After a decade as a full-time faculty member, I have left my position at Utah Valley University (UVU). It seems to be traditional for professors leaving their positions to write something to explain their decision to leave, probably because a tenured faculty position is such a coveted job that people work many years to obtain. For some onlookers, leaving a faculty tenured position is almost unthinkable. But my experience has taught me that sometimes it is necessary to leave. To explain how I reached that conclusion, I have written this contribution to “quit lit.”
Follow the Money
My position at UVU has felt increasingly like a dead-end job. One basic reason is money. My gross base salary has increased 31.2% since I started at UVU in 2011. On paper, it seems that I am doing well. But there are two caveats. One is that inflation has eaten the vast majority of that pay increase; in terms of real 2021 dollars, my pay has increased only 5.0%. (Even before the extremely high inflation of 2021, my salary increase never hit 10% in real dollars.) Meanwhile, my family has grown by 500%. The second caveat is from the university’s new merit pay system, which only allows people to apply for merit pay raises once every five years. (Cost-of-living raises and raises based on promotions are not included in this time table.) As a result, anyone who wants to significantly increase their standard of living while working at UVU must give up teaching and try to climb the ranks in administration. No, thank you.
Prospects at other universities are not much better. The majority of open positions at universities pay less than my current pay, though they have more room for future pay raises. This means I was in a catch-22: take a pay cut for several years in exchange for the (uncertain) potential of higher earnings, or remain where at UVU at higher pay for the foreseeable future, but with a lower cap on my potential earnings. If I had known that staying at UVU for a decade would make me fall into this pay trap, I would have tried to leave earlier (although this would have been difficult, given my family circumstances).
I hope that this does not sound like complaining or greediness. I earn more than the median household income in my state and enough to provide a middle-class lifestyle for my family. The Warnes did not experience significant economic hardship. My wife had the luxury of choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, and we felt lucky that our circumstances are what they are. But when I looked into the future, I saw economic stagnation for me and my family.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Another way that the job was feeling like a dead-end job was in job duties. For the past few years, the only way to get some variety in the job was to teach a new class, conduct a new research project, or write a new article or book. While I did enjoy those things, they are fundamentally the same duties that I had done for the past decade: write, research, and teach. Been there, done that. The idea of 35 more years of doing the same thing that I have been doing for the past 10 years contributed to the feeling that I was in a stagnant job.
Hard Choices About My Lifestyle
Thinking of the long-term future also brings up another obvious drawback with staying: the sheer number of hours I worked. Academia is not a job; it is a lifestyle. An ambitious person who wants to be excellent at the job must put in at least 55 hours per week. The really prominent people probably work 80 hours per week or more. Working a lot of extra hours was no problem when I was a 27-year-old, brand new assistant professor. I was single, energetic, and hungry to make a name for myself. Fast forward to today, and I am approaching 40 and much more tired.
Compounding the tiredness was the fact that I am now raising four children — the oldest of whom is currently 7 years old. The decision to be an involved father meant that almost all of my waking hours were spent working or taking care of my family. Almost every day, I was confronted with a choice of spending time with a child or accomplishing a work task, many of which I was not paid for (e.g., answering student emails after hours, reviewing manuscripts for journals, writing letters of recommendation for students).
Nobody talks about the difficulty of raising a (somewhat) large family as an academic. Indeed, the opposite is true. I have had multiple colleagues (not at my university) who have told me that I should not have so many children or that I should spend less time with them. Ironically, a job that is very family friendly in some ways (e.g., flexible work schedule, good health insurance) is very hostile to family life in others.
The working hours have also damaged my quality of life because I had little time for myself. I had abandoned most of my hobbies. I rarely visited with friends. It had become hard to care for my physical health. The academic’s lifestyle was not sustainable for me, and something needed to give. I think this change is the right move because research scientists working in industry report higher levels of job satisfaction than those in academia.
Issues Specific to My (Former) Employer
Additionally, the UVU administration has implemented changes that made me feel increasingly unwelcome. Shortly after the current president (Astrid Tuminez) was inaugurated in 2019, the university started to make changes to increase its graduation rate by watering down the curriculum and lowering standards. In psychology, for example, we were strongly pressured to reduce the number of required psychology credits from 53 to 36. The administration is also exerting pressure on faculty to be more lenient in grading and to eliminate “weeder” courses that often serve to filter out unqualified students. This is a marked change from the administration of the previous president (Matthew Holland), where the mantra was to increase rigor. UVU’s current direction is cheapening its graduates’ diplomas, and I did not want any part of that.
To be fair, the current president and administration are merely responding to the pressures and funding incentives from the state legislature and the regents of the public universities in Utah. If President Tuminez did not work hard to raise the graduation rates quickly, then she would soon be out of a job. That being said, there are three conflicting goals at UVU: have meaningful academic standards, continue its open enrollment policy, and achieve a high graduation rate. No one seems to have the courage to say that a university can achieve one or two of these goals — but not all three at the same time. UVU chose to dispense with high academic standards. As a result, it’s a race to the bottom there. UVU has shifted from being an institute of learning to being an institute of credentialing.
After the new president was inaugurated, there was also a change in the university’s attitude towards research. When I was first hired, I felt lucky to have found a teaching university that appreciated my research endeavors, and I quickly settled into publishing 4-6 articles per year. I often co-authored with students, which was catnip for the administration. The public relations office loved churning out press releases for my studies as part of their efforts to build up the university’s reputation. I even received an award from the then-university president for my research in 2015. But starting about two years ago, the university has been cold to my research output, and no one seems to care. As the months passed, I felt that the unique skills and accomplishments were not appreciated by the university.
Finally, at UVU, students are being treated more like customers who must be mollified and coddled. The respect that the administration shows towards the faculty has decreased proportionately. Unlike a decade ago, I no longer felt respected as a scholar in my area of expertise. Instead, I feel like a replaceable employee, and the disrespect and indignities that I saw inflicted on me and my colleagues was demoralizing. At one point, the university even violated my constitutional rights (and I have the letter from FIRE to prove it).
None of these circumstances was, by itself, a reason to leave the job I held for ten years. But there was an accumulation of unfavorable circumstances that, when combined, made staying in the job untenable. Increasingly, what UVU and I have to offer each other do not align with what each party wants. An amicable parting seems best at this time. I wish my former students and colleagues the best and hope for their success from afar.