I Am Natalie Henderson: My "Nonacademic" Career in Academe & the #alt-ac Quest

I published the article below, “A 'Nonacademic' Career in Academe,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the summer of 2005, while I worked at Duke University.   Like many others who discuss career issues in that forum, I wrote under a pseudonym, Natalie Henderson, because I was critiquing my own employer.

Having my essay included in the alt-ac collection confirms the feeling I had in 2005 that the issues I was facing as a Ph.D-prepared staff employee in a university reach across academe.  Currently, in fact, the contingent of Ph.D.-holding non-faculty staff at universities seems to be growing.  An informal count at my own present employer, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, finds nearly forty such people in non-faculty posts. 

Thanks to the Internet and resources like the Chronicle, Inside HigherEd, Beyond Academe, the Versatile Ph.D. (formerly the WRK4US listserv), and Twitter, we are also increasingly self-aware and vocal.  We are pushing the academy to create spaces where we might make more honest and fully realized contributions to our universities’ missions of scholarship, teaching, and informed public engagement.  I am glad that what I wrote in 2005 has provided part of the impetus for more of us to speak out publicly in this forum.

Yet my own experience of publishing that article also provides a cautionary tale about the obstacles that alt-ac university staff may encounter, and the risks we may run, as we develop our voices, articulate our frustrations, and press the academy to change.  It behooves those of us on the alt-ac track to bear in mind that the career possibilities we seek pose a challenge to some of the academy’s most cherished traditions and structures (e.g., tenure, faculty autonomy and governance, and academic freedom), and that the academy may not be as receptive to our ideas as we might hope.

Hence at this juncture I need to talk about what happened after I published “Natalie’s” article.  To do that, I must shed my pseudonym and describe how criticizing my university from a staff position proved to be a costly decision for me.

“Natalie’s” article was actually the second piece she/I had published in the Chronicle in 2005 about issues related to nonacademic careers for Ph.D.s in the humanities.  The first, “Questioning the Promise,” appeared in February that year and explored my growing doubts about the ease of transferring the skills developed in earning a Ph.D. to satisfying professional employment outside the tenure track.  No one at Duke seemed to notice it.

The “Nonacademic Career” piece appeared in June that year, while I was on vacation.  When I returned, a friend at work had emailed that “someone” wanted to know if I was the author.  Knowing that I am an unconvincing liar, I admitted that I was.  “Someone” turned out to be our mutual supervisor, a tenured full professor with a top-level administrative post.  She was livid, and in short order, my professional life and future prospects at Duke unraveled.

Only days before the piece appeared, this same supervisor had complimented me effusively on my job performance during several difficult previous months for our organization.  My careful notes from this period remind me that she had discussed with me her plans to promote me within a few weeks to a newly-opened higher position in our institute. 

Yet, five days after the Chronicle piece appeared, she and my other faculty supervisor issued a devastating annual written personnel evaluation (still in my files) that expressed serious reservations about my professional competence by recounting at length deficiencies in areas of “teamwork,” “discretion,” “vision,” “tact” and “maturity.”  Although the evaluation did not mention the Chronicle piece, there is no question (my notes again confirm) that its disapproving tone and content appeared in direct response to it.  Nothing else could explain the sudden negativity.

A few days after sending the written evaluation, the supervisor upbraided me, in person, in her office, specifically about “Natalie’s” piece.  In a two-minute conversation in which I was given little opportunity to respond, she said that I had misinterpreted feedback I had received in the past, and stated that she couldn’t see how someone with “this attitude” could work productively with faculty in our interdisciplinary faculty development program.  She then confirmed everything I had written about university hierarchies by telling me that as an administrative staff person I should never mention my own ongoing scholarly research “unless somebody asks.”

As the summer unfolded, the promised promotion evaporated.  Instead of conducting a modest, local search for the position, the supervisors conducted a nationwide search while I was installed as the “acting” person in the post.  In the end, they put me through two rounds of interviews, and I watched as other candidates were conducted prominently through the office.  By summer’s end, they hired someone from out of state who became my supervisor.

Attempting to make legal as well as ethical sense out of what had happened to me, I consulted an attorney.  I found that, as a staff person at a private university, I had no “academic freedom,” no zone of free-speech protection for having expressed these ideas.  I did learn, however, that I would have had more protection had I worked at a public institution.

