Why do Faculty Leave?

A Recent Large-Scale Study Provides Clues on Why Faculty Leave

For a few years now, rumblings of the Great Resignation or the Great Reassessment have echoed throughout higher education, with some data suggesting that faculty are leaving higher education at higher rates than in years past. Faculty might choose to leave their position for many different reasons, and, historically, research into faculty retention has often focused on trends related to specific fields (e.g., STEM fields) or more prestigious institutions. A recent study, however, explores patterns of faculty attrition across both STEM and non-STEM faculty throughout a variety of institutions in the U.S. The authors analyzed more than 245,000 employment records for tenured and tenure-track faculty employees over ten years, and their findings highlight some troubling patterns.

First, the authors found that attrition among female faculty was consistently higher than that of male faculty. They put it plainly: “We find that annual attrition risk for women faculty, across fields, exceeds men’s risk in every year of an academic career” (Spoon et al., 2023). Second, contrary to what some might assume, the authors found that attrition was highest for women with tenure working in non-STEM fields. They also found that men’s rates for tenure and promotion peaked earlier than women’s—meaning that, on average, male faculty were promoted to the associate level one year earlier than female faculty and two years earlier for the promotion to full.

Panelists from the 2023 Women in Science Symposium.

And it’s not just that women are more likely to leave higher education. The authors found that the reasons women cite for leaving are substantially different than those of men. Women tend to feel pushed out of the academic workplace more often than men, and they also name workplace climate (e.g. harassment, dysfunctional leadership, lack of a sense of belonging, etc.) more frequently as a reason for leaving their position. While workplace climate mattered for men too, men were more likely cite leaving their position because they felt pulled towards better career or professional opportunities.

The loss of any faculty represents a significant cost for an institution. Hiring to replace faculty is time-consuming and financially expensive. Additionally, faculty turnover can have a significant impact on student success and campus morale. The higher attrition rates for women also contribute to their ongoing underrepresentation in leadership positions.

Our findings indicate that gender incongruences are real, substantial, and universal in academia, even in disciplines with larger proportions of women, such as health and education… Such incongruences highlight the way departmental and institutional policies and norms tend to reflect, accommodate, and reinforce the traditional overrepresentation of white men from more privilege backgrounds, thereby driving gendered attrition over a career and inducing substantial, asymmetric loss of overall talent and scholarship (Spoon et al., 2023).

While this paper primarily examined the experiences of men and women faculty, the authors of this paper acknowledged that gender is more complex than a male/female binary. They also recognized that a limitation of the study was its likely underrepresentation of the experiences of faculty with multiple intersecting identities—including race, ability, LGBTQA+ community membership, and citizenship status, among others.

What can Institutions do about Faculty Departures?

The findings from the research study are compelling, and the authors suggest that institutions need to consider the reasons faculty cite for leaving—not the rates of their departure—in order to create successful interventions. They note that policies to support work-life balance (like paid parental leave, on-site childcare, or dual-career accommodations) might help address the challenges faced by women faculty earlier in their career. Other interventions to help promote a sense of belonging (like mentoring programs and effective onboarding), reduce the experience of harassment and bias, and support functional leadership could improve workplace culture and overall faculty retention.

Several key stakeholders across CSU are working in support of many of these interventions. For example, Faculty Success has implemented the Chairs and Heads Institute for Inclusive Excellence, a program designed to provide department chairs and heads with valuable tools and resources to promote effective and equitable leadership. The Advocates and Allies program is currently developing best-practice recommendations around departmental onboarding and mentoring programs at CSU. The Council for Gender Equity on the Faculty (CoGen) has advocated for increased parental support at CSU. And, of course, many faculty and staff work to create positive workplace practices and overall climate at CSU in ways that might not be named or coordinated through formal programming.

Plugging the “leaky pipeline” that exits for female faculty is important to continue building a more equitable and inclusive campus community, and it starts by recognizing some of the challenges that faculty face.


Author Information: This blog post was written by Meara Faw. Meara is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and a 2023-2024 Provost Leadership Fellow working with the Faculty Success team.