Dr. Karen Kelsky, my guest author today, not only left after getting tenure, she left after becoming the head of a department. And she’s even willing to admit that there’s some good in academia, but has no tolerance for delusion — which is why I asked her to post here. She’s also started a business, The Professor Is In, to help those wanting to be successful in academia; I’m sure her perspective as a former admin is invaluable. For today’s post, I asked her to talk about why she left (apropos to the theme of the site), and she told me her story. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending!
This past year I left my tenured professor position and administrative role as a Department Head at a Big Ten Research University. I was making close to six figures and was in my sabbatical year.
Why would I do something like that? Why would anyone? I am obviously out of my mind.
A little background: I got my Bachelor’s in Japanese Literature from the University of Michigan in 1985. I completed a Ph.D. In Cultural Anthropology, specialization in Japan, from the University of Hawai’i in 1996. I was offered a tenure track position at the University of Oregon that same year, received tenure at the UO, and was recruited to a tenured joint position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. In 2004 I was made Head of one of my departments. I was Head for the term of 5 years. In 2010 I took sabbatical. During that year my family and I accomplished our long-awaited goal of moving back to Oregon. I submitted my final resignation to the U of I in early 2011.
As a Department Head of a small foreign language and literature department at a major research institution in the Midwest I made, as I said, an excellent salary. I had graduate students, generous summer research funding, and few obligations beyond the ones for which I was paid: holding faculty meetings, balancing the department budget, running searches, meeting staffing needs, handling tenure cases, filing faculty paperwork, and calculating faculty raises, on the occasions there were any. Don’t get me wrong, this was a great deal of work. I was busy, stressed, and I worked hard. But I was not nearly as busy and stressed as I had been as a new assistant professor. And I had far more to show for it at the end of the day. I enjoyed administration.
So why would I leave?
This is a hard question to answer in a single blog post, because obviously, my reasons were many, and unique. But in the end they revolved around two fundamental problems: 1) I needed to remove my children from a bad custody situation; and 2) my soul was dying at the University of Illinois.
These two problems intertwined over time—the difficulties I faced in caring for my children became so all-consuming that they forced a major life decision: focus all my non-work energies on my children, and give up research, or continue doing research, and put my children’s well being at possible risk. I made the decision without a second thought, but the outcome of making my children my first priority, while remaining in an administrative position, was an end to my writing and research. When the time came to address my second problem — my unhappiness at the University of Illinois – I did not have a publication record that would allow me to move to another faculty position.
And so, my partner and I made a joint decision. If she found a job back in our beloved Pacific Northwest good enough to support the family, I would leave behind academic work entirely.
This was not a completely wrenching decision for me to make. I was ready to leave academia. I had created a jewelry business and was enjoying building that. And I was desperately unhappy at the University. I had reached the unfortunate point where just being on the UIUC campus reduced me to tears.
And this brings me to the crux of the issue: the whole dying soul thing. Why was my soul dying in Illinois? Why was I so miserable? Why was it so bad that I was willing to chuck a highly successful twenty year career to get away?
People instantly assume it is because Illinois is “conservative” or “homophobic.” It is neither. It is a blue state. It is Obama’s state. It is politically moderate to slightly left of center in much of its northern half. The college town I lived in was of course an even more liberal-ish sort of place, with more than its share of progressives and the occasional radical.
And as far as homophobia goes—-that was a non-starter. From the university to our neighborhood to the kids’ teachers to the plumber who came to fix the toilet — people pretty much took us in stride. Even the court system, when custody was at its most contested, categorically refused to countenance any hint of a homophobia, or to consider us as in any way less than or different from a heterosexual family. I won custody. It was heartening.
No, life in Illinois was bad mostly because of the University itself. It was a dreadful place.
When I was at the University of Oregon, even as a harassed assistant professor, it was kind of fun. The students were curious. My colleagues were funny and irreverent. The staff was capable and opinionated. The administrators were down to earth. Nobody took themselves too seriously. We weren’t paid for shit. It was actually humiliating how badly paid we were — from administration on down. But people had their unassuming little houses and sweet gardens, and spent their weekends rafting or hiking or biking or driving about visiting wineries. Nearly everyone had a vibrant life outside of work. Dinner invitations flew back and forth, and when someone was facing a life crisis, people pitched in. We organized dinner brigades for new parents, helped out with yardwork for ailing friends. When I had my kids, delicious home-cooked dinners were delivered to our door every night for three weeks.
I assumed that that’s how campuses are. I thought they were communities. In fact, being young, and ambitious, I spent much more time focusing on what I didn’t have at the UO — a decent salary, adequate research funding, status.
So, when the offer came from the University of Illinois, I jumped at it. I was sure I had made the right decision. Money, status, research funding…all these things beckoned.
And then I found out. Found out what it’s like to be at a place where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very, very important people. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are doing very, very important work. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are very, very smart. That they are, indeed, the smartest boys and girls in the whole world.
