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Why One College Professor Quit His Dream Job

Oliver Lee, an attorney and assistant professor of history, recently wrote an op-ed for Vox about his decision to leave his tenure-track job in higher education. He did not point the finger at his former employer, the students, or the professors for the problems that led to his resignation. Instead, he says the trouble is systemic, and he calls for reform. Let's take a closer look at some of the issues.

Oliver Lee, an attorney and assistant professor of history, recently wrote an op-ed for Vox about his decision to leave his tenure-track job in higher education. He did not point the finger at his former employer, the students, or the professors for the problems that led to his resignation. Instead, he says the trouble is systemic, and he calls for reform. Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues.

cap on the ground 

(Photo Credit: jessiejacobson/Flickr)

1. Changes to tenure policies.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

The most commonly cited concern about tenure is that it allows faculty members to coast without real investment in their institutions – that tenure makes it impossible to be fired and that it breeds laziness and low-quality work. But, there are a lot of myths about tenure. In fact, it isn’t a lifetime guarantee of a job no matter what. It’s simply job security for professors who have earned it.

It’s hard to lose a tenured job, but it’s even harder to get one. Tenured professors still work hard, but they have earned the freedom, independence, and job security that help them continue to do their jobs well.

The tenure system is losing footing in higher education, and that might not be great for the overall quality of the education students receive, because it makes the job of professor that much more difficult, and could cause some to choose another path.

“This will serve as further incentive for quality faculty members to leave,” Wisconsin State Senator Julie Lassa said, in reference to her own state’s debate around tenure. She also cited state-wide budget cuts as a concern.

Similarly, Rudy Fictenbaum, a professor at Wright State University in Wisconsin said, “It pretty much allows them to dismiss anybody for whatever reason they want, and I really worry about that in this kind of political climate, where we’ve seen other programs eliminated for political reasons.”

The tenure system is a part of higher education for many reasons, and big changes will follow if it continues to diminish.

2. Bad college ROI. 

More people go to college than ever before. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment increased 15 percent between 1992 and 2002, and 24 percent between 2002 and 2012. In addition, college costs have skyrocketed, increasing by 1,120 percent since 1978, according to BloombergBusiness, “four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index.”

The result: a lot of graduates with a lot of debt, and not much in the way of job prospects. Lee’s assertion is that a lot of these students would be better off staying at home and preparing for careers without taking degrees; another approach would be to choose schools and majors with the long game in mind, looking carefully at return on investment and potential salary after graduation.

3. High tuition costs.

Lee argues that the real problem isn’t lazy students and underpaid adjunct professors, but the student loan system.

“The quickest and most painful solution to the crisis would involve greatly reducing the amount of money that students can borrow to attend college,” he writes. “Such reductions could be phased in over a span of years to alleviate their harshness, but the goal would remain the same: to force underperforming private and public universities out of business.”

For-profit schools, in Lee’s plan, would be restricted from using federal loan programs, and confined to taking only students who can pay without taking loans they might not be able to pay back. 

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