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Monday, May 8, 2017   (0 Comments)
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Originally posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education

Helping Professors Overcome Midcareer Malaise

After tenure, many faculty members feel unmotivated. Here’s how to keep them on track. By Peter Monaghan.

Like so many academics, Karla Erickson (above) suffered a letdown after gaining tenure at Grinnell College. Her president sent her to a training program for aspiring leaders, and today she is an associate dean. 
Soon after she gained tenure in 2010 at Grinnell College, Karla A. Erickson says, she found herself ambivalent about her work. A series of events had left her wondering "if I was just going to keep doing what I was doing.
"She had been passed over for an administrative job around the same time that she was hit by other midlife challenges, like being a new mother and losing a parent.
Fortunately, she says, it’s hard to hide on a small campus like Grinnell's. The president of the college noticed her discouragement and sent her to a program at Wellesley College for women who aspire to be academic leaders. "That was a substantial investment in me."
It paid off. Today she is a full professor and an associate dean, and she leads efforts on the campus to combat the malaise that she felt.
Ms. Erickson is among a group of professors and other advocates around the country who are pushing colleges to do more to prevent the professional burnout that has long struck many academics when they secure tenure.
Arriving exhausted at associate-professor status, which at most institutions goes hand in hand with tenure, academics often find themselves asking: What’s it all about? Where do I go from here?
Things only get worse if, after eight or nine years of mulling such questions, they have failed to push on to the pinnacle of full professorship, with its promise of unfettered engagement with the research interests that drew them to academe in the first place.
That the post-tenure years can be unhappy ones for many academics is no secret. Studies going back 20 years have shown as much. The most arresting of those, or at least the one that finally got the attention of the profession, came in 2012. A survey of 13,510 faculty members at 69 public and private four-year institutions by Coache — the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, based at Harvard University — showed that associate professors are less satisfied than full professors and even than assistant professors, over whom the tenure broadsword still hovers.
With adjunct faculty filling 70 percent of academic jobs, associate professors must shoulder more of the administrative lift. 
Earlier studies had already provided explanations for why that would be so. Disillusionment can often begin when stapled to the back of the tenure notification is a raft of service assignments, for instance. And studies have shown that women and minority faculty members are most overloaded with service chores, and often additional teaching duties, too, and that all new associates struggle to squeeze research into their schedules.
What’s more, salary compression affects the associate rank most. Professors at midcareer may wonder how it is that recent hires and even junior faculty all seem better off. And regardless of how relatively "privileged" associate professors are as tenured academics, they may feel slighted and underappreciated.
After years of stewing over those kinds of strains in higher education, a cadre of activists is emerging determined to remedy them. Their rallying cry is that the whole associate-rank tale of woe is so much tedious old news. They are saying: Enough studies, it’s time for remedies.
That’s because, says Kiernan Mathews, executive director of Coache, "there’s been a disconnect between our espoused values and goals for associate professors, and what we’re actually asking them to do."
A key step toward correcting that, he says, is to run large-scale surveys of professors’ work experiences, such as Coache does. He says those show, for example, that associates feel overburdened: On average, they reach tenure older than in the past — at 45, at public research universities — so that work and responsibilities like child-rearing and elder care can tag-team them to exhaustion.
"Our bringing this data to light is part of how we’re provoking a conversation," says Mr. Mathews.
He and other researchers say the midcareer problem is increasingly urgent because while associates account for an estimated one-third of the tenured or tenure-track professoriate, their numbers are dwindling. That’s because adjunct faculty members — who aren’t on the tenure track — now account for 70 percent of the academic work force. This means fewer associate professors are expected to shoulder more of the administrative lift.
In midcareer, professorial duties mount, sometimes inescapably. Midcareer faculty, drafted to serve on this or that committee, or to direct this and that, "become sort of the civil servants of their departments," says Mr. Mathews.
Administrators’ challenge: Make newly tenured faculty content so they will stay at the institution — a statistical near-certainty, once they have remained three years — and continue to be productive.
Coache gathers data on faculty outlooks and shares it with some 230 partner institutions around the country, helping many to generate satisfaction surveys of their own.
That’s a wise approach, says Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, which during its few years has become a key player in midcareer reforms. Many thousands of faculty members at all ranks have taken part in its "boot camp" on work-life balance.
When it comes to reviving flagging professors, "three brown-bag lunches and a mentor match doesn’t cut it," says Ms. Rockquemore, who started the organization after she realized she preferred to fight midcareer malaise rather than continue to experience it as a scholar of racial identity.
She says stalled associates need a support structure to plot a path forward because tenure presents them with a dizzying array of options. They risk, she says, persisting in "doing what they’ve always done" or at least trying to, as their forbearance weakens along with their family’s.
Faculty development in midcareer is "one of those situations where what's good for the workers is also good for the organization." 
Like other reformers of the midcareer experience, she says that unless tenured professors learn not to say yes to every service or teaching demand, they will stall, and fail to "create their own pathway." She cautions, "If you don’t have an agenda, you just become part of everybody else’s agenda."