Perhaps most disillusioning, I realized the limits of my institute’s (and, by extension, the university’s, and specifically the faculty’s) stated commitments to risk-taking critiques of power.  We had just that spring mounted a series of lectures and events focused on “Dissent: Past and Present” and “Risky Knowledge,” but my experience taught me that the university was at best reluctant to protect dissenting views expressed within, or about, our own organization – especially when such “risky” views were articulated by staff.

After this disturbing and destabilizing episode, I launched a focused and intense campaign to extricate myself from what was clearly a dead-end situation. Just shy of one year after my “troubles” began, I found my present nonacademic job at my Ph.D. alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, where I have for four years been happily employed in a very good alt-ac position that also allows me to continue to function as a scholar. 

The lessons I learned as I stumbled along the rough and rocky road from “academic” to “nonacademic” career within academia are important ones for anyone with high-level academic training seeking non-faculty employment in a university setting.  This is especially true for those who seek non-faculty employment that will allow them to deploy the skills and habits of mind (including the propensity to analyze structures and the desire to speak freely) they developed while earning their Ph.D.s. 

While continuing to have university affiliation brings many advantages for access to research materials, prospects for teaching, and opportunities for scholarly interaction, it also has its pitfalls.  Its expansive rhetoric notwithstanding, university culture has entrenched hierarchies, norms, and practices – only a few of which one may chance to learn about during doctoral education. 

Ph.D.s seeking employment as non-faculty staff will do well to pay attention to these norms, and to remember that universities are not free of the kinds of abuses that take place in corporate or other non-academic settings.  We need to prepare ourselves for the reality that the process of carving out meaningful spaces for productive and rewarding alt-ac careers is likely to be hard and long.  I know Natalie would agree.

First published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

A 'Nonacademic' Career in Academe

by Natalie Henderson

Sitting in my office, my friend, a woman with a Ph.D. in English, was close to tears. "He said I shouldn't say anything in the meeting," she almost whispered, "because it would be inappropriate for staff to discuss faculty."

My friend had recently become administrative director of a small program here at Prestigious Research U., and part of her responsibility was to help select faculty participants. Having reviewed their proposals, she and the program's faculty director had been on their way to a meeting with other faculty leaders where she had expected to discuss the applicants. Instead, she sat silently, her anger simmering.

As she related the story, her hurt and puzzlement were palpable. I searched for words of comfort, but in my heart, I despaired: Hers was the only the latest chapter in a story I've seen unfolding ever since I finished my Ph.D. and came to work at the university as an administrator a few years ago.

My friend's experience and my own reveal the damaging effects of the rigid division of the university environment into two mutually exclusive camps: faculty and staff.

That separation is becoming increasingly untenable as the academic work force changes. With full-time, tenure-track faculty jobs become scarcer, a large contingent of Ph.D.'s has emerged -- people like my friend and me who are (happily) pursuing so-called nonacademic careers within academe.

The abundant literature on alternative careers for humanities Ph.D.'s generally poses two paths: academic and nonacademic. Little of the literature deals with those of us who fall in the gray area in between. But there are dozens of us here at my own university, and the same holds true at many other institutions.

The most visible of my fellow nonacademic colleagues here are professional librarians and university-press editors, but others are associate directors of interdisciplinary centers, directors of scholarship and student-development programs, student-affairs professionals, study-abroad coordinators, career counselors, diversity trainers, academic advisers, even financial managers.

From that list alone, it seems fair to conclude that my university values the versatility, intelligence, and high-level abilities of people with Ph.D.'s.

I came to my "nonacademic" career by a path that is perhaps typical. After I finished my Ph.D., I taught as an adjunct and had children before concluding that it was impractical to relocate my family to chase a full-time faculty position. After rethinking my future, I found my current job as an entry-level program administrator.

Undeniably, working here has brought a number of benefits -- many of those, in fact, that I sought when I envisioned a faculty life. I make a decent (though not lavish) salary. I have access to the library, and can have books, articles, and microfilm delivered to my office. I attend lectures. I talk with smart people about books, ideas, and new research. I have a large role in designing scholarly programs and choosing and inviting speakers for them.

