A professor’s cri de coeur

A tenured college professor explains why they are quitting.

I’m done. I’m out. I’m giving up my tenure. I earned that tenure through endless nights and weekends in libraries, in front of screens, banging away at deep thoughts on Bakhtin that a few dozen people would read. I earned it grading countless papers and leading countless peer-review workshops. Now, for the first time since my early 20s, there’s no more students to shepherd. No more papers to grade. No more pointless department meetings to sit through. No more conferences or professional development workshops that I’m supposed to get reimbursed for, but never do.

It feels weird.

I’m leaving because my university, like so many others out there, refuses to get with the times. Six months ago, my dean promised to support my bid for a remote teaching position. Nothing would’ve changed. I’ve been teaching online for the last four years. Before asking me to quit, my dean scheduled a special phone call to ask if I was okay teaching a heavier course load for a lower salary, in exchange for this special concession. On top of that, I was already designing a slew of new courses they desperately needed. I planned those courses down to the day, and even wrote a free textbook for it along with videos for other teachers to use. I was also unofficially doing administrative work, and that was going to become an official job duty.

So much of that hits home. Especially that asking “if I was okay teaching a heavier course load for a lower salary.” I’m at a good university that treats the faculty a little better than that, but we do get some bad ideas from the higher ups, like at a recent meeting, an administrator announced that they basically had a predetermined target faculty:student ratio, and because our enrollments were down, they weren’t going to hire any replacement faculty until that ratio was reached. That’s a decision made without regard for the education we have to deliver.

The state of American education

Imagine that you’ve got a budget that can’t cover the cost of four tires on your car, so you decide to maintain three, but the fourth one…well, we’ll just let it wear out, go bald, go flat, maybe shred itself to pieces as you drive down the freeway. The car still runs, it’s maybe just a bit unsafe and kind of inefficient and making horrible noises while you drive. Is that a smart move?

It’s the same with a university. You might think you’re economizing by shutting down foreign language programs or letting the physics department wither away or shaving away at faculty salaries, but it’s going to destroy you in the long run. While deploring the reduction in student enrollment, it doesn’t help to take a knife to the whole reason students come to the university — and it’s not because we have such wonderful administrators. But the university administrators are in charge of the pursestrings, and the purse is filled by politicians and trustees and bureaucrats who wouldn’t be caught dead in a classroom.

The logical conclusion of this trend is summarized by a modest proposal from another college professor.

I will use Pomona College, where I have taught for decades, as a specific example of how easily my proposal might be implemented. In 1990, Pomona had 1,487 students, 180 tenured and tenure-track professors, and 56 administrators — deans, associate deans, assistant deans and the like, not counting clerical staff, cleaners and so on. As of 2022, the most recent year for which I have data, the number of students had increased 17 percent, to 1,740, while the number of professors had fallen to 175. The number of administrators had increased to 310, an average of 7.93 new administrators per year. Even for a college as rich as Pomona, this insatiable demand for administrators will eventually cause a budget squeeze. Happily, there is a simple solution.

Pomona’s professor-administrator ratio has plummeted from 3.21 to 0.56. A linear extrapolation of this trend gives a professor-administrator ratio of zero within this decade. This trend can be accelerated by not replacing retiring or departing professors and by offering generous incentives for voluntary departures. To maintain its current 9.94 student-faculty ratio, the college need only admit fewer students each year as the size of its faculty withers away. A notable side effect would be a boost in Pomona’s U.S. News & World Report rankings as its admissions rate approaches zero.

And just like that, the college would be rid of two nuisances at once. Administrators could do what administrators do — hold meetings, codify rules, debate policy, give and attend workshops, and organize social events — without having to deal with whiny students and grumpy professors.

I think it was supposed to be funny, but I didn’t laugh. It’s far too close to the actual strategy being implemented on college campuses right now.


  1. Matt G says

    When I was in my small, private high school (eighties), there was basically one person in the business office, the spouse of the chemistry teacher. Today, as my mother points out, the office has something like eight people. Admittedly, they do a lot more now than one person could do, but does that justify seven additional salaries, benefits packages, etc.?

