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On Leaving Academia « Ars Experientia

As almost everybody knows at this point, I have resigned my position at the University of New Mexico.  Effective this July, I am working for Google, in their Cambridge (MA) offices.

Countless people, from my friends to my (former) dean have asked “Why?  Why give up an excellent [some say ‘cushy’] tenured faculty position for the grind of corporate life?”

Honestly, the reasons are myriad and complex, and some of them are purely personal.  But I wanted to lay out some of them that speak to larger trends at UNM, in New Mexico, in academia, and in the US in general.  I haven’t made this move lightly, and I think it’s an important cautionary note to make: the factors that have made academia less appealing to me recently will also impact other professors.  I’m concerned that the US — one of the innovation powerhouses of the world — will hurt its own future considerably if we continue to make educational professions unappealing.

Opportunity to Make a Difference

Ultimately, I got into science in order to make a positive difference on the world. That goal remains, but, for some of the reasons I outline below, it is becoming harder over time. Google is a strong example of an organization that actually is using advanced computer science to make a real, positive difference in the world. While it’s also difficult to make an impact at an immense company like Google, in the current climate it seems like better chances than in academia.

Workload and Family/Life Balance

Immense amounts have been written about this, and I won’t try to reprise them here. Suffice it to say that the professorial life can be grueling, if you try to do the job well, and being post-tenure can actually make it worse. This is a widespread problem in academia, and UNM is no different. But, as of my departure, UNM had still not approved a unified parental or family leave policy for faculty, let alone established consistent policies and support for work/life balance.

Centralization of Authority and Decrease of Autonomy

In my time at UNM, I served under four university presidents, three provosts, and two deans. The consistent pattern of management changes was centralization of control, centralization of resources, and increase of pressure on departments and faculty. This gradually, but quite noticeably, produced implicit and explicit attacks on faculty autonomy, decrease of support for faculty, and increase of uncertainty. In turn, I (and many others) feel that these attacks subvert both teaching and research missions of the university.

Funding Climate

A near-decade of two simultaneous foreign wars, topped off by the most brutal recession in two generations, has left federal and state budgets reeling. Compounding this, the current Republican-led poisonous political climate and Republican-orchestrated congressional melt-down has destroyed any chance of coherent, reasoned budget planning. In the face of these pressures, we have seen at least seven years of flat or declining funding for federal science programs and state legislatures slashing educational funding across the country. Together, these forces are crunching universities, which ultimately turns into additional pressure on faculty. Faculty are being pushed ever harder to achieve higher levels of federal research funding precisely at the time when that funding is ever harder to come by. This turns into policies that hurt the university by putting the teaching mission at odds with the research mission and subjugating both to the quest for the elusive dollar. A recent UNM School of Engineering policy, for example, uses teaching load as a punishment to goad professors into chasing funding. (Indeed, the policy measures research productivity only as a function of dollars brought in. Strangely, research productivity doesn’t enter the picture, let alone creativity.)

Hyper-Specialization, Insularity, and Narrowness of Vision

The economic pressures have also turned into intellectual pressures. When humans feel panicked, we tend to become more conservative and risk-averse — we go with the sure thing, rather than the gamble. The problem is that creativity is all about exploratory risk. The goal is to find new things — to go beyond state-of-the-art and to discover or create things that the world has never seen. It’s a contradiction to simultaneously forge into the unknown and to insist on a sure bet.

Traditionally, in the US, universities have provided a safe home for that kind of exploration, and federal, state, and corporate funding have supported it. (Incidentally, buying advanced research far cheaper than it would be to do it in either industry or government, and insulating those entities from the risk.) The combination has yielded amazing dividends, paying off at many, many times the level of investment.

In the current climate, however, all of these entities, as well as scientists themselves, are leaning away from exploratory research and insisting on those sure bets. Most resources go to ideas and techniques (and researchers) that have proven profitable in the past, while it’s harder and harder to get ideas outside the mainstream either accepted by peer review, supported by the university, or funded by granting agencies. The result is increasingly narrow vision in a variety of scientific fields and an intolerance of creative exploration. (My colleague Kiri Wagstaff, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, has written an excellent analysis of one facet of this problem within our own field of Machine Learning.)

Poor Incentives

Further, the “publish or perish” and “procure funding or perish” pressures discourage exploration outside one’s own specialty. It’s hard to do exploratory or interdisciplinary research when it is unlikely to yield either novel publications in your own field or new funding streams. (Let alone, say, help students complete their degrees.) But many things that are socially important to do don’t necessarily require novel research in all the participating fields, so there’s a strong disincentive to work on them. As just one example from my own experience: when you can’t get credit for helping to save babies lives, then you know that there’s something seriously wrong in the incentive system.

