Figuring Out Flexibility

Brian Taylor

May 07, 2009

We are often asked why many young faculty members don't consider an academic career to be flexible, when it appears to be one of the few flexible options for someone with an advanced professional degree, as compared with, say, a career in law or medicine. People unfamiliar with tenure-track life imagine professors enjoying long and numerous breaks throughout the academic year, summers off, and the ability to work from home. But as most faculty members can attest, that popular (mis)representation has little in common with the reality of their own situations.

When it's six years "up or out," the idea of shutting down for the month of July — or not working at least part of every day, seven days a week, to submit that extra grant proposal or publish just one more article — is foreign to many of the pre-tenure faculty members we've surveyed. Academic work, especially for those on the tenure track, is often without boundaries.

In our first three columns about what pre-tenure faculty members want and need to be successful in academe, we focused on their desire for clarity in tenure policies, collegiality in their departments, and diversity in their workplaces. Now we turn to their need for flexibility.

We survey assistant professors annually for the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (Coache) at Harvard University. What those surveys show — and what some administrators and senior professors don't seem to understand — is that the new generation of faculty members has a different approach to work. They are quite willing to do the work required to achieve tenure, but they want to do it at their own pace, and strike a manageable balance between their work and home lives. That may mean taking a few hours during the workday to handle family matters, and then returning to their work late at night after their children have gone to bed or early on a Sunday morning.

In our survey data and interviews at Coache, we've found that certain aspects of the traditional academic workplace make it challenging for faculty members to find that manageable balance. We'll examine each of those factors and suggest steps that colleges and universities might take to meet the demand for greater flexibility on the tenure track and in the academic career.

Child care and elder care. Ideally, tenure-track faculty members with young children hope to find high-quality, low-cost, and conveniently located child care, but they are lucky if even one of those three major considerations is met. In addition to daily care, academics need child-care help when they are conducting field research, presenting at conferences, and attending departmental functions and committee meetings in the evenings and on weekends.

The expense, the poor availability, and the lack of options were of great concern to the assistant professors we interviewed. But providing reasonable, on-site child care is an expensive proposition for many institutions. One dean we talked to summed up the issue: "If I had a magic wand and could fix one thing that would help us attract, recruit, and retain junior faculty members, it would be child care. It's the great leveler — no single institution of which I'm aware has solved this problem fully, satisfactorily ... or even partially. Sure, we have day care, but it is inadequate."

How can institutions help?

  • One simple practice that is family friendly, and increases participation in departmental decision making, is to keep meetings scheduled between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Publicizing a college's work-life policies in an easily accessible place encourages people to actually make use of those policies. Wider use can establish new cultural norms. For example, Stanford University publishes a brochure called "Family Matters @ Stanford" that outlines its programs, policies, and resources to support academic parents. Its child-care and child-support programs include campus day-care centers, an emergency backup program, parent and babysitting networks, a child-care subsidy grant program, dependent-care research travel grants, an adoption reimbursement program, and a tuition-grant program.
  • Support for faculty parents should extend beyond basic child care. Brown University, for example, offers every assistant professor up to $750 annually to cover child-care expenses related to professional travel.

Slowly changing parenting norms. While child-care and elder-care duties fall disproportionately on women, many male assistant professors are choosing to be just as involved in the childrearing as their female partners, and some have even assumed the role of primary caregiver. The shift toward equal parenting presents yet another reason why institutions should not view career flexibility as only a woman's issue, and should reframe it as a quality-of-life issue.

Despite such changing attitudes, it can still be unduly difficult for women on the tenure track. Women we interviewed expressed great uncertainty about how getting pregnant prior to tenure would be perceived by their senior colleagues. "I do feel respected and I do feel that we don't have any misogynists in the department," said one female assistant professor, "but there is a dynamic that I can't quite put my finger on. There's a subtle nuance, a kind of 'you're less serious,' now that you are consumed with a baby and maybe not going to publish as much."

Another lamented: "There are so many women now who are getting doctorates but are finding that, for a lot of complicated reasons, the academic structure is not supporting the various choices they need to make about elder care and child care, and there still aren't many remedies."

