Want to Be a College Professor? Get Ready to Move.

Higher education is experiencing a significant shift as faculty members face uncertain and challenging circumstances. Many are considering leaving their positions due to political pressures in conservative states, while others are being forced out due to program eliminations, campus consolidations, and closures that result in massive layoffs, even at prestigious universities. The traditional image of a tenured faculty member who spends their entire career at the same institution is becoming increasingly rare. It is clear that we are entering a period of mobility within academia, whether we like it or not.

However, navigating this mobility and advancing in academia requires resilience and flexibility. Faculty members must be prepared to relocate, often far from their hometowns, in order to pursue personal and professional growth. Academic careers are frequently compared to a "job market," where individuals constantly seek the best opportunities for themselves and their families. This reality often involves multiple moves and a constant search for better options, always being mindful of the potential need to backtrack.

Despite accepting these inherent challenges, there is a reluctance among faculty members to openly discuss the impact of this transient lifestyle on both their personal and professional communities. We fail to acknowledge the effects of academic mobility and the toll it takes on our sense of belonging and community cohesion. Furthermore, advancements in technology, particularly in the post-COVID era, have only increased the physical and emotional distance between us, accentuating the consequences of our divergent paths. We are passing by each other or even disappearing entirely, with each move affecting others in ways that are often unseen.

It is crucial to recognize that mobility does not always guarantee career advancement or equal opportunities. While some individuals have mastered the system and achieved upward mobility, countless others are hindered by personal and professional costs or a lack of available opportunities. This imbalance in academic labor not only affects job security but also results in a loss of community cohesion. It is imperative that we address these challenges and strive for a more equitable and supportive system within academia.  

These conditions are not entirely new. In his 1972 book A Nation of Strangers, cultural critic Vance Packard analyzed the phenomenon of white-collar “job jumpers” who make multiple geographic moves over the course of a career. Packard argued that American society was once a quilt of tight-knit, stable, and multigenerational communities, now eroding at a rapid pace. Packard included academia in his criticism, observing the negative community effects of students who go out of state for college and do not return—part of a larger phenomenon now termed “brain drain.” He also observed that young professors, particularly those with status gained by employment at top institutions, frequently engage in “job jumping,” with detrimental community and labor consequences.

Packard’s 1972 analysis is helpful for understanding faculty mobility some 50 years later, within our own sub-nation of what I am calling Academic Strangers. To be an Academic Stranger means not just accepting professional risks, but also sacrificing personal belonging and, by extension, losing a collective professional identity. There are two interconnected groups experiencing this mobility, with many of us belonging to both over the course of our careers. One is contingent faculty, who may have annual contracts but lack year-over-year job security. The other is tenure-track faculty, who have access to a system that promises stability, yet in reality offers upward mobility only for some, and is not always truly secure.

Since Packard’s time, America has endured various economic booms and busts, and, of course, COVID-19—a worldwide pandemic that put unimaginable stress on how academic work was done. Yet even before the pandemic, faculty members were already becoming more nomadic, as reflected in the changing ratio of tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty. In 1970, about 75 percent of all faculty were tenure-track, whereas in 2020, that figure was only about 30 percent. This means that far more faculty members are now mobile, but not always by choice. Nationwide, tenure is also under scrutiny. How college students earn a degree is also changing, including via completely online programs, as well as fully online institutions—some of whose practices have been deemed to be predatory when it comes to recruitment and enrollment of underrepresented and low-income students.

Today’s conditions reveal truths about the haves and have-nots of academia and the consequences of choosing between job stability (not necessarily security) and advancement. Recent studies of faculty members in the sciences, for example, have shown that while mobile faculty tend to move from rural to urban settings and from lower to higher-ranked institutional types (e.g., R2 to R1 universities), female faculty members are also more likely to move within the same geographic region, and are also more likely to be demoted to a lower rank when changing institutions, particularly to one of a higher Carnegie classification.

The mobile life is deeply familiar to me as a faculty member who was the youngest of three children in a hypermobile, nonacademic, middle-class family that moved eight times over 17 years, across Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa. My father was a salesman in farm-related industries who frequently moved or was transferred. My mother worked part-time jobs but was primarily a homemaker. My older sisters bore the real weight of our mobility; our last move came just prior to my eldest sister’s senior year in high school—about which my parents expressed no remorse, and for which my sister never forgave them. In 1976, when I was 6 years old, my parents divorced, and only then did the cross-state moves stop. At that point, our economic status fell to the working class, as my mother took a job in a toothbrush factory in a town that also just happened to be the location of the state flagship university.