Mass Production of Education

There’s been a lot of excitement in the media about Stanford’s 100,000+ student computer science courses, MIT’s open-sourced classes, and other efforts at mass, distance-education. In some ways, these efforts really are thrilling — they offer the first truly deep structural change in how we do education in perhaps a thousand years. They offer democratization of education — opening up access to world-class education to people from all over the globe and of diverse economic and social backgrounds. How many Ramanujans might we enable, if only we could get high-quality education to more people?

But I have to sound three notes of caution about this trend.

First, I worry that mass-production here will have the same effect that it has had on manufacturing for over two centuries: administrators and regents, eager to save money, will push for ever larger remote classes and fewer faculty to teach them. Are we approaching a day in which there is only one professor of computer science for the whole US?

Second, I suspect that the “winners win” cycle will distort academia the same way that it has industry and society. When freed of constraints of distance and tuition, why wouldn’t every student choose a Stanford or MIT education over, say, UNM? How long before we see the AT&T, Microsoft, or Google of academia? How long before 1% of the universities and professors garner 99% of the students and resources?

Third, and finally, this trend threatens to kill some of what is most valuable about the academic experience, to both students and teachers. At the most fundamental level, education happens between individuals — a personal connection, however long or short, between mentor and student. Whether it’s personally answering a question raised in class, spending twenty minutes working through a tricky idea in office hours, or spending years of close collaboration in a PhD mentorship relationship, the human connection matters to both sides. It resonates at levels far deeper than the mere conveyance of information — it teaches us how to be social together and sets role models of what it is to perform in a field, to think rigorously, to be professional, and to be intellectually mature. I am terribly afraid that our efforts to democratize the process will kill this human connection and sterilize one of the most joyful facets of this thousand-year-old institution.

Salaries

It has always been the case that academics are paid less than their comparable industry colleagues — often, substantially so. (This is especially so in highly sought fields, such as science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM fields] as well as various health fields, law, and a number of other disciplines.) Traditionally, universities compensate for this with broad intellectual and schedule freedom and the joy of mentoring new generations of students. But all of the trends I have outlined above have cut into those compensations, leaving us underpaid, but with little to show for it in exchange. As one of my colleagues remarked when I announced my departure, “We’re being paid partly in cool. If you take away the cool parts of the job, you might as well go make more money elsewhere.”

Anti-Intellectualism, Anti-Education, and Attacks on Science and Academia

There is a terrifying trend in this country right now of attacking academia, specifically, and free thought and intellectualism, generally. Free thought is painted as subversive, dangerous, elitist, and (strangely) conspiratorial. (That word… I do not think it means what you think it means.) Universities are accused of inefficiency and professors of becoming deadwood after tenure or of somehow “subverting the youth”. (Socrates’s accusers made a similar claim before they poisoned one of the great thinkers of the human race.) Politicians attack science to score points with religious fundamentalists and corporate sponsors.

Some elements of these feelings have always floated through the United States psyche, but in recent years it has risen to the level of a festering, suppurating, gangrenous wound in the zeitgeist of the country. Perhaps those who sling accusations at education have forgotten that the US reshaped millennia of social and economic inequity by leading the way in creating public education in the nineteenth century? Or that education has underlaid the majority of the things that have made this country great — fields in which we have led the world? Art, music, literature, political philosophy, architecture, engineering, science, mathematics, medicine, and many others? That the largest economy in the world rests on (educated) innovation, and that the most powerful military in human history is enabled by technological and engineering fruits of the educational system? That the very bones of the United States — the constitution we claim to hold so dear — was crafted by highly educated political idealists of the Enlightenment, who firmly believed that freedom and a more just society are possible only through the actions of an enlightened and educated population of voters?

Frankly, it’s sickening, not to mention dangerous. If the haters, fearers, and political opportunists have their way, they will gut one of the greatest institutions in human history and, in the process, will cut the throat of this country, draining its lifeblood of future creativity. Other countries will be happy to fill the gap, I’m sure, and pick over the carcass of the country that was once the United States of America.

There are other factors behind my decision, of course. Any life change is too complex to express in a short essay. These are the major ones, though.

Nor am I necessarily done with academia forever. I’m going to give the industry track a try for a while, but I could well find myself back in academia in the future. There are certainly many things I still find beautiful and joyful about the job. In the interim, I will look for other ways to contribute to society, other ways to help educate the future, and other ways to change the world.

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