Take this Job and (Change) It: The Great Resignation in Higher Education
Health, Safety, and Well-being Policy and Advocacy Supporting the Profession Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level
June 17, 2022
Throughout the United States, there have been reports for the past year indicating that folks in all lines of work are tired. Without a pandemic life in the workforce could be hard but COVID-19 created new levels of unimagined hardness through crisis management, being short-staffed, added duties, lowered resources, and much more. People are tired. In the famous lyrics of David Allan Coe, some folks have decided to relay to their employers that they should “take this job and shove it” (1977). Indeed, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz noted that, in addition to strong economic incentives to switch jobs in the current market, we are experiencing “a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment” (Pazzanese, 2021). In August 2021 alone, 4.3 million people quit their jobs, almost a quarter-million more than reported the previous month, as noted in a U.S. Bureau of Labor report. A record 4.5 million people resigned in November 2021 (Smith, 2022). Deemed “The Great Resignation” by Texas A&M University’s Anthony Klotz, professor, and organizational psychologist, 2021 saw a remarkable amount of people across the country quitting their jobs as they seek “work [that] will fit around our personal lives rather than our personal lives fitting around work” (Smith, 2022).
Living through the pandemic has caused people to reassess their lives and what is important to them. Comedian Trevor Noah spoke about the Great Resignation in a Fall 2021 episode of The Daily Show, on which he is the host, noting that “[t]here’s more to life than making money, and the pandemic has forced people to reconsider whether their jobs were really how they wanted to spend their entire lives” (Amira et al., 2021). Workers are tired, and they are determining in significant numbers that the time has come to seek alternative options. Bharat Ramamurti (2022), Deputy Director for the White House National Economic Council, referred to this time as the “Great Upgrade” as opposed to the “Great Resignation,” noting that Americans are resigning to take on roles they feel are better and pay more.
Those working in higher education institutions across the country have experienced the effects of this Great Resignation. I personally have considered quitting my higher education job more times than I would care to admit since April 2020. It is all I can think of on especially tough days. I have wanted to quit because working and living through a global pandemic was hard and because I missed my family and friends who live 1,250 miles away. Because there has been a lot of tough shit happening in the U.S. and abroad (i.e., racial reckoning, bitter partisan division, ever-widening social stratification, international humanitarian crises, climate change) that have caused me to question my why and for what and at what cost. Because I was drowning in work in a sometimes-harsh environment, and when I tried to relax, I worried about work and everything else. Sometimes I wanted to quit just because, and I actually did at one point. But, after some soul searching (and the gut-wrenching epiphany that it was not financially feasible for me to leave), I decided to stick it out. It was, after all, my dream job and something I had worked for years to achieve.
Based on candid conversations with others in the field and a slew of articles, reports, and online posts from faculty and staff that have been created since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, I know that I am not alone. Many people have transitioned to other campuses or left higher ed altogether in the past two years. While I stayed at my current institution, the lyrics of David Allen Coe and daydreams of leaving higher ed continue to linger in my mind (Coe, 1977).
Over the past two years, higher education has been soaked with reasons to jump ship. The disappearance of work-life balance (if it ever existed at the academy), the seeming lack of empathy and support from administrators, and the prioritization of dollars over sense have left many in the field with feelings of disillusionment, anger, and the need to seek a better alternative to the life that they have been living (McClure, 2021). While navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders have placed political ideology and enrollment numbers ahead of the health and welfare of those working on campus, and faculty and staff are fed up (Ellis, 2021). 2020 alone saw the loss of over 600,000 campus workers through voluntary resignations and layoffs (Bauman, 2021). As people left and, in some cases, died due to the pandemic, hiring freezes were in place, which led to increased workloads and exacerbated stress in the “other duties as assigned” line seen in so many workplaces’ position descriptions (Morales, 2020).
