The Provost's Shilling

I am (and have been for some time now) in two distinct minds about my employer.

On the one hand, it would seem that I should be nothing if not consummately loyal for having a job in the first place.  After all, my university hired me when I was but a graduate student, only just finishing my doctoral degree.  They took a risk on me when I had not yet proven myself tenurable, and they tenured me--a great vote of confidence in the work that I had done and in the promise that they believed I showed for future research.  And besides, I (we) have great (and I do mean phenomenally great) students where I teach.  I love teaching, and I love teaching our students.  I should be proud to be associated with my university, wear its livery and take its shilling for my service.

On the other hand, it would seem that my employer wants nothing more than for me to be looking elsewhere for positions, to be constantly courting that "outside offer" that will guarantee me promotion and status far beyond anything that I might receive simply by serving loyally here.  I know, I know: "It's the market, stupid."  I am only as valuable to my employer as The Market (that is, the faculty in my discipline at other universities) demands; plus, if I don't get those outside offers, my employer has more or less zero incentive to pay me more, never mind promote me without the requisite second book.  And yet, to judge at least from the promotions that colleagues in my department have received of late, it is not the second book that my university wants at all, but rather the challenge of keeping me when others would lure me away.

As one of my senior colleagues once put it (in his characteristic fashion, although I'm paraphrasing from memory here), "The ideal professor in our department would seem to be the one who never unpacks his books."

I was thinking about all of this last week while walking around the campus of a local university just north of here and wondering how different (if at all; I'm not that naïve) my life would be if I were elsewhere. Our university, while beautiful, is rigid in its architechtural layout: everything squared and contained. The campus I was visiting is much more park-like, its buildings hidden away amidst the trees. "Oxbridge collegial vs. American denominational," one of my colleagues from the other university said. "At your university, the buildings enclose the park; at ours, the park encloses the buildings."  With, I should add, a considerably different feel.  There, I felt free to wander about, look for nooks and crannies and possibilities.  On my campus, I feel constrained, bounded, cut off, determined.  There is only one way to walk and you are going to walk that way.

Of course, I've been teaching at the same institution for seventeen years now; perhaps it is inevitable that I should feel like there are other possibilities that I might like to explore.  But likewise I have been married to the same person now for seventeen years, and I don't see how looking elsewhere to test his devotion to me would be a good idea.  Again, I know, I know.  My employer is an institution, not a human being; I have no call to be loyal to an institution in the way that I am to my spouse.  Nor would I be betraying my past students (although it does feel that way) to look elsewhere for institutional validation and support.  I taught them when they were here, but that does not oblige me to stay here for the rest of my life.  But.

But is it really the case (I wondered on Friday as I strolled about among the hydrangeas, sculptures, and pine trees) that my employer wants me to be dreaming about other campuses, other student bodies, other libraries, other lives?  'Cause I can do that, quite easily.  I would love (as you all know) to have a house (although, truth to tell, a decluttered apartment is far from second best, perhaps even preferable once we get this last bit of renovation done); I would love to live in a neighborhood that did not, alas, feel like it was under siege (whether from the secret service or the local gangs); I think (although, truth to tell, I'm not quite sure about this one) I would like to live in a smaller city, one that didn't take hours to drive out of, ideally one close to the mountains.  But, you know, the thing that I want most is, well, simply to feel wanted, like what I do is considered valuable enough to want to keep me as a colleague, not just by default now that I have tenure, but actively, because what I do seems to be good.

And it is hard, let me tell you, to feel this when you see colleagues promoted over you simply because they have managed to attract the attention (intentionally or not, although I suspect it is often intentionally; they are smarter than I am in this respect) of other institutions so as to make our employer jealous enough to fight to keep them.  They have taken the provost's shilling, too, but they do not seem to feel bound in any significant way to his service, nor to the honor or reputation of our university over that of their own career.  I don't want to feel this way, but it seems that I am obliged to do so if I am to have any respect for myself and my own work.

I wish so much that I didn't feel so strongly that this was my only choice.  That, or accept that I have been duped.


  1. You do have another choice: write a second book. There never has been any ambiguity about that expectation, has there? I don't understand why you feel so victimized by this requirement, which is pretty standard at high-paying, highly-ranked, private universities.

  2. I have this fantasy of a shadowy group of senior women scholars designing a system of making offers to other women--offers that, from the beginning, would be made with the understanding that the recipient might well not accept them, but offers that would help get women promoted. Then, those newly senior women could get into positions where they could make more offers to other women to help them get promoted. An impossible fantasy, I know, but now that I'm both a full prof and an administrator, one I love to imagine!

  3. Thank goodness we women have women like you--I like your fantasy! But, in fact, I'm feeling much better about the whole situation now that I have the image of taking the king's shilling to mull over: what does it mean to be loyal to an institution? What does it mean to wear its livery, represent it publicly, speak on its behalf? Plan A is to keep writing, but this is not to exclude the possibility of Plan B.


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