Like many of my colleagues, I found myself looking for something—anything—for inspiration in the fall of 2020. I had successfully pivoted my courses in the previous spring semester and become comfortable teaching both synchronously and asynchronously online. I had a major publication come out in May of 2020. I was involved in some of the highest levels of service in my field.
However, I had begun feeling like my place and my purpose in academe was quickly fading. I was mentoring my own graduate students, providing encouragement and a safe place to share frustrations, but where was my mentor? I wasn’t burned out like so many of my colleagues, but I needed to figure out my next “why” in my career. When the call went out from our Center for Academic Excellence for a midcareer faculty learning group called ReVision, I quickly joined the cohort.
From the very first meeting, I knew that I had found a place to be vulnerable and to be honest. We talked about how, even 20 years later, many of us were still trying to please our dissertation advisers with our research. We discussed how the pandemic had taught us the importance of stepping away from our screens and spending time with family. We were open about how tired we felt, both professionally and personally, and shared ideas on how to rejuvenate ourselves in the classroom. It would be at least another year before the publication of “The Great Faculty Disengagement” by Kevin R. McClure at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Alisa Hicklin Fryar at the University of Oklahoma, but looking back, the description in that piece is precisely how some of us felt in this group.
The cohort began to read through the book The Peak Performing Professor: A Practical Guide to Productivity and Happiness. We started with the question of why we entered the career of college teaching and research and what motivated us to stay. We studied how we were managing the time in our lives, including aspects of community, health and relationships. Through a long and self-reflecting process we began to create our purpose statement. My purpose statement ended up being “to encourage, to motivate and to help others find their own path and understand their own why.”
This purpose statement sounds like someone who was meant to be in the classroom, a scholar who was dedicated to students and to pedagogy research. That is where I always saw myself. But I was a bit taken aback when we moved into the task of writing out our own mission statement, where we outlined our strengths. I was surprised that so many of my strengths (organization, leadership, teaching) dealt with community—the very thing that was so lost during the pandemic. My final professional mission stated, “I want to mentor, lead and teach for/to/with students, colleagues and administrators who want opportunities and change.”
The end of the chapter on mission ended with a quote that said “Mission makes for strong yeses and easy nos.” I wrote both my purpose and mission statements, along with that exact quote, on my office wall and stared at it throughout that fall. I studied every single activity I was involved with and determined if it was part of my purpose and mission. Within a month, I had resigned from my editor position at a top journal in my field and from a major university committee. I threw myself into mentoring students and faculty, into my teaching, and into research that matched that purpose. Strong yeses and easy nos.
From that very moment, every single decision I made was based on those mission and purpose statements. When an email came in from Lipscomb University in the fall of 2021 to apply for a position as academic director for their growing school of music, I considered the possibilities, but didn’t seriously think I could leave my academic home of 17 years. I had tenure; I was a full professor and running a successful graduate program. I had just published a piece in Inside Higher Ed that was a love letter to my own graduate students. Lipscomb didn’t even have a graduate program in music.
Yet as the weekend went on and the email remained in my inbox, I found myself wondering if a new administration/teaching role was a better fit for my mission. Could I leave the comfort and the security to move to the “dark side” of administration? I decided to apply for one reason only: the position matched my purpose and mission statements. Strong yeses and easy nos.
When I visited the Lipscomb campus in early spring of 2022, I quickly knew I needed to start packing my office back in North Carolina. Every single light pole on campus had a flag that said “Magnify Your Purpose.” I took a picture of this flag and sent it to the leaders of the ReVision group, describing that moment of clarity before I even began my full day of meetings, interviews and teaching demonstrations.
The administration was honest and forthcoming about some of the issues in a department that had experienced a growth rate of over 150 percent in the past five years. New faculty needed to be hired, more connections needed to be made in the Nashville music community and the curriculum needed to be redesigned to better meet the needs of the musician. During the interview, I also had the chance to spend an hour with just the student body of the School of Music. Many search processes have drop-in times for students to visit with candidates, but something about this felt different. I was in a room with just students, and they were ready to talk. They shared with me what they were looking for in their academic director, and I knew I wanted to teach students and lead the school in its growth. I took pages and pages of notes and was truly inspired by their honesty and commitment to making the School of Music even better.
Just a few hours later, I was sitting at dinner with seven of my soon-to-be colleagues, where they talked about the growing pains and the successes of the School of Music. There was laughter and respect for every single person at the table. I was part of a community. I knew my strengths and what I could give and what I wanted to give, and I was ready for the challenge. I wanted to be in the middle of this environment. I began to check off the boxes on how this position exactly fit my purpose and mission. Every single box was checked. Strong yeses and easy nos.
I’ve been called brave for leaving my tenured position where I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve been called inspiring for seeking out the unknown in a time where the world seems unsteady. But for me, passing up the new position at Lipscomb was not an option. Every single teaching assignment, mentoring opportunity, major publication and service appointment led me to leave my previous institution for my dual role in administration and teaching here.
Most important, taking the time to develop my own purpose and mission statements enabled me the clarity to say yes. I’m exactly where I need to be.