Faculty and staff at the academy are tired, and they are leaving. Higher education researchers and professional organizations have tried to understand what has led to so much resignation within the field. A June 2021 survey completed by NASPA, the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators, sought to gauge why respondents felt student affairs professionals were leaving the field. Results included the notion that benefits and salary in higher education are not competitive, an increased risk for burnout due to crisis management and stress, and a perceived lack of value and appreciation for staff (NASPA, 2021). The Chronicle of Higher Education posed multiple questions to college professors seeking input on what had changed about their work, if they feel supported, and what, if anything, could be done to change how they feel (The Review, 2022). Some of the submissions noted that faculty had experienced a realignment in values and the need to focus more on life and less on work throughout the pandemic. Others relayed that they felt heightened demands with little rewards or recognition. Another concern was the lack of support from administrators and the focus on enrollment over institutional mission (The Review, 2022). Windield and Paris (2021) found that lean resources, increased responsibility, lack of recognition, less ability to disconnect from work for meaningful time off, feelings of exploitation, and pessimistic views of higher education’s future were reasons for staff leaving their institution or higher education altogether.
Many challenges facing the academy have arisen-or instead and have been further exposed-during the past two years. However, in challenging times there can also be a great opportunity!
How can higher ed leaders work toward positive change? Wade (2022) noted the importance of data-informed decision-making, critical conversations, and development of staff. Higher ed leaders must take stock of the current climate on their campuses—through surveys, listening tours, exit interviews, focus groups, and more—to determine areas in need of development and folks in need of support and establish a plan of action. Then, they must act.
In their work, Graham (2021) relayed the need for work-life balance and flexibility in the work environment and that this is especially important to millennial employees. After forcing faculty and staff to work remotely, and seeing that it works, the idea that one’s work must be tied to a physical location does not bear weight anymore. A significant driver of the Great Resignation has been the search for flexibility. Higher ed leaders must allow for flexible work options to maintain competitiveness with other campuses or work fields outside the university setting. Faculty and staff also need leaders who model appropriate work-life balance and those who set it as an expectation for the entire community.
Leaders at all levels of administration and their governing bodies must reevaluate the benefits they are willing to offer to attract and retain great employees. There are efforts toward unionization in higher education throughout the U.S. as students, faculty, and staff “want better working conditions, and they are ready to fight for them” (Brooks, 2021). They want to get paid what they are worth instead of existing on an internalized sense of duty to the university and “being a team player” that has for too long perpetuated the exploitation of student, entry- and mid-level staff (Ellis, 2021). The pay and benefits must match the expectations for experience and credentials. If the academy cannot pay more, it should expect less.
Leaders must also be transparent in what they are willing to offer from the initial job posting. Delaying the salary reveal until the middle or end of a selection process is a waste of time, resources, and university funds and should not be practiced or tolerated. The profession’s standards call for us to “demonstrate effective stewardship/use of resources (i.e., financial, human, material),” to “teach resource stewardship to others,” and to “advocate for equitable hiring practices” (American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 2015). Without updated, transparent, and just hiring practices and salary equity reviews, marginalized identities will continue to bear the brunt of pay gaps, and “while these intersectional inequities have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the wage gap is an intentional, structural problem that demands intentional, structural solutions” (Churches, 2020; Schaller, 2021; & American Association of University Women, 2021). The Great Resignation has enabled faculty and staff to be choosy. Part of being choosy is the ability to skip posts that don’t offer a salary upfront or offer a laughable salary while requiring graduate degrees and years of experience. This alone should encourage hiring managers to lean into transparency and an equitable approach to recruitment and selection if reasons outside our guiding standards are needed.
Higher Education needs a change. A realignment. An atonement. And to be clear, campus leaders alone cannot bear the brunt of working toward positive change. While, as evidenced by the Great Resignation, folks at all levels and occupations within the university setting have sent a resounding message that they are tired and leaving, those that have chosen to stay must demand change at every opportunity. All campus community members must reflect on and learn from the past and present issues that have led to the Great Resignation, look critically at current practices, and work toward enhancing the collegiate experience for students, faculty and staff. The academy, all of us, can turn this Great Resignation into a Great Rebirth, one in which we take this job and change it (before more of us say take this job and shove it). It is time to change higher education and working towards a Great Upgrade to fight off the Great Resignation sounds good to me!
