Loyalty and Its Limits in Academic Life


I think a lot about institutional loyalty.  Back in 2010 I wrote this post and then followed it up with a similar piece in the Trinity 2011 issue of The Cresset.

I have now taught at the same college for fifteen years.  Perhaps this is why I resonated so much with historian Jonathan Rees‘s excellent Chronicle of Higher Education piece: “The Limits of Loyalty.”

Here is a taste:

For the past 18 years, I have worked at the same university. I see some distinct advantages in that — most notably, that I haven’t had to look for another job in all that time. There is also something to be said for avoiding the pains of relocating. And staying put has allowed me to establish really rewarding ties with the surrounding community.

But there are also serious problems for any academic who pursues a faculty career in one place. As my Twitter friend John Warner recently noted, perhaps the most common way for professors to get a raise is to apply for a job elsewhere. Then, if you get a job offer, you take it to administrators at your current campus and try to get them to match the salary and benefits you would receive if you changed jobs.

That used to be the case, anyway. Unfortunately, in this age of austerity, a common response now to faculty who follow this offer-counteroffer tactic is: “So long, it’s been good to know you!”

If administrators think so little of you that they’re willing to let you go rolling along, how much loyalty do you owe them? “They” — meaning “the system” — “likely have no loyalty for you,” Warner argues. “You owe them none in return.”

Of course, I agree with that when “they” refers to administrators of all kinds. After all, they’re far more likely to move on to their next job somewhere else in the higher-ed system than you are, and far less likely to accept a lesser salary out of a sense of loyalty. Why should you act any different than they would if they were in your shoes?

But what about other parts of academia that are far less utilitarian? For example, what loyalty do you owe your students when making your career decisions?

We should all hope that most of our students will be gone from the campus even faster than our least favorite associate dean, but I would argue that faculty do owe some loyalty to our students. If you’re advising graduate students at the moment of your departure, for example, you’ll probably want to talk to your new institution about bringing them with you. However, you also owe it to your future students not to stay at a place that is making you miserable because that will inevitably affect your teaching for the worse.

Your colleagues are also part of “the system.” What loyalty do you owe them? If you’re scheduled to teach in the fall, you probably ought to tell the department chair that you’re leaving as soon as you sign a contract because filling your classes at the last second is going to be a nightmare.

Read the entire piece here.

Jonathan’s essay has triggered so many thoughts that I don’t have the time or the inclination to write about them here.  But I will list some questions his piece has raised in my mind:

  • What is the relationship between loyalty and institutional mission?  When the mission of an institution changes does loyalty imply that one must adjust and adapt to the changes out of a sense of loyalty?  Or does institutional change undermine loyalty?
  • Why does one read so few testimonies about faculty members, like Jonathan Rees, who have a sense of loyalty to their institutions?
  • Can loyalty in a modern age ever be defined apart from social contracts?  In other words, can you be loyal to an institution that is not loyal to you?  It may be possible to love an institution, but an institution cannot  love you back.  This means that there is a good chance that an institution will one day disappoint you.  In fact, I would even say it is inevitable.
  • Last night I watched Mark Few coach the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the national championship game.  I am sure that Few has had multiple opportunities to leave Gonzaga for bigger programs, but he has decided to stay and build a national powerhouse at tiny Gonzaga University.  I respect Few for doing it this way.  He clearly has the support of the Gonzaga administration.  But what if one day the administration decided, for whatever reason, that it was no longer willing to invest in a strong basketball program?  What would happen to Few’s sense of institutional loyalty, his sense of roots, and his connection to the community of Spokane, Washington?
  • What role do administrators play in cultivating institutional loyalty?  Is this even something on their radar screens when decisions are made?

One thought on “Loyalty and Its Limits in Academic Life

  1. Do I feel with this one! I have moved way too often. If a University desires faculty AND staff loyalty then fair treatment and some degree of stability are expected. Museums are even worse then Universities if trustees or upper administration follow a modern corporate model. To be told point blank that you are expendable may be in some way true, but a stunningly poor way to inspire long tenures.


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