In light of this recent Chronicle Vitae piece by Jonathan Rees, on the ethical dilemma posed by leaving a job, historian and blogger John Fea asks about the limits of faculty members’ loyalty to their institutions. I started writing a response to his post, but one thought followed another until I’d written more than a “comment” should contain. So instead of leaving it there, I’m posting it here.

What kind of loyalty do we have to our institutions, and what do we owe? What loyalty do they have or owe to us? I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. They are questions of principle, but for most of us the practical answers probably depend on the vagaries of environment, sentiment, self-perception, and personal experience.

My own impression is that administrators who self-consciously adopt a corporate “model” (that is to say, most of them) act as if what keeps faculty around is some mixture of innate loyalty to the institution, a sense of duty toward students and colleagues, hope of advancement, and lack of options. While public pronouncements honour the first two motivations, in practice it’s the latter two and especially the fourth that shape the way the university is run. Why cultivate loyalty if nature and necessity compel the same results gratis — or, at least, results that look the same on a ledger? Why worry about people leaving when they have nowhere to go? Why fight to retain faculty — celebrities excepted — when they are so easy and cheap to replace? In these circumstances, discontent might fester indefinitely before our managers are forced to distinguish institutional failures from personal gripes.

Perhaps things are different at more elite, private institutions. Friends’ experience suggests not. Why should they be? Below the level of the academic superstar, voluntary mobility is limited not only by the small number of vacant spaces (for some reason I always think of Cartesian vortices here) but also, as one’s roots multiply and ramify, by other and more important loyalties: to family, community, and so on. Leaving a place gets harder for reasons that have nothing to do with the university. Administrators presumably know this, because they are subject to it themselves. (This, incidentally, raises the question of their loyalty to the institution. Despite the common elision of “university” and “administration”, the two are not at all the same.) Don’t like how things are going? Well, what are you going to do about it? Find a better job? Good luck.

This also raises the question of just what the object of loyalty is supposed to be. Perhaps one can cross Harvard Yard or amble around the Bodleian and feel the ghostly presence of an institution that commands allegiance or regard, but I wonder whether this isn’t at bottom a symptom of overexposure to damp stone. Certainly it’s harder to muster quite the same reverence for the curtain walls and industrial carpeting of the average public city campus, which often looks and feels like a struggling and perhaps slightly shady business, overly-slick offices juxtaposed with under-furnished lecture halls. Fill that same space with students, on the other hand, and it takes on another and more serious hue. It becomes a place where important things happen, things that don’t happen anywhere else. If there’s a fit object of loyalty here, it’s not the “institution”, and certainly not its transient management, but the set of interactions and relationships that institution exists to protect and facilitate — between teachers and students, researchers and their colleagues — and the community these create. Leaving that should be hard, particularly at moments and in places where it is under threat.

Hard, but not impossible. The original story that prompted Fea’s post deals with faculty for whom going on the job market is an essential strategy for negotiating salary increases and benefits; and, as Rees puts it, a system that shows you no loyalty can expect none. The moral question arises, as he indicates, over students and colleagues, and I would venture to say that it is more pressing at middle- and lower-tier institutions than among the elite. Rees focuses on issues like scheduling: don’t spring your departure on your chair and leave everyone scrambling to rearrange their schedules. He also points out that loyalty is a luxury many can’t afford. Adjuncts, part-timers, fixed-term appointees — anyone not on the tenure track — would be foolish not to do as their survival in the profession dictates. So, really, we’re talking about a dilemma for academia’s privileged: what debt does that privilege incur, and to whom?

In this regard Rees’s piece is frustrating. He writes that “there are times” when tenure-track faculty must simply put themselves first, but he doesn’t say what those times are — what, in other words, are the limits of loyalty. He therefore dodges the question. Instead he moves on to assure such faculty that they shouldn’t feel bad about their decision once it’s made; whether their tenure-track line will be replaced, for example — which is to say, whether their program, colleagues and students will suffer something for their departure — is “no concern” of theirs. This may be sound psychological advice (I don’t know), but Rees doesn’t make the ethical case. Nor does he consider loyalty to colleagues in other regards, though he does counsel some care for graduate students, should the new institution permit.

To my mind — and I have both benefitted greatly from my colleagues’ and students’ support and tested the market in the past — the implication that such things are no real problem just because “there are times” is a doubtful one. That is not to say that one shouldn’t leave a bad position (or even a good one) for a better. One can recognize the likely consequences and hold back — perhaps detrimentally to one’s career. Or one can recognize them and act anyway, incurring some responsibility and maybe a measure of guilt while pursuing one’s own professional goals in the most effective way. But one can’t wish either half of the problem away; that’s the nature of a dilemma. Few decisions of this kind come without some cost, and some pain.

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