American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2015). ACPA/ NASPA professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Authors.
American Association of University Women. (2021). Systemic racism and the gender pay gap: A supplement to the simple truth. The Simple Truth. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2021/07/SimpleTruth_4.0-1.pdf
Amira, D., Means, L.S., Noah, T., & Radosh, D. (Writers), and Meyer, D.P. (Director). (2021, October 14). Getting back to Normal-ish – America’s great resignation. (Season 27, Episode 11) [TC series episode]. In Flanz, J., Katz. J., & Noah, T. (Executive Producers). The Daily Show. Ark Angel.
Bauman, D. (2021, July 8). After a Year of Losses, Higher Ed’s WorkForce Is Growing Again. Chronicle.com. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-a-year-of-losses-higher-eds-work-force-is-growing-again
Coe, D. A. (1977). Take this job and shove it [Song]. Take this job and shove it. Epic.Churches, K. (2020, March 27). Why the pay gap persists in high-paying professions. American Association of University Women. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.aauw.org/resources/news/media/insights/why-the-pay-gap-persists-in-high-paying-professions/
Ellis, L. (2021). The Great Disillusionment College workers are burning out just when they’ll be needed most. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-great-disillusionment
Graham, C. (2021). Millennials and the great resignation. [Blog]. Chelsea. Retrieved February 3,2021, from https://chelseakrost.com/millennials-and-the-great-resignation/?fbclid=IwAR1IClk KNjiUqo36nl3NwOrw39n2vnNhV9pXj40pV5U9XKDZXCKVMdrQ9k
NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education data, collected in June 2021
Morales, A. (2020, September 27). Other Duties as Assigned: Surviving a Pandemic as a Student Affairs Practitioner. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://naspa.org/blog/other-duties-as-assigned-surviving-a-pandemic-as-a-student-affairs-practitioner
McClure, K. R. (2021, September 27). Higher Ed, we've got a moral problem - and a free T-The shirt won't fix it. EdSurge. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-09-27-higher-ed-we-ve-got-a-morale-problem-and-a-free-t-shirt-wont-fix-it
Pazzanese, C. (2021, November 24). Harvard economist sheds light on 'great resignation.’ Harvard Gazette. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/10/harvard-economist-sheds-light-on-great- resignation/
Ramamurti, B. [@BharatRamamurti]. (2022, January 10). Workers are quitting to take new, better-paying jobs. It’s not the Great Resignation—it’s the Great Upgrade. And it’s exactly the kind of economy @POTUS said he wanted to help build. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/bharatramamurti/status/1480590753592135693
Schaller, J. (2021). The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap: 2021 Update. The Simple Truth. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2021/09/AAUW_SimpleTruth_2021_-fall_update.pdf
Smith, M. (2022, January 14). Professor who predicted 'The great resignation' shares the 3 trends that will dominate work in 2022. CNBC. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/14/the-great-resignation-expert-shares-the-biggest-work-trends-of-2022.html
The Review. (2022.). I cycle between nihilism and rage. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/i-cycle-between-nihilism-and-rage?cid=gen_sign_in
Wade, M. (2022, January 4). Other duties as assigned: The impact of the great resignation.Home. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.naspa.org/blog/other-duties-as-assigned-the-impact-of-the-great-resignation
Windield, J.D., and Paris, J.H. (2021). A mixed-method analysis of burnout and turnover intentions among higher education professionals during COVID-19. TUScholarShare. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/dj62p
Amanda Morales is the current Chair of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues Knowledge Community. She's a doctoral student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where she also serves as the Director of Residence Life.