries from colleagues, friends, students and administrators, all boiling down to essentially one question: why?

In truth, the reasons are quite long and complicated, and quite a few of them are entirely personal. But in the face of innumerable he-has-grown-a-second-head looks, I felt that I owed it to them all to try to explain.

So I recently sat down and tried to distil my general sense of dissatisfaction with my job into a coherent explanation, and posted my thoughts on my academic blog.

Being a computer scientist and a geek at heart, what came out was a taxonomy on the forces that are making it increasingly unpleasant to be an academic in the US right now. I pointed to the difficulty of making a tangible, positive difference in the world; struggles with workload and life balance; increasing centralisation of power into university administrations and decrease in autonomy for professors; a strained funding climate that is trapping academics between dwindling federal funding and intensifying university pressure-to-be-funded; specialisation, narrowness of vision and risk aversion within academic disciplines; poor incentive structures; moves towards the mass production and automation of education; salary disparities between the academy and industry; and the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-education sentiment in the US. It turned into not just a dissection of dissatisfactions with the system, but a cry of loss for a beautiful institution that I have loved and outrage at the forces that are eroding it.

And then the floodgates opened.

Over the next few days, the post racked up more than 100 comments and was re-shared dozens of times. I received numerous emails from around the world from people I didn't know, and spin-off conversations sprang up on other blogs, Facebook and Google+. I got letters from academics, students, former academics, administrators and sixth-grade teachers.

Not "cute kitten video" level of viral popularity, admittedly, but not bad for a post about academia. Clearly I had struck a nerve.

When the thrill and terror of my 15 minutes of fame had passed, I started to try to understand just what nerve I had hit and why what seemed to be to be a very personal essay had elicited such intense responses.

Leaving aside some inevitable trolls, the majority response came down to "me too". Many people said that they had left or were going to leave academia, or that they knew someone who had or was, for many of the same reasons. Others said they weren't leaving, but felt the same pressures and were also deeply unhappy about them. Regardless of background or country, people were reporting very similar frustrations and battles - erosions of resources, autonomy, flexibility, vision and respect for learning.

I was, of course, already well aware that economic pressures are intense thanks to the seemingly unending global "Great Recession". But it surprised me that people of all origins, backgrounds and ranks reported similar concerns about, say, the tightening grip of administration and the rise of anti-intellectual attacks.

In the US, this trend seems deeply entangled with our current poisonous political climate. I can only guess that in other countries, too, it is linked to the global economic meltdown: cash-strapped governments, seeking to slash expenditures, try to undermine the legitimacy of education in order to create excuses to de-fund it. Such short-sighted political machinations are all too common, and they paint an ominous picture of the road ahead. As our economic winter grows ever longer, where else will we find the innovation and energy to lead our nations forward than in today's youth? As one of my colleagues remarked, "We're eating our seedcorn." Indeed.

Another realisation was that we were all suffering in silence. Oh, I'm certain that all my complaints, and then some, are rich fodder for discussions around the water coolers or in faculty meetings. In the US, the American Association of University Professors advocates for some of these issues but gets little traction in the media or public policy discussions. And while politicians and pundits have managed to whip up some hostility towards the academy, there seem to be few or no effective efforts working in the other direction.

Meanwhile, individuals are continuing to pursue a calling that they love in the face of growing obstacles, with no clear way to give voice to their frustrations. Indeed, a number of pre-tenure academics and postdocs said they felt it was too risky to speak out. (I can't blame them - I was much more circumspect pre-tenure than I felt able to be afterwards.)

These troubles - often far larger and more diffuse than a single administration or even a single government - are beginning to force a generation of scholars out of the field. The only way forward I can see is for those who are also outraged at the current state of affairs to group together and speak up. Only by speaking with a concerted voice will we have any hope of achieving the changes that are so plainly needed.

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