On Tuesday, March 28th, the president of Wheeling Jesuit University (WJU) announced that, due to a recent declaration of financial exigency, nearly half of all academic departments (including chemistry) would be cut as of the academic year’s end.* Two days later I was in Orlando for the Spring ACS meeting with one of my fellow soon-to-be-unemployed colleagues and four graduating-in-the-nick-of-time seniors. I had been invited by a former colleague to co-organize the DIC session Undergraduate Research at the Frontiers of Inorganic Chemistry, an awesome opportunity and privilege for a recently tenured professor.
Even at that moment I had a bit of perspective on the situation. After all, I had received Notice of Non-Reappointment, not a cancer diagnosis. Unlike some of my WJU colleagues, my partner is a well-compensated industrial chemist, not a stay-at-home-parent, a law school student, or a fellow terminated faculty member. Still, I was dealing with fresh emotions associated with sudden imminent unemployment – a mixture of sadness, anger, disbelief, etc. – and not yet thinking about the long-term implications. At some point I would view WJU’s demise as part of the more general, inevitable fate of small, liberal arts institutions. In time, I would view my predicament in the greater trajectory of college faculty being reduced to “paraprofessionals” without deserved compensation or job security. Later on I might lament my role as effluent in the leaky pipeline of women in STEM careers. For now, though, I was wondering what it meant for me to be at this ACS meeting, participating (masquerading?) as an inorganic faculty member and researcher. To be quite honest, I was embarrassed to be associated with a failing institution, and ashamed that soon I wouldn’t be associated with an institution at all.
In the following days, however, my embarrassment subsided. Instead, I was bolstered by a wave of support and affirmation from a long list of individuals:
- my PhD advisor (who proved that he can indeed be tactful and diplomatic)
- a “sister” from my advisor’s research group (who immediately procured and handed me her card)
- a favorite undergrad professor (who made me want to be an inorganic chemist!)
- a former postdoc at my graduate institution
- a gracious colleague from nearby West Virginia University
- my session co-organizer (my VIPEr “mentor,” if I may call you that, Chip)
- several folks I had met during the 2016 VIPEr Workshop
- the amazing members of the VIPEr leadership team
- complete strangers that I shared a beer with at the VIPEr social
These people weren’t handing out pity (Thank God that’s not me!); rather, they were expressing sincere concern for me (How are you doing?) and for my career (Have you talked to so-and-so at nearby institution?), not to mention appropriate exasperation with administrative incompetence (insert sigh/eye roll/head shake/all three here). Not only that, but a number of folks shared worries about their own school’s efforts to navigate financial woes, from academic reorganizations to modified admissions standards. One person I met at the VIPEr social told me: “You’ll always be an inorganic chemist.” I was surprised at how much consolation that simple statement brought me.
In the subsequent weeks, I have received additional support from family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve experienced catharsis through end-of-semester faculty get-togethers and a playlist of angry breakup songs. I have submitted several applications for one-year visiting positions, and am looking forward to finally taking ukulele lessons (since I’ll have some free time this summer). But, thanks to those invaluable interactions at the ACS meeting, I am currently not
- ashamed to discuss my situation with colleagues whose institutions aren’t (as) dysfunctional
- confused about whether I can call myself a professor without a home institution
- questioning my worth as a chemistry professor and researcher
- panicking about never working in academia again (but I am still looking and if you're hiring I would love an interview - thanks!)
Perhaps because of being at a small school with only 2-3 other chemists, or maybe because I can only focus on my immediate surroundings at any given time, I think I was surprised to experience such support from the larger chemistry community, and in particular the VIPEr community (that, despite my increasing involvement over the past couple years, I have still somehow underappreciated). Nevertheless, the sense of kinship and solidarity was very real.
So thank you to all of you who lent a sympathetic ear, spoke a kind word, shared your own struggles, or otherwise by your presence helped me to face the semester’s end with equanimity. And for those of you who may be dealing with financial obstacles at your own institutions, please don’t be afraid to share your story with your fellow colleagues when the opportunity arises. There just may be other folks out there who need to hear it.