  2. tallgrass05 says

    It’s the corporate mentality running universities now. Instead of a broad education and exposure to new ideas, students are “customers” and universities are seen as trade schools. State support falls so tuition goes up so enrollment drops and the number of administrators balloons.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Er, yes, but in the hypothetical example he has neglected to include the accelerated reduction of students by calling in police and throwing out students that are arrested for political protests.
    Thus Pomona College can reach the target of zero students significantly earlier.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    The powers that be want “higher” education to be an overpriced tech schools that teach the bare minimum and sportsball franchises with indentured servants as players.

    Of course, the only quality schools (e.g. Harvard, Oxford, Yale, etc.) will be reserved for them.

  5. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Similar things happening in public libraries. The number of librarians here is dwindling to an almost untenable number (we can’t cover all the places they want us to), while we’re swimming in new administrators, some of which don’t seem to actually do anything (what the hell is a Vice President of Customer Satisfaction? and why have none of us ever heard a single word from them?).

  6. Richard Smith says

    Reminds me of the episode of Yes Minister, “The Compassionate Society,” about a hospital fully staffed with administration, but no doctors, nurses, or patients.

  7. robro says

    In the early 80s the University of North Florida brought in a business man with political connections as president rather than an educator. The faculty was deeply concerned, of course. One of the faculty was then and still is a good friend of mine so I got some of the story from him. Apparently in a meeting with the university staff, the fellow started by acknowledging the concern of the faculty and sought to find a common ground. My friend was impressed, and as I recall UNF did fairly well under him.

    However, I’m sure that’s the exception rather than the rule.

    The conservative agenda in the US seems to be to “Make America 1860 Again” in which case, universities are for the sons of the elite. In the minds of the rich the land-grant university, a product of 1862, should be reduced a lot if not eliminated altogether. Women, minorities, and the poor need not apply. The hoi polloi can get enough education to do their routine jobs on the job, and generally just obey the masters and stay out of the way.

  8. andywuk says

    I remember attending a seminar back in the 1990’s about improving productivity (in IT). The speaker made the point that profitability can be increased either by reducing costs or increasing income and the former is far easier than the latter. He also noted that whilst the cost reduction initially increased profits vs. Costs exponentially, ultimately it reduced both to zero.

    Over the next few years I was treated to watching this knowledge applied by higher management. The pattern would be the same – costs (and personnel) would be slashed, massively pushing up the paper productivity of the company. The company would then be sold to a competitor and the business closed down. Those in charge were coining it in as they cashed out just before the businesses closed.

    The thing about this is that it only works on a personal level, not on an institutional. Deliberately eviscerating businesses makes no sense in the grand scheme of things over the long term, but individuals can cash out and make themselves (and their fellow disaster capitalists) immense profits in what is essentially a pump and dump scam.

    It’s interesting, but unsurprising, to see this moving from the corporate sector into the academic.

  9. raven says

    I’ve been hearing for years now that college enrollments have been dropping.
    It’s now starting to really hit crisis levels.
    A huge part of this is the rapidly increasing costs to the students.

    College Transitions:
    US College Enrollment Decline – 2024 Facts & Figures
    April 22, 2024

    college enrollment decline cliff
    Did you know that college enrollment numbers have been declining at a steady rate for over a decade? In fact, undergraduate enrollment is currently down about 8.5% from 2010.

    In this article, we’ll look at some of the causes for the decline. We’ll also consider what the pending enrollment cliff (predicted to start the 2024-2025 academic year) means for current applicants and incoming college students.

    First, though, the data:
    According to the NCES:

    Undergraduate college enrollment increased from 1985-2010 at a rate of about 2.2% each year. In 2010, enrollment peaked at about 18.1 million students.
    Since 2011, enrollment has decreased at a rate of about 1.5% each year.
    Enrollment reached its lowest point in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    This overview doesn’t provide the whole story, however, particularly in terms of demographics. The rates of enrollment among men have dropped more significantly than among women. Meanwhile, application and enrollment rates among low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and other underserved populations have dropped precipitously, especially at two-year institutions.

    .1. Overall enrollment since 2010 is down 8.5%.

