I died a little bit today when I clicked send on the letter below. Almost exactly 20 years ago I signed a contract with Mills College in Oakland, California. It felt at the time like a very right thing to do and it turned out that it was. For the last two decades I've enjoyed the most meaningful work a person could hope for. For a lot of people with whom I hang out, a position at a second/third tier liberal arts college for women is not exactly wow material. But once I started talking about it, attitudes always changed. My wife, Gillian, reminded me today that it was the passionate way I described the vocation of teaching at Mills that first "swept her off her feet." I've spent long periods of time at two institutions that were easily "better" than Mills and I gave both of them my all. But neither got as large a chunk of my soul and my imagination. It really was a calling, in that German sense of Beruf, vocation.

Some of the letter has an "inside baseball" feel, referring to events that would only make sense to those following the Mills financial crisis closely.

Dear President Hillman and Chairperson Sanborn,

I am about to send to the provost a redlined version of the retirement agreement that the college has prepared for faculty. My version will say that I will retire effective now if there are layoffs or after my current leave of absence if there are not.

Let me be clear, I have zero interest in retiring from being a full time tenured professor at Mills College. It is not my time and I still aspire to do great things here.

I was not targeted for layoff, perhaps because I was already on leave, perhaps because I scored OK on the OBJECTIVE measures: I’m already on the books to teach in multiple programs (SOC, PPOL, MBA, data science) and I could, in a pinch teach in several others (computer science, public health, and communication would not be too much of a stretch), I can teach all of the required courses in my home discipline and a few that cut across disciplines or are in new programs. And though I don’t get any extra points for holding an "indispensable leadership" position, I do aspire to such.

Or maybe I was SUBJECTIVELY rated well by the provost though I shudder to think about why I would have been and some of my colleagues’ careers might effectively be ended by such subjective expertise.

But it might also be sheer luck, because I’m male on a faculty that’s roughly 2/3 female, 1/3 male and the layoff slate is exactly the opposite: about 2/3 male, 1/3 female. Formidable odds in a process for which “there is no algorithm.”

But, assuming we come to agreement, why would I retire? The thing is, I happen to have an immediate employment option. It’s not a tenured position (but then after this month I wouldn’t really consider myself to have tenure at Mills either) and I won’t hold the Lorey I. Lokey Chair in Ethics (or any other chair) and the work is not as meaningful, but it is an actual multi-year contract (do you know that Mills does not treat us professionally enough to even send out annual salary letters?) and the pay is a little better and the teaching load a little lighter.

But mostly I am troubled by holding on to my job at Mills when I DO have an option while we effectively end tenure and fire some of my colleagues and friends.

I had plans. Plans to return and raise money for and start a signature “Technology, Business and Design” program that would be the second generation of programs that have sprung up around the world in the last year or two based on the lessons I’ve learned helping to start one at USC and build synergy between our computer science, arts, and business programs and cement a pipeline of funding and opportunity between Mills and Silicon Valley. Plans to raise money for an innovation lab that would bring a Mills version of human centered design to programs across campus and in the community. Plans to bring a vision for new ways of doing public policy and business education side-by-side. Plans for building a Mills-based consulting practice for government, non-profit, and for-profit organizations. Plans for building a really different sort of data science program at Mills. Plans for how to run a vibrant and unique sociology program using a remarkably thin faculty FTE model. Plans for contributing my expertise to nascent work in digital humanities at Mills. Plans for bringing design thinking to the way we run the college. Plans for making Mills a centerpiece of a book called “How to run a college like a business without running a college like a business.” Plans for creating a network of Mills faculty – community college faculty for creating student pathways. Plans for working with admissions and marketing to think through new analytical models to guide our strategy. Plans for participating more heavily in SoCal recruiting since I commute back and forth between LA and Oakland. Plans to pour the last 15 years of my professional life into inventing the liberal arts education for rest of the 21st century at Mills.

But I’m shelving those plans as a result of this past year's lack of vision, lack of follow through, and lack of accountability that builds at least 5 years of the same. The crisis of May was foreseeable at least as early as last summer and it’s simply unacceptable to have failed to effectively grapple with the situation, leaving it instead to the end of the school year with the future shape of the institution and people’s careers to be determined by a late spring rush job. All the claims to hard work and sincerity notwithstanding, that’s no way to run a starship. Only the republican senate approach on health care compares.

It’s a classic Catch-22: If there are layoffs of tenured professors who were otherwise performing satisfactory (except, perhaps, according to some standard of the provost’s), then I cannot in good conscience keep my job. If only a set number of retirements might prevent layoffs and I could, economically, retire, then I must. I know I’m not alone in having to go through that thought process.

There’s a humorous sign you sometimes see posted in workplaces, especially those that deliver a service: “bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” But, you see, that’s where we are. Bad planning and execution by some at Mills is creating an emergency for others at Mills. Some of the latter will have their careers as academics effectively ended because there is, for most of us, no lateral career market in the liberal arts professor realm. Some of the former will have their career prospect enhanced because they accomplished that rare thing: laying off tenured faculty. Do think about that. If we fire a liberal arts college tenured professor in her early 50s you have, in all likelihood ended her career, a career that involved a conscious sacrifice of mobility options SO THAT OUR INSTITUTION COULD BE WHAT IT IS. That was an exchange; she did her part, but we are now reneging.

As for me, I should like nothing better than to be where the action is at Mills, building something really excellent and awesome. But where is the vision? The only vision I’m seeing is a radical downsizing of ambition, shrinkage where there should be growth, ordinariness where there should be extra-ordinariness.

We talk a lot about social justice and we think of ourselves as a classy bunch. There are places, you know, where severance is tied to years of service. A common metric is a month of salary per year of service. Organizations in such regimes budget for their separation liability. There’s something fair, just, and noble about that. It saves the institution from what ought to be the sheer and utter shame of laying off or incentivizing retirement of 40 year employees with 6 months of salary. Which one of you in the private sector would stand for such shabby treatment of fellow professionals or yourself? Why is it OK here? For all the rhetoric of appreciating what faculty do, of having the utmost respect for the faculty, how can one in good conscience abide that sort of coal-dust handshake?

It will be hard for that not to be what I remember about Mills.


But on a different note.

It has been a privilege to work at Mills College for the bulk of my professional life. It’s given me an opportunity, I think, to make a difference that made a difference. I could come to work everyday and try to do a good job and if I succeeded I also got to make a dent in the world. And you paid me to do a job I could sometimes imagine doing for free. But the real reward came each May. After sitting in the sun for a few hours listening to speeches and pronunciation challenges, I’d head for the art museum and some student would say, “Dan, over here, Mom, this is professor Ryan who….” and the student would go on and on blah blah blah while mom and I shared a little moment. We look into each other’s eyes without saying a word and smile because we know what just happened. We knew what student was like 4 years early at orientation and we see what she is today. And we wordlessly exchange thanks: mom says thanks for taking up where we left off and I say thanks for letting me be a part of that. That was a privilege, and I thank the institution for it being repeated many times.

Maybe, just maybe, my recipe for optimism about Mills will hold yet: just look to the eucalyptus trees alongside the business school. People rallied once, in protest, when the old trees that destroyed the pedestrian path and occasionally fell on cars during winter rains were removed. And everyone laughed when the replacements were planted, hilarious miniatures like Shriners’ cars at a circus. But look at them now.

Sincerely,
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Dan Ryan