The Alien Shores of Academia: Requiem for A Dream
Aside from the church, the university remains among the oldest continuous institutions in our society. Like the church, universities are facing challenges from massive changes in the way society views knowledge, authority and the role of the credentialed leader. This post begins a series of personal reflections looking back on a career in academia and the start of a discussion on what its future is in light of the changing landscape for science, knowledge and training the future leaders of society.
My entire adult life I dreamt of being a professor. I loved learning, teaching, and having the honor to serve society while being around those who felt the same (and still do). No job brings those things together like a university professor. On December 31st we say goodbye to 2011 and I say farewell to this dream as I begin a life as a full-time consultant outside the university. It is one of the biggest and exciting decisions I’ve made, but is not without some mixed feelings and a sense of sadness for what was, what is, and what could be. As I transition away from this world I worked so hard to get into and dreamed of for years I take pause to consider why I am leaving and what I am leaving behind.
When I was an undergrad I chose the university as my community, volunteering on student committees, forming associations, serving in student politics, and actively engaged in health promotion through work in peer counseling, outreach and social organizing. There was a time when my entire world was the university: I lived, ate, slept, studied, exercised, socialized and worked all in one place. It felt like home. Now it feels like an alien in many respects, prompting some reflection on the reasons why.
It is not surprising that I chose a course of action with my life that would keep me involved with a university through a Masters degree, a doctorate and a post-doctorate and through to a role as a professor. I have spent six years as a full-time (non-tenure-track) faculty member at a leading North American academic research university with research programs that spanned both ends of the continent and a global health program that stretched from Canada to the Middle East. Although mine was primarily a research appointment, I was highly engaged in teaching and the educational mandate of my school and had the opportunity to supervise more than two dozen Masters level trainees and many doctoral students (some of whom I am still working with). My job was funded initially through a philanthropic donation to start a program in global eHealth (3 years) and then through a combination of grants, awards and contributions from my home university (3 years). I taught exclusively at the graduate level, although occasionally was asked to do guest lectures in undergraduate courses.
My change in status was precipitated by the unavailability of funds from my home institution to continue contributing to my salary, effectively laying me off. While I could have continued to find grant funding, there were too many other reasons to decide to change and therefore I made the choice to leave the full-time academic life. The Alien Shores series, starting here, builds on reflections I’ve made over my career (and in particular the past 18 months) drawing on conversations with professors in North America and abroad from different disciplines, and senior administrators (Department Chairs, Deans, Vice-Presidents and others). While not a formal study, the ideas presented are not exclusively my own and are designed to reflect the academy in general, even if there is greater influence from the experience at one institution. All universities have their idosyncracies, but there remain common elements that are shared across them that I intend to focus on.
My journey: The great imagination
What drew me into academia was a vision that was partly a distortion and part of it a well-crafted, well-intentioned lie.
The distortion was the image of the professor engaged with her or his students, imparting knowledge gained from thoughtful research on an eager and enthusiastic student body. The reality share some of this, but was also comprised of:
…graduate courses filled with 25, 35, 45, 85 students crammed into rooms that were designed for teaching in the 1950’s;
…student supervision loads that involved taking between 5 and 10 students a year (as a primary advisor or committee member);
…minimal administrative support for teaching or research;
…administrative responsibilities that were almost Byzantine in their complexity and task orientation;
…a student body that was exhausted and struggling to balance the demands of coursework, home life and financial pressures the like no other generation has ever seen;
…an absence of clear guidelines on what was expected of me and my peers in a culture where you’re only as good as your last publication;
A joke goes like this:
FOUR REASONS WHY GOD NEVER GOT TENURE:
1. Only one major publication …
3. No references.
3. It wasn’t published in a refereed journal.
4. May be true he created the world, but what has he done since then?
There are more reasons, but these alone point to a major problem with academia and the “what is enough?” question. There are other issues, but these ones compounded on one another to the point where I questioned what kind of impact I was having and whether I would ever be granted the resources to do the kind of work that was demanded of me.
Faculty life is challenging not just on account of the demands, but that the academic world is so alien to anything else in our society. There are few professions where one is expected to develop 5-year plans with a two year employment contract or where you earn money to give to someone else who tells you what kind of conditions you should work under. Most people think of academia as a place where most faculty are paid by the university, teach as much as research, and get four months off in the summer. Nearly all of these are false, particularly in my field of public health. More than ever, faculty are bringing in their own money, work long hours, 6-7 days/week and are lucky if they get two weeks off in the summer that are not spent checking email or writing papers.
Indeed, this is an alien place and without some better understanding on behalf of the public, funders, and stakeholders, it may serve to alienate taxpayers. Universities are hallowed institutions of higher learning and research in an age where real education is hampered by a lack of instructional intimacy due to ballooning class sizes and changes in student-teacher relations and information is easily obtained through the Internet.
I thought that these two forces could be used for positive benefit in teaching and providing better knowledge translation of my research, but I was more often wrong than I was right. The ability to get it right and to bring the sense of purpose that was once a part of the university in sync with the modern information landscape and labour force market is going to be the key to the future of the university. In the coming days, I’ll share my reflections on what this future might look like by looking to both the past and the present. Stay tuned.