No one in either of my parents’ families was academics, and neither of my parents even attended college. I remain only one of two descendants on either side of three generations to work anywhere in academia. Perhaps ironically, then, I grew up to be a first-generation kid in a university town, educated alongside the children of college professors, some of whom came and went from my life without me understanding why. I look back now and can identify the patterns of moves as secondary to tenure decisions, postdoctoral positions, and other leaves and fellowships. But all I knew then was that each August, I would start school with a number of my classmates from the year before missing, seemingly gone without a trace.

Despite my negative childhood experiences, as an academic today, I have subjected my own family to the same conditions. Since earning my Ph.D. in 1997, I have been full-time faculty at five different universities, four of which were tenure-line jobs, and all of which I left by my own choice for a better opportunity. My family and I have lived in Michigan, Connecticut, North Carolina, Illinois, and now Georgia. My husband went from doing face-to-face work to being a work-from-home freelancer (long before such work was as common as it is today). Our daughter was born and attended pre-K and kindergarten in Connecticut, grade school in North Carolina, and middle and high school in Illinois, then went on to college in Minnesota. Based on her intended career path, as well as my own, it is doubtful the three of us will ever live in the same state again.

We are the textbook definition of a mobile academic family, always experiencing isolation that only exacerbates the common conditions faculty members already face in their work lives. Having “faculty friends” is not a given, perhaps because we are reticent to make connections that we know may vanish in a few years’ time. Faculty, at least at the institutions where I’ve worked, also do not typically create or participate in community-building events common to other workplace settings. Only when I was an associate dean did I work in an environment that regularly held birthday and anniversary celebrations, picnics, and periodic potluck lunches? Each of these events was initiated and organized by our academic support staff, not our faculty.

There are four reasons why I’ve even been able to move so much: 1) I was able to “write my way out” of my first job and move through increasingly higher-ranked institutions by virtue of a strong publication record; 2) I am in a field (rhetoric and writing studies) that has only recently begun to experience the downturn in tenure-track positions faced by other humanities fields for over three decades; 3) I have shaped my career as one intertwined with administrative work, which allows me great job flexibility; and 4) I am willing to move my family, and they have agreed to follow and change their own lives accordingly.

My husband contends that we are unusual, since statistically, most Americans are born, live, and die in the same place, or very near to it. This is not true, however, for those in mobile professions requiring advanced degrees, as Packard himself noted decades ago, including white-collar executives or others in the professional classes—even though now, some of these workers can do their jobs remotely. But even if you stay in the same place, that doesn’t mean this mobility won’t touch you. Many towns also remain globally affected by high mobility; the “town-gown” divide that widens when faculty are highly mobile is just one example. The economic losses perpetuated by companies moving their headquarters extend to other local small businesses, the hospitality industry, and manufacturing. It also means cities lose higher-earning taxpayers, and therefore potential per-pupil educational spending increases from state and local governments.

Some faculty members, if and when they receive tenure—frequently after more than one academic job—do not choose to move. Still, they don’t necessarily stop looking, either to drive up their salary via a retention offer or just to see what new opportunities might have to offer. As institutional studies conducted at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Virginia Tech illustrate, faculty members may look, but a significant portion end up staying. This kind of aspirational mobility has its own costs—failed searches, salary compression, and department instability, plus the exhaustion befalling faculty and administrators experiencing the two ends of this process. While these conditions are not unique to academia—headhunters exist in many fields, after all—worker relocation in private industry may have fewer lingering effects. In academia, the collateral damage includes graduate students working under faculty mentors on long-term projects who are left behind, as well as nontransferable investments on the part of the institution (labs and other facilities).

Those of us who are able to move have the luxury of naming our terms. We also can remake our careers in line with positive geographical shifts as well as other material benefits (including increased field visibility and new research opportunities). Some of us are, in fact, cycling through a higher-education administrative labor pool that each year contains familiar names of highly successful job-jumpers, as posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Transitions” column. As an avid football fan, I see uncomfortable similarities between this cycling of candidates and the NFL draft.

This mobility-by-default career path is not necessarily wrong for individuals. Some readily make such sacrifices for the adventure of a new life that also may be less susceptible to financial and structural damage caused by institutional policies. I call this seeking out the Mother Ship, or securing a job at the flagship public (or large wealthy private) institution, where theoretically, budgets are better and jobs secure. In fact, when faculty members do make moves in response to what some researchers have termed “managerialism” and corporate-style operations at their current university, which conflict with their own values, they may find that such operations are, in fact, also in place at institutions all over the country.

