Why I’m headed to ASU

The Tampa Bay Times‘ Elisabeth Parker* wrote a very kind piece about my leaving USF that will appear in tomorrow morning’s paper. Because of space considerations and (probably) generosity on her part, the broader context of my job search was highly abbreviated. In most cases, I’m happy to be far in the background on pieces after a reporter calls me. This is the only time I can recall where a newspaper article has been about me, and for a few reasons I want to explain why a job search by tenured faculty is a complex story.

Fundamentally, it’s somewhat hard for tenured faculty to move between academic jobs. Apart from brave souls such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen,1 most of us are aversive to abandoning tenure once earned. But most colleges and universities hire faculty at the (not-yet or non-tenure-track) assistant professor or instructor level where they hire full-time. In addition, many faculty are not mobile (often because of children or parents or partners).2

Knowing this, most tenured faculty who look for other jobs need a combination of pushes or pulls to nudge them off the familiar territory of existing jobs. Those reasons may include some of the following:

  • An inherent wanderlust (I’ve known a few faculty who do not stay in any place for long).
  • A desire to move up a self-defined career ladder, often either position-wise (heading towards administration) or status-wise by institution.
  • An obvious “good fit” opportunity at another institution, which may have included an explicit invitation by a friend or other close colleague
  • A crisis at the current institution
  • A specific professional issue or position for the faculty member at the institution.
  • Family circumstances

In my case, wanderlust was not the issue: I’ve been at USF for 18 years, in our current house for 17, and neither my wife nor I thrill at the prospect of packing up our possessions and moving. This time we’re not moving interstate with small children, but we still have better things to do with our time. While I had a few years of administrative experience, which gives flexibility in looking for jobs, I don’t have an upwardly-administrative mindset. If I did, I’d have applied for many of the 20+ education dean positions open this year. Similarly, if my primary motive was to flee USF at all costs, I would have applied to far more positions than I did. Total applications submitted this year (and decade): 3.

The factors that led to my limited search? In rough order of influence:

  • Stage of life: our younger child graduated from high school last year, and both of our children are now in college in other states. My wonderful mother-in-law Peggy Griffith died in 2009, and she was the primary family member whose circumstances would have held us in Florida (my wife was her only child, and she moved to Florida some years ago to be closer to us).
  • The specifics of the positions. For each of the positions I applied to, I saw a match between my skills and the needs of the institution, something that I saw I could be excited about.
  • Long-term problems with state higher-education policymaking and lawmaking that affect faculty as a spillover effect. In Florida, public universities are boxed in by an extraordinarily high level of legislative meddling and governance-body micromanagement. I am under no illusion that one can have public higher education without higher education politics; nonetheless, the level of unworkability in the Florida system should alarm anyone who cares about the state. Just a few examples:
    • There is absolutely no limit on legislative earmarking in higher education, which diverts funds from basic educational and research purposes and makes the system highly inefficient.
    • Recent legislative mandates in retirement contributions have exacerbated the problem of faculty retention in Florida universities by turning low salaries into low total compensation. (Those who say we should reform pensions so that we can pay teachers more in direct salaries need to look in the mirror before claiming that again. It is simply not a believable statement in Florida.)
    • It currently takes about two years to create any degree program, a foolish way to address concerns about turf warfare among institutions. There is no way that a public university in Florida can reinvent itself by modifying its offerings quickly; the Board of Governors simply will not let any faculty turn on a dime.3
  • Uncertainty about upper-administrative decision-making. Last summer, the USF chief operating officer and USF’s president both asserted that there was an urgent financial crisis, and Judy Genshaft mandated very deep, very sudden cuts in the academic areas of USF. In the 9 months since, I think most who have looked at events closely have concluded that those claims were meaningfully different from objective assessments. To her credit, President Genshaft has backed away from some of the worst damage that would have resulted from the initial mandates. There is still great uncertainty about the original decision-making process and what it may foretell about the next few years. There’s an additional piece here that is more personal. For the year before the summer’s crisis, I had sat on a presidentially-appointed committee to look at business efficiency, and I saw several simple, uncontroversial suggestions go unacted-upon (one example: getting rid of paper timesheets in favor of an electronic time-and-attendance system). The disjuncture was puzzling and frustrating.4

