On Why I Left the Academy

At the end of last year, I left my job in higher education to work for a private IT firm. I'm not going to take this opportunity to go all Goldman Sachs guy on you, but I would like to say a few things about what the academy is like now that all our leaders have a boner for neoliberalism.

I'm hardly the first person to notice that college isn't all it's cracked up to be. There's plenty more reading material available for those of you who are interested. Thus, I'm not going to go into every nook-and-cranny of my three-plus-years with the State of New York. However, here are some choice observations:

I spend far less time now worrying about the bottom line than I did when I was an assistant professor. That's not because I work for a company run by a unicorn. My current employer most definitely runs a business.

The president of my former college had two main goals for the school. First, he wanted us to increase our enrollment by at least five percent a year. Second, he wanted us to maintain our position as a leader in student satisfaction.

I'm not digging up dirt here. These goals were public.

While these goals might sound laudable to the casual observer, I think they merit a bit more discussion.

First, why would an administrator want more students their college? I suspect part of it has to do with some college administrators' Messianic attitudes towards the masses. If a college with 300 students does a certain amount of good, doesn't it follow that society derives a hundred times as much benefit from a college of 30,000?

Of course, there's also the capitalists' hang-up about growth. Grow or be outcompeted, maximize efficiency to thrive. It's one thing (which I'm not addressing here) to apply that type of reasoning to a business, yet quite another to built a university upon it. Of course, that's the shitty thing about neoliberalism. It's not famed for its nuance.

Second, why the cutthroat concern about students' happiness? I think the outward reasoning is that students are colleges' customers, and therefore the source of institutions' continued mandates. Never mind that society has never entirely agreed as to who college's customers are (to the extent that western society has settled on this, students have never been the answer). I've never seen a clear definition of what colleges are providing (or to whom), but I dare say college degrees have never merely been financial investments bought by the upwardly mobile.

From my perspective, college as an investment in one's security is not unlike playing the markets for the same purpose-- the nature of the results are not merely a function of skill and effort.

What did all of this mean for me as a faculty member? It meant that I was judged on how well I helped the school recruit students, and how many of my students stuck around.

When I tell outsiders that, they frequently assume that I was working for a for-profit college. For-profit colleges are public schools without the pretense. (And yes, they are publicly funded. Follow the money.)

Recruitment and retention are huge in higher education. There are regular, high-profile conferences on it. Everyone knows it's cheaper to retain a student then recruit a new one. The trick is finding the right student, and then recruiting as many of them as necessary.

In my school's case, there was a heavy emphasis on veterans. They served our country, and in the process they earned money to give to the school of their choice. We did what it took to corner that market.

The driver of all this is money. In particular, state-funded schools have seen their funding cut precipitously. In lieu of public support, there are a handful of ways for schools to fund themselves. Research grants are lucrative, as are patentable discoveries. Tuition, be it from students, their creditors, or their benefactors, is increasingly important these days, particularly in the absence of patentable research.

As a faculty member, the result of all of this was demoralizing. Like a lot of junior faculty at teaching institutions (especially the ladyscience ones! :ahem:), I felt caught in a no-win situation. A tiny faculty for an ever-expanding student body meant that I was responsible for teaching and advising many, many students. Of course, not only did I not have the resources to teach effectively (for instance, developmental courses aren't covered by financial aid, thus my college didn't offer them), but I also had a massive non-academic workload. I felt that I was largely judged on the basis of my students' success (and happiness), while folks more powerful than me had already set up most of them for failure. My job was to pass the students along the line when I could, and to be a sympathetic figure when I couldn't.

After three and a half long years, I left. I got to the point where I couldn't afford the co-payments. Now I find myself working reasonable hours for good pay at a job I could have done without an advanced degree. That's the thing about neoliberalism-- it leaves no room for idealism, let alone a slight concern about the common good. When governance is business, the civil service is neither, nor is higher education.

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