I work for a large public research university. I truly love my colleagues and the contact I have with students. However, when it comes down to it, faculty call the shots. And, frankly, since this is confidential, they don't know what they are doing. It is discouraging and disheartening to have people in power who no one can stand up to because they are tenured and have power and powerful titles. What do I do? I am planning on leaving the field because of this, but part of me doesn't want to. P.S. I don't want to get my PhD! I just want to be able to be seen as the expert that I am/respected to make decisions.
Dear Peace Out,
Sigh, I don’t think it really matters what type of university you work for these days, a growing number of professional and administrative staff are openly sharing they have one foot out the door due to an array of struggles and organizational dysfunctions. Maybe your experience is just a case of not finding organizational fit. Maybe your experience is related to a toxic organizational culture stemming from faculty, even some who are well-meaning, who are protected by tenure and who expect their voice to be the most prominent in shared governance. Read the headlines in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and Diverse Issues in Higher Education among others, and you’ll see the Great Resignation is happening in higher education too. Staff are feeling beat down and fed up because their commitment, their expertise, and their contributions to the institution are not being valued. Administrative leaders are continually adding new responsibilities and workload and faculty can sometimes be quick to place blame or create barriers to long overdue organizational changes. There are entire social media groups for “expatriates” to support each other to leave higher education.
Now hearing all of that can leave any one feeling discouraged and disheartened, so what can you do about it? First, it’s important to examine the feelings you are having and understand what is driving you away. Is it just the dynamic with faculty? With the administration? Is there more to it? While faculty tend to have a more elevated role, not all faculty are horrible and on power trips. In fact, I’ve worked with many faculty that are amazing and try to support both students and staff. Once you have a better understanding of what you’re looking for, you’ll be better positioned to switch departments or institutions or pursue an industry change. Be sure to do your research and ask about power dynamics and other concerns you have during the interview process so you can avoid jumping from one toxic environment to another as much as possible. There are plenty of other spaces in higher education that have a healthier balance and relationship between staff, faculty, and the administration; you just may have to look with this in mind.
Ultimately, if you really don’t think higher ed is the space for you and you no longer feel seen as an expert, can’t see the positive impact of the work you’re doing, or able to find joy from focusing on the things you can control in your work, then leaving for another sector may be a path you want to pursue. I recommend talking to friends or family who work in industries you are considering. Attend free webinars or events led by organizations that interest you and begin to expand your network. You may even find you know people who worked with you in the past in higher education who are now working in the private sector. Many industries are feeling the pain and offering big referrals to employees who refer qualified employees to open positions. Update your LinkedIn profile and ask for recommendations from colleagues who can speak to your transferable skills. Finally, there are lots of great professional coaches out there who can guide you as you embark on a new path.
Remember, every organization and every field is going to have some sort of hierarchy and power dynamics. Leaving a field doesn’t necessarily mean you’re leaving that behind. Difficult relationships are going to be a reality so consider doing some research on how to work within difficult power dynamics through training, books, or coaching.
The turmoil of the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on everyone. Those who are changing jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, or leaving the workforce altogether have a desire to recalibrate and focus on where their values guide them. While a change in organizational type may be just what you need, it also doesn’t hurt to be prepared for the metaphor “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” to be a possible reality.
P.S. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’m curious what the amazing community of educators reading this post has to say. Chime in, folks! What thoughts do you have for Asking for a Friend? Share your thoughts on the Global Leadership League’s LinkedIn page. Have a question for Sophia yourself, ask here!
Please note: This response is provided for informational purposes only. The information contained herein is not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice or legal opinions of a licensed professional. Contact a personal attorney or licensed professional to obtain appropriate legal advice or professional counseling with respect to any particular issue or problem.