I'm a Tenured College Professor. I'm Quitting. Here's Why.

Americans are letting education fall apart. Politicians are helping it.

I'm a Tenured College Professor. I'm Quitting. Here's Why.
Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

My last raise was a chocolate bar.

My dean left it in my office mailbox one December. It was one of those chocolate bars that looks like a thousand-dollar bill. He thought it was funny. He said it was his way of showing me how much I was worth.

Now a different dean has asked for my resignation.

I have given it to him.

He has accepted it.

So, it's official.

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.

Obviously, I said yes to a lower salary.

I agreed to do more work for less money, so I could move to a place where my daughter could play outside during the summer, without having to worry about record-breaking heat domes every week. A place where we could enjoy the spring without hiding in our bathroom from tornadoes every weekend. We knew we had to move now. If we waited another year, we'd get priced out of the housing market completely. We're barely hanging on as it is.

I know, so you are.

Aren't we all?

Now would be a good time to dispel some myths about college professors. So, look, you know that kind of professor that wore tweed jackets and sat around smoking cigars while pontificating about Robert Frost?

Those dudes are long gone.

The tweed jacket types started retiring a decade ago. They were the ones who taught one course a semester and went on book tours in the middle of the year. They were the ones who drank bourbon in their office in the middle of the afternoon. They were the ones who traveled and wrote snippy book reviews and said witty things at faculty meetings.

Those were my professors.

Before they left, they dumped all of their work on professors like me, who thought we'd get a taste of that life if we worked hard enough.

Don't get me wrong...

There's still some aspiring tweed types out there. One of our associate deans recently chided a friend of mine for addressing him by his first name. He wanted everyone to address him as Dr. So-and-So. He's trying to be like the professors of yore, but it's not working very well.

Those days are over.


For the most part, colleges and universities are run by professors like me. We don't lounge around drinking wine and quoting our favorite books. We work. We work hard. We work nights and weekends. We work during the summers. Everyone thinks we have summers off.

No, that's not how it works.

We don't get paid during the summer. We still work. We still write books and articles. We don't do that for fun. It's required. We edit collections and journals. We go to conferences. We go to professional development workshops. We plan courses. We advise students. We serve on thesis committees. We do independent studies, which is basically teaching a course for one or two students. Sometimes, that's even harder than a regular course.

Universities profit off that work. So do those giant companies that run the databases that charge everyone to read our research. So do the other giant companies that hire our students.

We don't profit from it.

At all.

Most of my professor friends can't support themselves. That includes the fancy tenured professors, even at nice schools. They have sugar mamas and sugar daddies. They're married to lawyers and bankers, or IT managers. If they're like me, they've got a secret side hustle.

Here's an irony:

My university forces everyone to disclose outside income. So if you have a second job or a side hustle, you're technically supposed to report it. You're supposed to ask them for permission. They can say no.

That's right, the same university that gave me a chocolate bar for a raise also says I can't take on a second job to support my family. They're worried it would distract me from all the free work I'm doing for them. They never say this part out loud, but I also think they don't want anyone to ever build up any kind of financial cushion or independence. If we did that, they wouldn't be able to push us around. We could actually quit.

That plan is starting to unravel now. You can only push teachers so far before they've got nothing left to lose.

So, I'll tell you how much I make as a tenured professor:

$54,000 a year.

That's it.

I've published three academic books (under my real name). I've won writing awards. I've won research awards. I've got spotless teaching evaluations. I've got students writing to tell me how much they enjoy my courses. I'm very, very good at my job. And that's what I make. I'm one unfortunate life event away from cooking meth out in the desert.

I'm not telling anyone this to solicit sympathy. A lot of people probably wonder what's going on with education. Why is it so bad? Why do teachers keep quitting? Well, that's why. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about high school or college. We're in the same storm.

My university is looking at a 10 percent enrollment drop right now. We've been losing anywhere from 3-7 percent of our students every year since I started working here. They won't hire new faculty. They won't fill teaching lines when professors retire or move. They won't raise adjunct pay. They won't give their overworked staff a raise, even when they work just as many nights and weekends as we do. They cut programs. They close down entire schools. The money just disappears into a black hole.

One of my colleagues has been harassing our upper administration for months, demanding answers. Finally, a dean looked him square in the face and said. "You need to drop this, for your own good."

He sounded like a mafia boss.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what's going on. I mean, we know where the money isn't going:

The money isn't going into classrooms. The money isn't going to faculty or staff, not even to reimburse us for all the professional development we pay for. The money isn't going to scholarships or financial aid. The money isn't going into better ventilation, even though the pandemic has taught us the importance of clean air. That would make a difference. That would actually attract students and give them something in return for their tuition.

We know where the money goes:

The money goes to hire new directors of athletics. It goes toward new athletic facilities. It pays for the Starbucks our vice-chancellors love so much. It pays for the sushi bars they think will attract a "high caliber" of student. It pays the inflated salaries of the upper administration, who make healthy six figures even when they're terrible at their jobs.

Speaking of which...