    A lot of reasons are given.
    A key one is that college tuition costs have vastly increased over the rate of inflation for decades.

    …but the fact is that over the past 20 years—even adjusting for inflation—tuition and fees at private colleges have risen about 40%, out-of-state tuition and fees at public colleges have risen about 38%, and in-state tuition and fees at public colleges have risen a whopping 56%.

    The affordable option was always in-state tuition at the public university.
    Which is the segment of the market that has increased the most.

  10. raven says

    One of the reasons I never paid too much attention to the declining enrollments for college is that they are spread out highly unevenly.

    On the West coast, the public universities have been mostly seeing…increases in enrollments over the last decade.
    There are a few reasons for this including increasing populations and that public universities are still the lower cost option.
    The in-state tuition for my old school is now $12,000 a year and they are raising it next year. Again.
    The school itself estimates a 4 year degree will cost $100,000.
    (Cthulhu, that passes for low cost these days. My first year tuition was $650 in the 1970s..)

    “New York University’s tuition is $60,438, but with the cost of room and board, books and supplies, and transportation and personal expenses, the total anticipated cost is $83,250.”

    New York University isn’t 6 times as good as my old school, which is a highly regarded state university that I would go to again. At least in the sciences.
    I don’t know much about NYU, it might be marginally better, might not be.

    Two-year colleges (both public and private) have experienced sharper declines in enrollment than four-year colleges. In fact, enrollment at four-year public colleges increased slightly from 2011 on.
    Enrollment at 4-year public colleges increased by 15.1% between 2010-2021.

  11. Rich Woods says

    Back when I used to work at the University of Bums on Seats, one of the lecturers told me that after the recent staff cuts he’d just been assigned a lecture class of 200, split into five seminar classes of 40. Fifteen years earlier, when I’d been one of his students, our lecture class was 48 and there were two seminar classes of 24. We’d also had lab classes of 12; I think the students of the day were expected to book time and manage on their own, only flagging problems when necessary.

    Since the most modern part of the teaching estate primarily had seminar rooms designed for 32 students, they’d had to squeeze in four extra tables and eight extra chairs, which made it a little difficult for some of the more generously sized students to breath. I’m sure there was a health and safety violation going on there, but fortunately for the institution the government had thoughtfully cut back the dead hand of bureacracy so that no-one who mattered was likely to send any of the remaining inspectors round.

    We joked that since the lecture theatre was also at capacity, when they increased his class size the following year he’d have to have all the seating ripped out and the students could take turns sitting on each other. Naturally it would be sold in the prospectus as a welcome gain of leg room.

  12. rockwhisperer says

    In the US, we seem to have great respect for the top universities, but many thus-educated people (helped by the media) wrinkle their noses at the state universities and colleges that educate many of the rest of us. Here in California, we have two university systems, University of California and California State Universities. The former are research institutions, though most admit the state’s “best” high school graduates as undergrads. The latter are primarily teaching institutions, though they offer master’s degrees in various fields. I attended both, a UC school for undergrad (BS 1980) and a CSU school for my MS (2011). Because I changed fields, I had to take many upper-division undergrad classes before pursuing the graduate MS classes.

    As a student, I far preferred the CSU environment. Professors were far more accessible. Class sizes were much smaller. There weren’t many opportunities to work on Grand Research Projects, as there would have been at a UC school, but many opportunities to work on small, interesting projects that still advanced the science in my field. Money was tight, equipment wasn’t the best, but the learning environment was optimal for an interested student. As for making connections in my field, I was able to work with two very well-respected scientists at an equally well-respected institution while I was working on my thesis. Most of my cohort in my field were able to do the same.

    In between undergrad and grad school, I took several classes on specific subjects at my local community college. Based on that experience, I believe CCs are undervalued. At the time, those schools were usually over-enrolled, and students needed seniority in the system to get any of the core classes for the most popular majors (which was not an issue for me, I was studying art as an antidote to overwork in my career job). Still, tenured and tenure-track instructors, and some adjuncts, generally had good reputations. Given the astronomic cost of higher education today, I can’t help but encourage people contemplating it to start at their CC and plan on being a junior transfer to a four-year institution. Unless you are aiming for a PhD, almost no employers care about the supposed quality of your school, as long as they recognize the name as not being a diploma mill. With a couple of years of employment under your belt, nobody cares where you went to school. Higher ed is about learning, and students who want to learn will figure out how to make that happen much more easily in an environment that is focused on teaching.

