Taking my leave

By the summer of 2008, after working 70 to 80 hours a week for more than a year, I began to worry that I was burning out. The Learning Exchange was continuing to grow. Some programs were firmly established, but we did not want to stop being creative. We wanted to pursue new ideas, especially in relation to our presence in the Downtown Eastside. I felt I had been neglecting the storefront because of the demands resulting from the success of our Community Service Learning (CSL) programs. In addition, we had set ambitious targets for external fund-raising. It was clear that being the Director of the Learning Exchange and the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI) was at least a full-time job. But this was only supposed to be a half-time job; I was supposed to be devoting half my time to my tenure-track faculty position.

A tough decision made easy

It was obvious I could not do everything. As I thought about how to reconfigure my roles, I at first leaned towards making my professorial role my priority. I loved teaching the graduate students in SCARP (UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning) and I wanted to write and do research about community-university engagement in inner city areas.

I was due to be reappointed in 2009 for a second three year term as an assistant professor. As my review for reappointment approached I could see the process was not going to be easy. There were some in the university who considered my work to be legitimate scholarship, but there were others, including some professors in SCARP, who did not.

SYS pondIt seemed I was facing a choice: I could either spend my time doing community-engaged work or devote myself to trying to justify it. The decision became easy one day when I was talking with a faculty colleague who was giving me advice about how to make it through the review process. From my colleague’s perspective, the simplest solution was to prove my scholarly merit by producing the expected number of peer-reviewed publications before my term ended. I was advised to get up early every morning and work on journal articles before I started my other work. I told my colleague that I already got up at 5 a.m. “What do you do?” my colleague asked, seemingly surprised that I got up so early.  I said, “I meditate and do Tai Chi.” “Oh.” my colleague replied dismissively, “Well, you’ll have to give that up.”

I suddenly saw that it was a mistake for me to try to fit into the culture of the professoriate. Not only was my work not necessarily valued by my faculty colleagues, my efforts to take care of myself were seen as dispensable. I knew that academia prioritizes the life of the mind over the life of the body and pays little attention to spiritual concerns. But I was surprised by this total disregard for the practices that kept me sane and healthy in spite of my workload. More importantly, my engagement in these practices was fundamental to the way I approached my work. I remembered some advice I had been given by a politically astute deputy minister early in my career: “Don’t fight battles you can’t win.” I decided to leave SCARP and go back to my staff position full-time.

Counting the losses

By the summer of 2009 I had finished teaching my graduate course for the last time and was again focusing only on the Learning Exchange and the UBC-CLI. It was a relief to have a more manageable workload. But as I had more time to reflect, I realized that my being on the edge of burn-out was not just a function of the amount of work I was doing.

In the early days of the Learning Exchange I saw that everything we did depended on relationships. Over time I and my staff team developed dense networks of connections. We were connected to peers and leaders in the university and the community, to donors, students, and the residents of the Downtown Eastside and other parts of Vancouver who took part in our programs. These networks were held together by the core network which was the Learning Exchange staff team. The most striking feature of the operation, viewed from inside, was the interdependence of all the players.

And I had lost almost all my playmates. The key leaders in the university who had inspired the creation and growth of the Learning Exchange (President Martha Piper, the director of her office, Herbert Rosengarten, and Dennis Pavlich, the Vice-President who oversaw my work the longest) had all left their posts. And almost all the members of my staff team had also left. I also lost my home base—the original storefront. I had also lost the dreams I once entertained about being able to do research, write, and teach as a faculty member. Given the pace at which I had been working, I had not been able to grieve any of these losses. I had placed the grey cloud in a jar and set it on a back shelf in order to focus on rebuilding the operation.

Planning for my succession

In the late fall of 2009, I realized it was not healthy to keep pushing to perform a role which had come to feel like a straitjacket. Having received core funding from the university, the Learning Exchange as a whole was on more solid financial ground than ever before. I had almost completed the strategic plan for Community Service Learning and Community-Based Research which would provide a sense of direction and agreed-upon targets for growth for this aspect of the Learning Exchange’s work. After a year in the new location, with new staff in place, the storefront operation had settled down. It was time for me to go.

I started to reconfigure my role to allow me to devote more time to writing about the Learning Exchange while spending less time on day-to-day administrative tasks. From the time of the staff departures in 2007, one strategy I had used to decrease my workload was to ask myself, “What are the things that only I can do and what are the things that others can do?” Knowing that my goal now was not just to manage my workload but to begin the transition out of my role, I started finding new answers to this question. I scrutinized my job description and work plans to determine which tasks I should keep and which I should delegate. In consultation with my teammates, I delegated responsibilities with the understanding that I would provide direction and coaching at first but would gradually have less influence as my colleagues’ knowledge base and comfort levels rose.

CookInletMy plan was to make a graceful exit, gradually withdrawing from my role while others took on more and more aspects of the leadership of the Learning Exchange. But forces beyond my control intervened.  A reorganization of Vice-Presidential portfolios in early 2011 led to a decision to move UBC’s Community Service Learning programs into the Vice-President Students portfolio while leaving the Learning Exchange storefront programs in the Vice-President External portfolio. Since I was already planning for my eventual succession and since I could not imagine myself leading another round of organizational change and rebuilding, I believed it made sense for me to leave my post sooner rather than later. It was not the smooth and gradual withdrawal I envisioned. But my engagement with the Learning Exchange had run its course.