March 23, 2017

Dear Academia, I’m Leaving You.

Dear Academia,

I’m leaving you. I don’t know any other way to say it than to just be blunt and honest.

It took me a while to get to the point that I was ready to actually leave, even though I’ve had one foot out for quite a while.

It’s been a 21-year run for us. I first set foot into your hallowed halls as a naïve and intimidated 17-year-old, grateful just to have a seat. I was in awe of the professors who stood before me, sharing their wisdom and inspiring us. Taking their lead, I went further, first getting a master’s degree and eventually going all the way with you, earning that esteemed title of Doctor.

It was somewhere in my early doctoral education that your veneer began to fade and the tarnish started peeking through. Much like the way the cheap rings I adored as a child turned my finger green after too much wear, the ill effects of my close proximity to you began to show.

It was a slow progression of disillusionment. I really wanted to believe the best of you—I wondered if maybe it was the university I was attending that was the problem, but when I switched programs, I discovered that some of the same issues were still there. I grudgingly took a more critical look and realized that the problems were pervasive and in nearly every higher education institution across America. I wondered if maybe my perspective was because I was a student, so I did the only reasonable thing: I became a professor.

It turns out that my time served as adjunct faculty (at five different universities) only served to solidify my impression of you, Academia.

I served you well and faithfully, always striving to bring my very best to the students I was leading. You paid me back in poverty level wages, inconsistent contracts, no benefits, and an increasing demand for more from me. It wasn’t enough to have the education and experience I had already garnered; you wanted workplace trainings, community service, and although you would never pay for me to do anything like research, write, or publish, you were more than happy to brag about my accomplishments (of course—my accomplishments made you look good).

I was held to the same standards as my full-time colleagues who were making at least quadruple what I was paid. I noticed that the availability of full-time faculty positions was diminishing rapidly as administrator positions increased, and with them, the salary. I noticed that more and more universities moved toward hiring adjunct faculty. I saw my colleagues working more and more hours, often for lower wages, with the added benefits of exhaustion, burn-out and stress.

I’ve seen how students are treated as well. They are seen as profits and numbers, not people who are trying to learn and better their lives. Students are often saddled with a lifetime of debt for a subpar education, and thanks to the moneymaking model that has become higher education, schools now accept anyone who can pay (which is pretty much anyone who can get a loan), regardless of skill or ability. Curiously, students were often given tuition increases, but that rarely benefitted the faculty.

Basically, Academia, this relationship is toxic. You keep taking from me, demanding more of me, and giving less in return. Given that half of professors in the US are adjunct and that the average earnings for an adjunct professor is about $20,000 per year, it doesn’t seem that this relationship is going to get better anytime soon.

It’s taken me a while to get to the point that I am willing to leave you.

It’s not that I want to stay because of you—it’s because of the “kids.” It’s the students who have come to me and told me how much they valued my course that makes me want to stay. It’s the student who said, “It’s a luxury to be graded by Dr. Vallejos,” because she learned how to be a much better writer. It’s the student who approached me, inspired because the first time she came into my class was the first time she’d been taught by a woman of color. It gave her hope. It is the students I’ve mentored and inspired and whose life I’ve been able to touch. It’s those moments that kept me here with you. It’s because of the professors I had in my life who inspired me that has made me want to pay it forward.

But…as a woman who teaches self-love, respect and knowing one’s value, I can’t stay with you anymore (not even for the kids). I have spent 20 years with you and while there are some things about the experiences I’ve had with you that I absolutely adore, I can no longer ignore that you are exploiting me.

I refuse to participate in my own oppression, so I am leaving you, Academia.

And just so we are clear—it’s not me, it’s you.


Author: Lisa Vellejos

Image: Matthew Oliphant/Flickr

Editor: Emily Bartran

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