Brow Beat

“I Quit Academia,” an Important, Growing Subgenre of American Essays

Across the country, professors are leaving the groves of academe.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sarah Kendzior, Al-Jazeera English’s firebrand of social and economic justice, suggested this week that there should be a Norton Anthology of Academics Declaring They Quit, among whose august contributions she would place Zachary Ernst’s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower.” Ernst’s Oct. 20 essay is a deeply honest account of his acrimonious departure from what many would consider a dream job: a tenured position as a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri.

Ernst’s contribution is indeed part of a raucous subgenre of “I Quit Lit” in (or rather, out of) academe, which includes Kendzior’s own acidic “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord’s surprisingly controversialLocation, Location, Location,” and my own satirical public breakdown. All of us faced, and continue to face, the impressively verbose wrath of a discipline scorned, which itself is the completing gesture of initiation into the I Quit Oeuvre.

Ernst’s “Why I Jumped” is thus not unusual in and of itself: Academe is a profession full of erudite free-thinkers who feel disillusioned by a toxic labor system in which criticism is not tolerated—so those who leave often relish the newfound ability to say anything they want (talking about “a friend” here). In its insularity and single-mindedness, academe is also very similar to a fundamentalist religion (or, dare I say, cult), and thus those who abdicate often feel compelled to confess.

But there’s an important way that Ernst’s essay distinguishes itself: Most I Quitters are like me, which is to say failed academics, or like Lord, whose disillusion hit her midway down the tenure track. Ernst is part of the sub-subgenre of quitters who did the unthinkable, giving up tenure. He joins, for example, scientist Terran Lane, who left the University of New Mexico for Google, and writer Anne Trubek, who ditched idyllic Oberlin when freelance writing was able to pay her bills.

It is still exceptionally rare for a tenured academic to publicly and voluntarily leave the field. (To understand the way the concept is viewed by academics, please say that phrase aloud the way you’d say “contract syphilis.”)  Despite their widespread and documented unhappiness, most associate professors (the rank one achieves upon being granted tenure) stick it out until the end, for numerous reasons. First, while tenure does not actually mean “a job for life no matter what,” it does offer a level of security absent from other professions. Moreover, by the time a professor makes tenure, she has usually been so heavily socialized by the “Total Institution” of the Academy that to leave it would be almost akin to death.

What further distinguishes Ernst’s giant middle finger to the profession, Mizzou, and the chair of his department (what approximates in academe for a direct “boss”), is that he does not succumb to either of these trappings. He is cynical about the “academic freedom” of the tenured, whom he believes have been hand-selected for mediocrity and obsequiousness (and since he is among their ranks, one wonders if he begrudgingly includes himself in this indictment). He also has no delusions about the relative importance of hyper-specialized research, and has sought to publish innovative multi-disciplinary articles that involve the scientific disciplines—for which he has then been heavily penalized. And finally, in a rare coup for humanists, Ernst is departing for a lucrative job in the private sector.

His essay has ignited academic Facebook, and may be pilloried by those who find his departing huff to be immature, ungrateful or unprofessional. But even to his detractors, his climactic critique of the “corporatization” of the American university should be unassailable (at least until the end). As has become common in higher education, the University of Missouri system now hires former multinational CEOs as presidents, on the basis of what Ernst criticizes as nebulous and irrelevant “business experience”—but not because Ernst is himself “anti-business.” Rather, he explains, a multinational CEO focuses on “marketing, cutting costs, and improving outcomes that are based on short-term economic measures. This means serving more customers with a smaller number of employees while cutting costs.” This actually makes no business sense in the university world.

Indeed, a conservative approach may have worked (or not!) at Sprint, where former University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee spent a universally-maligned tenure, but even the staunchest professor-hater can see why this is not a good model for education. The goal of a multinational corporation is to make its shareholders and highest executives rich. This is—I hope we can all agree—not the goal of the American research university, nor should it ever be. If anything, Ernst argues, the university’s affinity to business should share the ethos of the plucky start-up, as fledgling ventures are status-quo-rejecting “intruders” that “succeed only if they cause some kind of disruptive change that gives them the advantage over their vastly more well-established competitors.”

Ernst’s solution—that the corporatized university emulate Instagram rather than Microsoft—is, to be sure, a supremely provocative idea sure to incur academic scorn. But whether you agree—or, as I do, you object to the corporate model wholesale and reserve a special loathing for start-up culture—Ernst’s farewell should offer those outside the university a powerful glimpse into why a successful academic would want to add another entry to the I Quit Canon.