On Leaving

An open door leading from a colorless room to a brightly colored, tree-lined path.

Here’s a story: 

I was at LOEX in Denver in May, 2015. I was still working at Colorado State University-Pueblo, but had just accepted a position at Auraria Library ten days earlier. During a break between sessions, I was chatting with a colleague from another library in the west, a person whom I admire tremendously, when they said something about wanting to organize a meeting and include CSU-Pueblo. I replied “That’s a great idea! But I’m about to start a new job at Auraria,” to which this person said “You mean that dysfunctional library?” As an indication of just how naïve I was at this point in my career, I said back “Huh? No, the one that’s here in Denver.”

Reader, I look back on this interaction and have to laugh/cry at how green I was. At that point in my career I had only been to a few conferences, and was just beginning to get to know people well enough to learn about what was really going on in our painfully small profession. I didn’t know which places, or departments, or deans had reputations. I just knew that I had visited the library during my interview, clicked with the new department head, and thought I could do some really fun and interesting work there.

Looking at all of this in hindsight, I think both things ended up being true. Auraria was largely dysfunctional in the summer of 2015, and when I left it after seven-and-a-half years, it still had more than its fair share of issues. (As I often said about the condition of Auraria Library, “It’s simultaneously awful AND the best it’s ever been.”) But I also worked with great colleagues and an incredible student body, and while I was there I was able to do some truly rewarding work.

About the dysfunction: The library has been chronically underfunded and understaffed for decades. Auraria has 25 faculty librarians and a total workforce of 55 for a campus FTE of 35,000 students (the total headcount is more like 45,000). For the sake of comparison, the University of Colorado Boulder, with a student FTE of 32,000, has 45 faculty librarians and a total workforce of 135. In other words, a campus in the same state, in the same university system, has 80 additional faculty and staff to serve 3,000 fewer students. 

To be clear, I don’t have an issue with my friends and colleagues in Boulder (Go Buffs!). I do have an issue with any administrator at the campus or system level who would look at that disparity and not be embarrassed. And while there are issues with the library that go beyond the budget, it certainly didn’t help.

About the work: Despite the staffing and budget issues, folks at Auraria get shit done. Credit for that belongs to the faculty and staff who have been there for decades, providing their institutional memory and dedication. Credit for that belongs to the more recent hires, who often came in with different perspectives, sharp skills, and new ideas. Credit for that belongs to the student workers, without whom the organization quite simply could not function. 

Managing that kind of workforce requires exceptionally talented middle-managers, and I have to say that the lineup of department heads working there when I left was uniformly excellent. Each of them knew their role, knew how to communicate, and knew how to manage their teams. They listened to ideas and took responsibility for their actions.

As for my department of Education and Outreach Services, with whom I worked for seven-and-a-half years, including four-and-a-half as the department head, I am immensely proud of what we accomplished and how we supported one another. My years at Auraria were, to date, the most challenging and the most rewarding of my career. I’m in a new role now and I know I’ve got more challenges in store, but I don’t think that any future experience could compare to the crucible of the pandemic. It was terrible to go through that, but I’m glad I went through it with those colleagues.

So why did I leave?

I initially wrote “it was a confluence of circumstances that brought me to resign,” but that’s a cop out. I left because I was abused and neglected, and I deserve better. The last year was particularly bad for me and my department, and I reread a lot of Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s work in that time. The act of reading someone’s scholarship and seeing yourself and your colleagues in it, especially when that scholarship is about the causes and symptoms of burnout, is both reaffirming and gut wrenching. I mention both emotions because I would read a passage from one of her interviews and say “I’m not the only one that feels this way! There is a reason! I have keywords to use in my literature search!” That was immediately followed by the realization that, yes, I am in a dysfunctional organization, I am being gaslighted. I also understand that my distrust will likely stick with me for the rest of my career, and certainly contributed to my hypervigilance during my years-long job search.

All of which is to say, I’m very thankful for Kaetrena’s writing and advice, especially the point about being burned out, resigning a position, and bringing that tension or trauma into a new workplace. I took six weeks off between jobs in an effort to decompress, and have been actively working to take better care of myself, and letting myself be cared for, in a way that’s very different from my past habits. I still have work to do, but seeing the results so far has been a tremendous weight off of my shoulders. Like I wrote about in my last post, I know that not everyone has the ability or privilege to leave a broken environment. I also know that simply leaving doesn’t solve every issue. In my case, though, it solved a significant problem, and the subsequent few months have been revelatory.

So when I think back to the spring of 2015, I don’t regret accepting the job at Auraria. Likewise, I don’t regret most of my time there, but I do wish that things had gone differently. Part of my recovery has involved reading from my journal, and as I’ve revisited past entries I can point to exact moments where things happened that completely knocked me off balance and often sent me spiraling. But as I wrote a couple of entries ago, I can’t let those moments wreck me the way that I have. Life is too damn short.

My hope going forward is that I will carry the lessons I have learned with me, including the examples of what not to do. I hope that I will call out more good work when I see it. And related to that, I also hope that I, and our profession, will do a better job of sharing information and acknowledging abuse when it happens. Kaetrena’s research is such a gift, but it shouldn’t be so necessary.

Programming note: This is the final entry in a three-post series. The first is about relocating for my new job, and the second one is about my job search.