Although I am not evaluated (or rewarded) on the basis of my own research and writing and cannot expect ever to receive the lifetime job security offered by tenure, I do get limited institutional support for my continuing work as a scholar. I go to at least one conference a year (on the company tab). I have business cards and letterhead. Recently I even got some time off to finish the book I'm completing for a respected university press. As a bonus, the university news service has promoted my expertise to the news media.

All in all, then, there's a lot to like in my quasi-academic life. But therein lies the problem: Quasi academic is not a recognized category at Prestigious U.

Nor is it a category factored into the humanities-career discussion, much of which implies that a humanities Ph.D.'s biggest employment challenge comes at the outset of the transition from faculty work -- in convincing someone to give you a job in the real world. Once you're hired, the logic goes, you quickly prove yourself to be a valuable team member, are welcomed as an equal, and invited to make contributions beyond what you might have expected. By that reasoning, the Ph.D. is a liability at first, but the skills associated with it soon become a plus.

But in a nonacademic job within academe, getting someone to hire you is not so hard. The problems come after you've signed the offer. The main difficulty, it seems, stems from the highly stratified environment of the university, where people are assigned to one of two large and rarely overlapping castes: faculty or staff. The highest status and the most power are conferred upon faculty members or top-level administrators who rose through the faculty ranks.

Staff members are most crucially defined as what we are not: We are not faculty members. Certain behaviors are appropriate for them and other behaviors for us.

Add to that the stigma of failure that is attached -- subtly but unmistakably by people within the professoriate -- to those who earn a Ph.D. and don't get a tenure-track job. So not only are we staff members in the lower category, we may also be assumed to have tried and failed to gain access to the higher one. We may, therefore, be seen as dangerous, because at one point we presumably wanted to be where they are, and may still harbor such irrational designs. We might, that is, try to get out of our box and do things considered appropriate only for those with faculty status.

As I've tried to find my way between the two poles, I've received numerous reminders that I should remember my place.

Sometimes those reminders have been communicated quite explicitly: An early performance evaluation congratulated me on overcoming an "arrogance" that unnamed people had supposedly observed in me. While I was pleased to have improved, I have yet to understand what specific incidents the letter referred to. Other than putting "Ph.D." in my e-mail signature, I hadn't trumpeted my scholarly writings or book contract. Certainly, any self-promotion I had displayed was modest in comparison to what was regularly tolerated (indeed, expected) among faculty members.

Other times the message has come more indirectly, mainly by treatment that renders me (like my friend) invisible and voiceless. Once in a meeting to discuss plans for programming built around a topic closely related to my research and writing, I offered a substantive and detailed suggestion about a direction in which the program might go. It was met with utter silence. Moments later, a faculty member threw out a very different idea, which was greeted with great enthusiasm from everyone in the room. I felt like I had burped in public.

Sometimes the message has come via a dismissal of the sophistication of my scholarly knowledge. Recently when I suggested a list of possible speakers to my supervisor, who is a faculty member, for a campus program related to my areas of expertise, he cautioned that the perspectives of the people I had suggested, all of them well respected in my field, might be overly parochial.

Frustrated by such messages, I once dared to complain that my intellectual contributions were not being taken seriously. My superior (a top faculty administrator) advised that such offerings were welcomed as long as I did not expect my specific areas of interest to be incorporated into programming.

The message seems to be that it's fine to continue my scholarly engagement so long as I keep it to myself. Legitimate, substantive scholarly contributions to the intellectual content of our programs are to be issued only from the faculty.

Maybe I should just abandon my hope of being able to shape the direction and vision of our academic enterprise and be content with my (in many ways quite cushy) lot.

But I still can't help wondering: In an arena where people spend so much time trying to think in nuanced ways and where we ostensibly celebrate the wide dispersal of sophisticated ideas, why is so much energy expended in maintaining fixed categories and squelching the intellectual contributions of those on the wrong side of the fence?

In an environment dominated by research agendas that often seek to right historic wrongs, question power, undermine hierarchy, and give voice to the voiceless, why are intellectual status and respect given so grudgingly to smart and engaged people who have jumped off the tenure track?

Natalie Henderson is the pseudonym of an administrator at a major research university in the South.


Thank you, Dorothea. It is scary to put this out there, but I know others have been far more courageous in situatuions with much more personally at stake. So I have tried to get beyond my own fears in the hope that my tale will be useful to others as we try to apply the same critical thinking to the academic workplace that we apply to other places and times.

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