Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice

I have yet to meet someone whose personal life and academic career have not conflicted in some profound way. Long-distance relationships, grad-school children, sudden death in the family, and financial calamity are all par for the course on the academic track to get tenure before 35 or 40. This week's problem takes that truism to a new level.
~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:
I’m five years into my tenure clock at a mid-size R1 school in the Midwest. I have a good job. The pay isn’t great, but I’m relatively sure I’ll get tenure. Students are very good to me, my colleagues are fantastic, and I’ve had some luck with grants and publications that make everything look good. I'm pretty happy here. But I have a problem: money. Well, money, and love.

Three years ago, my partner of 16 years was diagnosed with a mental illness. The details don’t really matter, and I refuse to give up on him now that he is seeking treatment. However, before we realized what was going on, he did some things that were not responsible. He opened a lot of credit cards and took out a few loans – in my name as well as his – and before I was aware of his mental illness, he was $86,000 in debt. We didn’t have a lot of money and now the debt has ballooned to $130,000. He is now in treatment and I am doing my best to pay down this money while he gets the help he needs.

The thing is, I have been offered a single-year job in private industry that would pay me more than $150,000 next year. It’s a single-year opportunity, it involves working in the Middle East, and when it’s done I would have to come home again. If I took it, I would be able to get out of this debt and move past the terrible thing my partner did to me; to us. At the same time, if I take it, then I will have to get off the tenure track and I’m worried that I will never get my chance again.

This job is about triple my normal pay and it would really mean a different life for me. But the sacrifice would include giving up something so valuable: a tenure-track job near my family at a good school with great colleagues. What should I do?

Unsolicited Advice:


It’s something really special to read about such a profound violation followed by a steady commitment to the violator.

There is an answer to your problem as you frame it, but before I get to that, you really need to ask yourself: is this really your problem? You have chosen to become partners with someone who is disabled with an unnamed mental illness. Many people do this; I love many people who struggle with mental illness. But this partner took out loans in your name, stole your identity, and destroyed your credit. I am very sympathetic to your situation, but it seems less of a “partnership” and more of a “gross violation that is grounds for breaking up and never talking ever again.”

You need to take a step back before shelling out all this money and sacrificing your career for something someone else has done. You're not yet tenured, yet you've been with this person for 16 years. I'm going to guess that you met as teenagers and the formative moment of your life is making it difficulty for you to imagine life without that influence.

I promise you: breaking up with hurt, but you will survive and look back and realize that this was not a good relationship. But this is not what you want to hear. You want a solution.

The answer here is that you should explore an option to see if you can take a leave of absence for a single year. You indicate that you are in good standing with your tenure committee. You might be able to take advantage of family leave in order to deal with this financial crisis. They might extend your clock by a single year, especially considering the magic words of “mental illness” and “fiscal crisis.” See if HR or Administration can help you navigate this situation with lesser-known policies for professors with cancer, ailing parents, or other challenges. Alternatively, if you are really in good with your chair, you might be permitted to convert your courses online for a single year while going abroad to this opportunity. It would be a terribly tough year, but you could pull off a $200,000 year before returning to your tenure clock.

If your school does not have such programs, then I would recommend staying at the tenure track and looking into a side job like online teaching. Tenure is too much of a diamond to give it up; you could even explore other, better-paying jobs later *after* you are tenured. But extra jobs really isn’t the ideal, is it. The ideal would be to exonerate yourself from this debt by separating from this partner and reporting his actions to the authorities so that you can expunge this debt in court and move on with your life.
Think about it.


  1. Open the Good Book and you'll find your answer... Chapter 11

  2. I respect the LW's committment to staying with hir partner. I immediately thought of bipolar as one major illness that can lead to spending sprees. It's not simply a matter of bad faith or financial irresponsibility.
    And hopefully the school will be supportive of stopping the clock for a year . . . it could be viewed as a prestige move, especially if the job is related to your field and you can pitch it as in the field experience to help gain contacts for students, etc.

  3. not answered (or was it?) is whether the partner is considered a common-law spouse. if so, then the taking of credit in the LW's name might not have been a violation. blurry blurry blurry. if it's a common-law marriage, then the LW might get effective rehab/treatment for free for the partner. that might be better than running off to Dubai to be a whore for a year.

    i like the Monkey's closing statement: "Think about it."

    Think... THINK! Think about what you're trying to do to me!

    1. This is what I was thinking too. "Partner" could mean married, living together, long-term relationship, civil partnership, long-distance relationship, domestic partnership, etc. I think a lot of people use it now precisely because it is so flexible.

      But when you are talking about things directly related to the benefits of a legal connection, this is when the otherwise less-important distinctions become important.

  4. She could call the said creditors and negotiate easier payment plans.

    1. It might be best to file charges against him. The LW wouldn't have to pay back the $130,000. Hir partner might have to spend a little time behind bars--which might be good for both of them.

  5. Can this overseas job relate to the writer's research field? If so, that could make it easier for the school to let him/her leave for a year. The school would reap the rewards of a year of research without paying for it.

  6. I think any university worth its salt would offer a leave without pay in order not to lose a promising, almost-to-tenure faculty member in which it had invested 5 years. I hope you work at such a place.

    1. Ah the troubling phrase: "worth its salt."


  7. I was thinking along pretty much the same lines as everyone else: a year's leave to take the other position if possible, and exploring options for separating at least the writer's financial life from the partner's (if the partner is in treatment, it seems to me that part of that process could, and quite possibly should, involve taking responsibility for his actions, to the extent possible -- but that extent may, I realize, be limited by law if they're some sort of legally recognized partners. At the very least, the writer needs to protect hirself going forward; mental illnesses, sadly, often involve relapses. If the partner can't accept such boundaries, then he hasn't obtained sufficient insight into his illness and its consequences, is, regardless of illness, willing to be more of a parasite than a partner, or both.