She advocates taking time — and that institutions provide opportunities — to choose which direction to take: for example, to pursue full professorhood, or to specialize in course restructuring, pedagogical reform, or public scholarship, or even to switch to a new research specialization or department. Or to leave academe altogether, in which case an amicable departure benefits both the academic and the institution.
Ms. Rockquemore has recruited numerous professors to serve as facilitators. They present as a sort of do-something-about-it crew likely to talk about contemplating the "magic transitional moment" of tenure in a safe space, with journaling, and listening to one’s weary body.
Ms. Erickson of Grinnell is one of them. She says that in her popular midcareer programs at the college, she aims for a balance of the morale-boosting and practical approaches that Ms. Rockquemore has instilled. Ms. Erickson says that after she and 25 Grinnell faculty members participated in the center’s "Faculty Success" boot camp, "we felt very transformed." But back on campus she heard some colleagues mutter, "‘Oh, those people drank the Kool-Aid.’"
Undaunted, the feminist labor ethnographer started a program at Grinnell and wanted to call it "Midcareer Love," but her dean persuaded her to go with something less "squishy," she says.
She decided to join forces with colleagues from Kenyon College and DePauw University whom she had met at the Wellesley leadership program — the one Grinnell’s president had sent her to; the three now collaborate on research on midcareer issues, and all three have set up well-subscribed programs on their campuses.
They have geared their programming according to what colleagues seemed to want most. At Grinnell, Ms. Erickson brings midcareer colleagues together to discuss what they really would like to be doing in their work, and how to get there. Jan E. Thomas, a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Kenyon, and Tamara Beauboeuf, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at DePauw, emphasize writing sessions designed to overcome blockages and slowdowns, whether related to research or other career goals.
They all tell their colleagues that rediscovering enthusiasm is worth the effort because, after all, tenure can be a new beginning for a professor.
Getting a good start on that second half of an academic career is so important that it warrants institutions’ investment, says Terrence J. McDonald, a former dean of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
After a committee studied the associate professors there, in 2009, the college temporarily reduced associates’ teaching or service loads, or provided them with research-travel funds, so they could focus on career plans and opportunities.
He offers two points of caution. One is that taking a sabbatical immediately upon tenure "was often the worst time to do that, because people were not yet on top of their plan."
The second: Call your program something like "incentivized planning" with "feedback from colleagues." And, he says, avoid talk of formalized "mentoring" because associate professors stated loud and clear: "Don’t infantilize us and return us back to a junior status. We’re now full-fledged citizens." (Another Michigan committee on the associate rank completed its work in April, and among its recommendations is that the university replace the word "service" with more encouraging terms like "leadership" and "governance.")
Mr. McDonald, who is now director of the university’s Bentley Historical Library, says that while supporting your next generation of faculty leaders, you should also avoid "discourse around midcareer review that has taken on a sort of penal tone, that’s about catching people who don’t do well."
Instead, maintain support while associates remain in rank; emphasize progression to full professorship. Yes, he agrees, not all associates will want to move up, or even be suited to it; but don’t go back to "the ancient days, when I was going through these ranks, when the mythology was that one of the ways we knew if you deserved tenure and promotion was if you could figure out the system. Which was nutty, crazy."
No wonder, he says, that some departments’ and divisions’ promotion rates lag behind others’ — and that associates’ dissatisfaction festers.
Michigan, like some other institutions, has begun to recognize some alternative pathways to full professorship. Such institutions talk about recognizing, say, public scholarship outside the prestigious journals, or contributions to teaching, or research-oriented administrative service.
Mr. Mathews of Coache says institutions must frankly state their expectations and requirements. In a 2014 Coache white paper, he notes that 25 percent of newly tenured associate professors state that they believe their department does not encourage progression to full professorship; the figure jumps to 45 percent among associates in rank for six years or more.
Institutions should take a developmental approach to the academic midcareer, Mr. Mathews says: They should help faculty members become whatever sort of institutional citizen they wish to be.
Instead, he and others charge, the vast majority of colleges have neglected even to take into account germane bodies of research, such as those about the psychology of workplace burnout and adult development.
And, the advocates note, great reductions in midcareer malaise can be achieved with simple, morale-boosting measures. In Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), Mark W. Roche wrote that he found during his 11 years as dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame that "one can never give sufficient thanks and recognition." At an annual dinner, he prepared for each newly tenured faculty member "the kind of paean a person would want his or her parents to hear and which the person’s colleagues did hear." And, he added, he always called on the newly tenured "to dream big on behalf of the university and to carry the university forward with their dreams."
Ending the long neglect of midcareer faculty welfare and productivity brings rewards large and small, institutional and personal, says Ms. Erickson, the Grinnell sociologist. The good news, she says, is that faculty development in midcareer is "one of those situations where what’s good for the workers is also good for the organization, and that’s rare; they’re often pitted."
After programs like those on her campus, and suddenly on quite a few others, "the gratitude is profound," Ms. Erickson says. "I’ve received significant gifts — someone did a painting for me. I’ve had colleagues’ spouses come up and thank me, in town."
Peter Monaghan is a national correspondent for The Chronicle. Email him at

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