    As an aside, those evening art classes were a balm to my psyche, and made me more productive in my career.

    And so, I shudder at the modern inclination to shut down areas of study, limit tenure-track positions, refuse to replace retiring professors, and so on, while continuing to raise the cost of education. I’m one of those ordinary students who would struggle in those situations, especially right out of high school. We are gutting the education of the people, ultimately at the expense of our society.

  13. magistramarla says

    rockwhisperer @15
    Well-said! My husband is about to retire after 43 years of working for the DOD – active duty, reserve officer and civilian employee. Over those years, he’s earned 5 college degrees – all in science and computer science. He earned a Masters in Machine Learning before it had the more sexy moniker Artificial Intelligence.
    He has always wanted to teach on the college level. We’ve wandered the campuses of our local CC and our local four year institution. He currently works for our local very rigorous military institution. His current colleagues have told us that he absolutely must teach at the military institution to make enough money to survive in retirement.
    They don’t understand that he has enough lines of income set up that we won’t really need the income. He wants to teach on the CC level, where he can inspire some kids who really need the inspiration. He will also enjoy not having a lot of pressure on him, and we can travel when we desire. He plans to teach only during semesters of his own choosing..
    We live in CA, and our local CC touts that tuition is free to local residents. We think that is wonderful, and he will be proud to teach those students.

  14. consciousness razor says

    Imagine that you’ve got a budget that can’t cover the cost of four tires on your car, so you decide to maintain three, but the fourth one…well, we’ll just let it wear out, go bald, go flat, maybe shred itself to pieces as you drive down the freeway. The car still runs, it’s maybe just a bit unsafe and kind of inefficient and making horrible noises while you drive. Is that a smart move?

    Look, I never claimed to make only smart moves.

    But I don’t get it…. Maybe universities should be (relatively) small-budget productions that emit horrible noise. That’s how we got Brian May, no? Imperial College London must have saved a ton of money just on him alone.

  15. magistramarla says

    Our grandson can attest to the value of a CC. He maxed out the number of classes that he could take at the CC where he lived in Houston. He entered a wonderful liberal arts college in New York as a second semester sophomore. He’s now a junior at the school, happily working on a degree in art history. His Mom is an executive in the insurance industry. She has inspired him to look into aspiring to be an art appraiser for insurance companies. It’s the kind of job that could lead to many opportunities for him to travel and to see some incredible art and world cultures. (Grandma, the Latin teacher, hopes that she had some influence in his decision-making as well. I exposed him to the languages, art, history and cultures of ancient civilizations.)
    The conservatives have it all wrong. Certainly, STEM fields can be quite lucrative, but liberal arts fields can also lead to satisfying and interesting jobs with many benefits.

  16. unclefrogy says

    yes it is the business idea applied to none businesses. The purpose of business now predominant is to make a profit, it is not the product or service that is the most important.
    so the focus is on the money almost entirely. When that idea “we should run xyz as a business” infects organizations whose basic purpose is not to make money, a profit, but supply some basic social service role the end result is the societal role is corrupted and ineffective and society, the people, suffers decline. In the end the institution it self fails completely. I do not want to think about what happens if it continues on and on.
    there must be some limit but I do not know where it is.

  17. redwood says

    I taught for 29 years at two universities, retiring last year as a full professor. These schools happen to be in Japan, but the same kind of mission/job creep occurred here. My classes gradually increased in number and size over the years, as well as there being an increase in the number of classes taught in a school year. The number of teachers in my department were cut, giving the remaining ones more work to do.
    I guess things are the same all over, but I’m happy to be finished with it all. I miss the teaching and being around young people, but not the soul-shrinking meetings and extra work I had to do as I went up the seniority ladder.


Leave a Reply