Those Deck Chairs Won’t Rearrange Themselves (letter)

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To the Editor:

In “The Great Resignation—or the Great Surrender?,” two retirees who missed most or all of the COVID years in higher ed tell those of us still working that we shouldn’t be quitters.

This lands about as well as you might expect.

I wonder if Massa and Conley similarly write letters urging wildland firefighters to never withdraw regardless of the fire conditions. (“We must move beyond ‘I’m burning, so I quit.’ ”) If they’d been writing 110 years ago, they might have been chastising workers for abandoning the Titanic. (“We acknowledge that we’ve never been on the Titanic, have spent our entire nautical careers on non-sinking ships, and have now retired to dry land, but ships are important! You can’t just abandon them!”)

I think the wise and moral path is well described by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner in The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is, and What It Can Be:

“We’ve been inspired by the message of economist Albert Hirchman: we all owe a certain degree of loyalty to our institution; but if the institution is not living up to its potential, then we should speak up, give voice to our dissatisfaction, and, if possible, assume a role that contributes to the articulation and embodiment of the mission. Ultimately, if one feels that achieving a viable mission is a dead end, then the ethical move is to “exit.”

Needless to say, exit is not always easy, and it may sometimes not be possible. But unless you articulate for yourself the conditions under which you would exit, you are essentially a servant to the whims of others.”

Fischman and Gardner, who not only have more personal experience on college campuses than Massa and Conley but also extensive professional experience studying college campuses, somehow manage to discuss worker loyalty in a way that doesn’t insult the worker or suggest they should be cannon fodder for the greater good.

And that’s not even getting into personal psychological health, which Massa and Conley dismiss entirely. Two people who’ve built a business on enrollment are entirely dismissing mental health concerns, an issue that’s not only affecting faculty but has been increasingly important for students for many years (and then put into hyperdrive by the COVID crisis).

–David Syphers

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