Once someone wiggles their way into upper administration, it's very hard to get rid of them. Our last chancellor spent his days holding wine tastings and watching soccer. Everyone hated him. Finally, the board of trustees managed to oust him, but he left with several hundred thousand dollars in severance pay. The same thing happened to a few heavyweights here.

My dean thinks a consultant can do my job. He said that if I'm not going to stay and physically teach students in a worn out classroom, then he might as well hire a consultant and some adjuncts.

That's a thing now.

It's popular for universities to hire consultants to solve their problems. But the consultants can't solve their problems. The consultants can't tell them why they keep losing students. The consultants can only give them the answers they want: Build another Starbucks, and so on...

Consultants can't tell them the truth:

Education is collapsing.

It's collapsing because nobody really cares about it. As a tenured professor, I'm not supposed to say that.

It's true.

Nobody really wants to admit they don't care about education. Some people get angry when you point out this simple fact. Everyone wants to talk about how much they care about education. They want to watch movies about great teachers. They want to complain about the bad ones.

They want to pretend to care.

Everyone wants to say, "You can't throw money at the problem." Except that's exactly what we do with our problems. Look at our military. All we do is throw money at them. We throw money at everyone else's military, too. There's always money for tanks and missiles.

And robots.

There's never money for classrooms. Or textbooks. Or teachers. The schools that are doing well? They're funded by rich parents.

Teachers get it now.

There's been a major exodus of talent from the profession. It started with the pandemic, and it hasn't stopped. Teachers are realizing how little they're appreciated. They're realizing how little anyone cares. They're tired of some book or documentary casting light on their plight, only for it to fade from public attention as another war or another Donald Trump story distracts everyone from our very serious, intractable problems.

It's nothing new.

Historically, Americans have never supported public education. I won't bore you with the details, but look into it sometime. The history of education is something I've researched and published on. Do your homework, and it stands out. Since the pioneer days, our politicians have always funded education with table scraps. They hired women and immigrants to do the job, because they considered it unimportant. They never paid teachers enough.

They never treated them well.

There's a reason for that.

Politicians and CEOs have always wanted kids to be in factories, not schools. For a while, they even designed schools based on factories (and prisons). Look around today, and you see the same thought process coming back with a vengeance. Our politicians want teenagers to work in construction sites, meat packing plants, bars, and fast food restaurants.

They don't even hide it anymore.

Of course, that's just for the poor kids. The rich kids get an actual education. They get teachers and tutors. They get nice classrooms and textbooks.

I've seen it with my own eyes.

For a few years, part of my job was to do outreach with high school English teachers. So I drove around all over my state visiting high schools and observing classes. The rich kid schools had tablets and chrome carts. The poor kid schools had textbooks so old they were falling apart.

The rich kid schools had happy, well-rested teachers. The poor kid schools had tired, stressed, overworked teachers.

The same thing happens in higher education.

Hedge fund managers and CEOs have captured the boards of trustees of most public universities. They're funneling all the money to the top, away from smaller satellite schools like mine and away from the arts in general. They're directing all the cash and resources to business schools and STEM programs at their flagships, and they're letting everyone else wither and die. They don't want normal people to get an education, not anymore. They want normal people to do undesirable jobs, at least until the right robot comes along.

If you look at the history of higher education itself, all this fits. In the beginning, universities were never intended for ordinary people. Higher education didn't become an engine of democracy in this country until the G.I. Bill, after WWII. Universities actually didn't want these students. They were always seen as a problem to be dealt with, and at best a source of income.

You know what's really funny?

Conservatives complain so much about universities as bastions of liberal ideology and propaganda. It's not really true. Universities are deeply conservative at heart, with a crunchy liberal outside. These liberal professors have no real power. They can't organize. They can't even get living wages for their adjuncts. Half the time, they can't even get a sign printed.

So how are they going to corrupt the youth, exactly?

I get it, though.

The idea of a real liberal university poses a grave threat to the establishment, regardless of their political affiliation. A lot of rich people don't actually want an education system or the educated population that would come along with it. Sure, it would be better for everyone. But it would also mean having to share, and these people have let their greed literally drive them insane.

They don't know what's best for themselves anymore, much less what's good for our civilization. They're just panicking, hoarding money, and then panicking some more. That's why they're all building mega yachts and moving to island bunkers. They know they've screwed us all, and they're deeply terrified.

So, that's why I'm quitting.

Universities aren't institutions of knowledge anymore. They're assets. They're revenue streams. If they're not generating money for the top, then they only pose a threat, and they have to be weakened and destroyed.

These days, it makes more sense to work at Chipotle than to try and become a tenured professor. And if that doesn't have "social collapse" written all over it, then I don't know what does.

I'm 90 percent sure my daughter won't go to college. We won't be able to afford it. And it won't be worth it.

What will she do?

In the best case scenario, she'll learn a skill and get a job. She won't waste four years of her life sitting in lecture halls. In the worst case scenario, she'll be living the plot of a Mad Max movie as our ecosystems continue to deteriorate and endless war takes its toll on global industrial civilization.

I'm not sure what her life is going to look like, but I know one thing:

She's definitely not going to be a professor.

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