You know the school year is about to start when all the retreats begin. There are the college retreats, the departmental retreats, the retreats for those apparently too criminally insane (or masochistic) to not have made up a reason to be out of the state.... I have spent the most craptastic week going to retreats. I don't have balls, but I feel right now like I've always imagined it feels like to have been kicked in them. These were not only awful soul-sucking experiences, they were down-right demoralizing and demotivating.
When I came to my job at Wonderland University, I was told that were were an R1 institution. But you see, with the new Carnegie rankings we dropped to the second tier of institutions (now called 'high research'. This differs from the top tier of research institutions which is now called 'very high research' or the bottom tier which has no special designation but must be equivalent to 'no research pulse detectable'). It has become clear to me that the focus has been drifting while I have been here from a research emphasis and that everything from paper publications to research dollars has been declining over the past decade. While my department has also experienced this general research decline, it has been less pronounced and is still highly supportive of research. In other departments, things have been more grim. If their research programs were patients at hospitals the doctors would have called time of death a long time ago because there really is no sign of life. In fact, some of them should have had their Ph.D programs buried a while ago because they're beginning to reek. We have watched at least one other highly productive department implode. There has been no discussion at the university-level about whether or how to change this trajectory.
There is nothing wrong with being at an R2 institution if it fits with your career aspirations. What I have been weighing for a while is what career do I want and can this place support it? There are huge benefits here on the personal side - a family friendly, collegial atmosphere where my natural research productivity makes me a rock star. The down-sides are: many of students I am trying to recruit have competing offers from bigger universities that I cannot compete with, even if they come I'm almost embarrassed by the training and financial opportunities available to them, institutional regulations make having post-docs an almost impossible task, and general research infrastructure is frayed.
So this brings me back to this week's retreats. What I desperately wanted was a feeling about where the university was going. Did we have a plan? What were our priorities? The answer is that Wonderland University has no plan. In fact, the responses to pointed questions made it clear that many people would prefer to pretend that the university was still an R1 than deal with the reality that it wasn't. Some even made up ridiculous arguments involving ranking categories that do not exist and clearly we wouldn't be in anyway. Just because I say I'm as rich as Bill Gates doesn't make it true (though I desperately wish it did!) Even more awfully, it was clear that as an assistant professor I knew more about how the research and graduate programs actually worked at this university than any of the higher administration and definitely more about how they should work at an R1. Honestly, I wasn't asking about detailed trivial things either. It was the equivalent of your car mechanic not knowing where the brakes were. I may be young and naive but that seems a little fucked up. The sad thing is that my department is desperately trying to fix things but I am unconvinced that a single department can create an island in a university that doesn't seem to care.
The problem is that while I have been at other universities, this is the only university I have ever been a faculty member. What if everyplace is like this and I leave and the only thing that changes is that I have crappier colleagues?
So, my question to my wise readers is this: how do you know if it is time to leave?