I discovered the unbridgeable, heartbreaking chasm between a place where no one takes themselves very seriously, and a place where pretty much everyone takes themselves very (very) seriously.
A few encounters set the tone quickly: In the first week when I had my music playing as I unpacked boxes in my office, a colleague came by within minutes to say, “please turn that off; it’s very distracting.” In the first month or so, when one colleague and I drove out into the country for a secretary’s housewarming party, and discovered, awkwardly, that we were the only 2 of the 20 or so faculty members invited, who actually had bothered to show up. In the first semester, when, while teaching a seminar in the department seminar room, the Head burst in to berate me in front of the students for not getting his authorization first. In the first year, when I entertained colleagues at dinner parties only to have them act as if they had never met me when next I saw them. When, with painful regularity, the averted eyes and contact avoidance in the hallways made me wonder if Asperger’s Syndrome was epidemic on the campus.
Human connection was virtually impossible Early in my first summer I asked a colleague in English if she’d be free for lunch one day. “I’m sorry, I’m on a strict writing schedule. I only have the nanny from 8 to 5 four days a week over the summer, so those days are out. I could schedule you in one of my off days I suppose.”
Of course at first I assumed these encounters were exceptions, and that soon I would find the fun colleagues, the ones with a sense of humor, the ones willing to take time for a human connection. But as the years passed by, I was forced to admit, there really weren’t any. At least among the regular humanities and social science faculty members with whom I mostly interacted. I found a few friends in the professional schools, and heard rumors of dinners and parties among colleagues in the sciences “North of Green.” And I found one good friend who was non-tenure line. Even the Jews and the queers, far from being the people with the loudest laughs and the raunchiest jokes, were, with but a couple of exceptions, stiff and self-important. Self-important queers? I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that one.
The only thing that people “did,” outside of work, was leave town. Leave town, that is, to work. I said we invited people for dinner, but really we didn’t often succeed in that, because most invitations were met with, “Sorry, I’m at a conference that weekend.”
In desperation we started attending a church. It was better. Mostly because no university people were there. But of course, that felt odd too. My family is half-Jewish. And we were, after all, university “types.” I like that whole academic schtick, with the sarcasm and the irony and the obscure references. The people at church were mostly lovely, but it never really stuck.
The few times I met others on campus also sadly trolling for human connection, they were on their way out. Nobody who cared about community stayed long at the UI, at least that I could see. I certainly would have exited within a year or two at the most, had I not been tied down by truly inextricable personal circumstances.
As it was, I stayed and kept trying to make it my home, for far, far longer than I expected. But in the end, I failed. Ultimately I too gave up and stopped trying, and became exactly like the others—insular and unavailable.
I, who have lived and thrived in countless parts of the globe, could not thrive in East Central Illinois.
Sure the weather sucked. But truth be told, I didn’t care that much. Sure it was flat and ugly. But in reality, I could live with that.
No, it was the people. The people on campus. I couldn’t make it at the UI because of the culture of the UI. It was a culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension. Nobody trusted each other. There were no alliances.
At Oregon, the battles around the recruitment and representation of Native American students and faculty had been intense. I had been called on the carpet by Native American students in my classes, and had learned, through hard, earnest dialogue, to be a better, more aware, far less race-blind teacher.
At the UI, such dialogue was impossible. One of my departments fractured the year I arrived when the Latina/o students and faculty finally lost patience with the institutionalized racism and exclusion of the campus. Supported by the wonderful then-Chancellor Nancy Cantor (who was hounded out shortly after by the Good Ol’ Boys), they spoke out. But they were not heard. There was no way to hear them. There was no trust or good will. The black students, the Asian students, the white students, the faculty as an appallingly defensive collective — the department splintered into racialized factions, and never recovered, as far as I could see.
Not all faculty members were politically passive during my years there. Some worked to confront the racist Chief Illiniwek mascot, just as some worked to unionize. As I said, it is not a conservative place. No, in the end, it was something worse, for me. It was a cold place. It was an empty place. It was a place where nothing, not any damn thing, was more important than the next publication, the next grant, the next conference.
And I couldn’t do it. I could not make it work. Ashamed of myself, lonely beyond belief, alienated in ways I had never imagined possible for someone as energetic and passionate as I am, I stepped away. Faced with the choice between money and status there, and no money and no status in the place I’d known before and loved, I chose the latter. And I have not looked back.
I’m not bitter. I don’t hate academia. I know what it means to enjoy an academic job, and I hope that a few lucky individuals still have the opportunity to do that. To that end, I’ve created a business, The Professor Is In, offering my institutional and practical knowledge to graduate students and junior faculty who need it.
For myself, I feel spectacularly lucky to be back in Oregon, raising my kids, building a business, hiking the trails, and working half-time at the University, this time as an advisor in the McNair Scholars program, which prepares exceptional first generation, low income, and underrepresented undergraduate students to apply to and succeed in Ph.D. Programs. I am in the right place. I made the right choice, and I’m happy.