While the article mentioned our college’s reorganization, I must have been unclear in the phone conversation I had with Parker. No faculty member is losing a position as a consequence of the reorganization, the programs in my current department are all continuing, and for a short time before I received an offer letter from ASU, I knew I would have been the chair of my new department if I had not had an offer of or had not accepted a position at ASU.5 Reorganization is an inherently messy process, something I may write about in the future, but that was far less on my mind than the issues listed above.

Once I had the campus interview at ASU, I judged that the position would be a good fit, and I was delighted that the search committee and my new dean (as of July), Mari Koerner, independently came to the same view. It’s an opportunity on multiple levels and a challenge that excites me.

Finally, as noted in the article, this puts me closer to several family members: my mother, three of my four siblings, and their families all live in either Southern California or Arizona. That plus the opportunity and new challenge made this an easy decision once I received the offer.

* Not to be confused with my oldest sister, also an Elizabeth Parker.

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  1. Kathleen gave up her job at Pomona College to stay in a professional position at the Modern Language Association. Dan has moved from George Mason University to become the founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America. []
  2. The majority of faculty in the United States are not tenured, and it should be clear that “oh, dear, how I can move?” is a narrow perspective not reflecting the reality of the bulk of faculty jobs. I hope most of us who are tenured are very well aware of that fact. This is context, not whining. My job at USF is pretty darned good compared with that of 80% of fellow academics. []
  3. A much smarter approach would be to manage the total number of degrees by institution and then watch for clearly bad actors; what happens now is the uniform punishment of everyone. []
  4. I am under no illusion that other institutions are immune from contradictions and irrationality, nor was this frustration the prime reason why I poked my head up and looked at job postings. After all, the point of this post is that decisions to look for other jobs are generally not monocausal. This frustration and concern was part of the context. []
  5. We are now going through a second process of internally identifying a chair for the new department. I feel quite good about the prospects for my current colleagues. I know both candidates well, and either would move forward the new department of Educational and Psychological Studies. []

5 responses to “Why I’m headed to ASU”

  1. jim conefry

    Never heard of you before I read the article in the Tampa Bay Times. In my next life I would aspire to be someone like you. But we both know that school vouchers and/or charter schools are nothing more than a money grab by the for profit school/industrial complex. Let’s see, students at the upper level go into massive debt for dubious degrees at for profit colleges and there is little or no regulation. Sounds like a great money making scheme! Good luck in Arizona, a red state with a governor only slightly less idiotic than what we have in Florida!

  2. Suzie Creamcheese

    I have always been challenged or enlightened by your postings. Sometimes even redeemed. Enjoy the dry heat and new surroundings.

  3. john r gallo

    Prof. Dorn,
    Thank you for your willingness to speak out on any number of issues (often related to fairness & justice) as an educator & a citizen. My spouse is an Exceptional Ed. teacher & a union member, so your contributions are especially valued. I know that you’ll continue to do good things in AZ.
    John (& Laurie)

  4. Mark Hinrichs

    Dr. Dorn,

    You are one of the clearest thinkers and writers on education policy I know, and I am delighted that you are joining the Arizona education community.

    Mark Hinrichs

  5. Glen McGhee

    “I had sat on a presidentially-appointed committee to look at business efficiency, and I saw several simple, uncontroversial suggestions go unacted-upon (one example: getting rid of paper timesheets in favor of an electronic time-and-attendance system). The disjuncture was puzzling and frustrating.”

    Nothing rational about this — it sounds like structural inertia.

    On the other hand, I was the first at my campus to use Turnitin, paid for it out of my own pocket, and was given a string of excuses from my Dean why it was a bad idea for the school. So, a lot of this has to do with the perceived status of the one making the request. I am sure that, had the provost or president of our very small school made the suggestion, it would have gotten further along, then acted upon.

    Dilbert has it right — see cartoon link.

    Good luck!