Now, Sweet Briar’s professors have to prepare to enter the job market—not an easy proposition in the current economy, especially in higher education.
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Indeed, many of Sweet Briar’s professors are undergoing the same kinds of challenges faced by people in many sectors these days: difficulties affording health care, endless bills, limited employment options—even depression. But in academia, as many professors at Sweet Briar emphasized, a lost job can be particularly catastrophic.
Mid-career faculty at the school, including many revered professors who’ve devoted their lives to education, will likely have a tough time finding similar positions at other college institutions. As many higher-education experts will attest (and as I have witnessed in my own experience), these institutions typically prefer to hire junior faculty who have well-adorned resumes and are fresh out of prestigious graduate schools but are less expensive and willing to commit to a job for decades. With what are often hundreds of applicants for every opening, schools can be picky.
Compounding problems, starting a job search in March is tough in academia: The school year is ending, meaning colleges have probably already filled any open positions for the fall. Some faculty fear they might be forced to find low-paying adjunct positions—jobs that, Ashbrook noted, "won’t pay the bills, but at least we won’t have a gap on our CVs." Ashbrook’s wife teaches at a local high school earning a salary that can probably be stretched to support both of them for a year, but it wouldn’t suffice much longer than that. Some professors, including Ashbrook, are getting desperate: "I’m more than available," he said. "In fact, I’m pretty cheap right now."
And in my discussions with faculty, I learned that while some are considering work outside of academia, few have knowledge of how to pursue such opportunities. Even those in the math and sciences—industries generally highlighted as ones poised for immense job growth these days—aren’t sure that their skills will translate to another sector. The school, they say, hasn’t offered them career counseling or transition services. (The administration for its part says that information regarding severance pay and outplacement services will be available in April.) And there is little hope for a severance package, some faculty told me. With most of the endowment tied up in legal restrictions or designated for creditors, little spare money exists to provide a soft cushion for employees.
Barnes, who was a year away from getting tenure, worries about her current resume; until last week, she felt secure. Like many of the faculty whom I spoke with, Barnes said that she was struggling with shock and debilitating stress. "I started the job search on Tuesday night," she said. "But on Wednesday, I was too depressed to do anything." Students and faculty didn’t attend classes last week after hearing the news because they were too emotional to focus on their work, some explained.