Even when the move is a positive professional one, mobile faculty members don’t always get to know their neighbors. Our kids don’t benefit from being friends with classmates from an early age. And we are never “from here”—witness, for example, the two years it took our next-door neighbors in Connecticut to introduce themselves, only then to alert us to the giant raccoon nesting in our chimney (alas, we already knew). This identity, or lack thereof, cuts deeper when we have no local relatives to spend holidays with, or when colleagues from past jobs lack the time or ability to visit us. For those without families, the effects of mobility may lead to other feelings of isolation related to rising professional expectations. And despite diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at many institutions, faculty of color and LGBTQIA faculty often still experience their own issues with mobility isolation and extreme emotional labor on their campuses. These isolating conditions will only compound in the wake of recent affirmative action legislation regarding college admissions that some predict will seep into hiring practices as well.

Every apparent solution to these problems has only created more labor problems and paradoxical fixes regarding mobility. Chief among these apparent solutions is virtual academic work. While distance technologies may accommodate productivity for some faculty, especially those with disabilities, long COVID, or other underlying health conditions, they only exacerbate the disconnectedness and disenfranchisement of others. With online teaching, for example, contingent faculty members need not be given an office and can be expected to teach at more institutions simultaneously. In many cases, contingent faculty who are teaching and working remotely are also responsible for their own technology and, importantly, its upkeep.

What sounds like a boon to a labor problem is thus simply another way to make the individual responsible, rather than the institution. Remote work can offer location stability, but otherwise isolation from a professional community, and potentially at different rates of pay for contingent faculty that incentivize teaching larger courses, if institutions decide that online teaching on a massive scale is more efficient. Already, some tenure-stream academics with job security have negotiated with their universities to remain in their desired home communities. At my previous institution in Illinois, I knew several such faculty members with long-standing arrangements, struck in retention deals, who were living in Texas, Florida, and Washington, D.C. Those who do live locally near their institution are then left to undertake the in-person service and teaching obligations still necessary in these others’ absence.

So, which paradigm for mobility is better for faculty in the long run? And in the fragile ecosystem that is academia, is there one which we must eventually choose?

Let’s say that we collectively choose the value of home over work communities, and most faculty members go remote, as during COVID-19’s origins, with (some) students, food service and custodial workers, and support staff without the freedom to work remotely remaining on campus. Such a choice is not without wider consequences. A ripe debate currently centers on what is gained and lost by remote work for all types of workers, not just academics; one significant consequence is the shrinking of the physical city center. Even the furniture left behind has no purpose. It is not difficult to imagine a similar shrinking of the college campus, and by extension, the quintessential college town.

This proposal raises the question of how to mentor new members of our academic community into this state of perpetual transience. This needs to be explored in real terms that take into account all the demands of work-life balance our new generations bring to their future career expectations. Should we make academic labor as a practice one that is increasingly or exclusively characterized by work in non-rooted, dynamic, and shifting spaces, always transportable across cities, states, or even continents—even as such conditions are not widely the case at present? Or should we seek a return to place-based labor models and structures that provide some stability for all, in terms of both geography and community? This is a difficult paradox to solve.

In the conclusion of A Nation of Strangers, Packard examines the concept of “New Towns” as one possible solution to extreme mobility and lost community in America. He focuses on Columbia, Maryland, which remains a primary model for so-called planned communities designed to reduce or eliminate the problem of exclusion and rootlessness. Could we imagine a kind of expanded college “new” town in which—as is already the case in some community college districts, and which was the premise of 19th-century Pullman, Illinois—all workers must live within the city limits? Could we imagine whether such a closed-loop system of living, which would reject the notion of remote work altogether, would stem the tide of faculty mobility? Or would the New Town operate just the same as colleges and universities do now, but just keep all its problems local?

Ultimately, New Towns can also be blue towns, as the lure of change itself is a core human curiosity. Therein lies the trouble with academic mobility; it is not an isolated affliction, but rather a symptom of a larger disease that crosses professions, driven by the desire for better lives, even when “better” comes with qualifiers, and when securing success means making sacrifices for others. It’s unlikely that either moving all faculty into newly imagined spaces or multiplying existing, fractured spaces will result in full academic equality. I can only observe, with caution, that academia is now operating in the unsustainable in-between, wherein we risk becoming a profession without a hometown, originating from nowhere.

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