One remedy that institutions offer is leave policies. However, we've found great variation in those policies, ranging from nonexistent on some campuses to universitywide on others; from negotiated leaves to automatic ones; from benefits for women only to benefits for everyone; and from paid to unpaid.

More commonly, institutions have issued and publicized a formal policy of automatically stopping the tenure clock for a year when any faculty member has a new child and assumes primary caregiving responsibilities. At some institutions, like Brown, that is accompanied by automatic teaching relief for a semester or two. Other institutions have expanded their policy to cover elder-care duties. For example, Duke University's flexible work-arrangement policy helps pre-tenure faculty members with family-related issues, such as an ill child, parent, or partner, to scale back (instead of taking a full, unpaid leave) for a semester, renewable up to three years.

It is vital that institutions offer such options, but assistant professors will not take advantage of them if the campus or departmental culture attaches a stigma. Male and female academics alike continue to express concern that taking a leave or stopping the tenure clock will detract from their reputation as serious, dedicated scholars and negatively affect their chances of earning tenure. The perceived risks explain why many faculty members choose to opt out of automatic tenure extensions.

Dual-career couples. This is another critical issue on which faculty members need institutions to be flexible. When considering a job offer, many faculty candidates place equal weight on the professional opportunities available for their spouse or partner, whether at the institution or in the surrounding region. It's even more challenging when both partners are seeking tenure-track jobs, and particularly so when one of them is being recruited by a rural institution where the university is the sole employer for someone with an advanced degree.

While dual-career hiring has become more common, the process tends to be ad hoc, opaque, and inconsistent, as few colleges and universities have developed an effective procedure or policy.

At most institutions, dual-career hires are handled on a case-by-case basis. Yet those institutions that have adopted a formal policy on partner hiring, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have found much success in recruiting and retaining their pre-tenure faculty members.

Some institutions belong to a regional chapter of the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), an organization that helps the spouses and partners of faculty members find local employment, thus helping its member institutions recruit and retain faculty members. In the absence of a HERC chapter, some neighboring institutions have joined forces to build a mutually beneficial spousal-hiring arrangement. For example, if Duke hires a faculty member and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or North Carolina State University hires that person's spouse, Duke may pay a portion of the spouse's salary. At Chapel Hill, the provost pays a third of the spouse's salary, the college hiring the faculty member pays a third, and the partner university pays a third.

Six years "up or out." Numerous aspects of the one-size-fits-all probationary period hinder the success of this new generation of scholars, but one of the most significant barriers is the rigid time frame of the tenure clock. The vast majority of institutions hold assistant professors to a set probationary period of six years, during which they must assemble a dossier worthy of tenure. Often, departments have made up their minds about a young scholar by the third or fourth year — a pronouncement that may or may not be clearly conveyed until the tenure review in the sixth year.

The current model was developed decades ago when the professoriate had far fewer women, people of color, and dual-career couples. Today, domestic and personal pressures compound the stress that both male and female faculty members experience during the probationary period, which coincides with the years during which people typically commit to a spouse or partner, start a family, buy a home, or begin caring for aging parents.

The probationary model of the past also fails to account for other challenges facing today's assistant professors, such as the heightened competition for external grants, the longer wait times for grants and publications, and the variations across disciplines in securing money and setting up research programs. The rigid tenure clock also runs counter to pursuing collaborative scholarship and interdisciplinary research because such partnerships can take more time to develop than independent work. Finally, today's young scholars approach their careers not as a "ladder," but rather a "lattice," where lateral moves from one institution to another are viewed as favorably as promotions within a single institution, and movement between the corporate, nonprofit and academic sectors is not uncommon.

In addition to automatic stop-the-clock policies for assistant professors with family responsibilities or medical issues, colleges and universities might consider developing a more flexible path to tenure available to all faculty members as a recruitment and retention strategy. There are at least two ideas that have been advanced, without much uptake: part-time tenure-track appointments and a tenure window.

At Ohio State University, it is possible for pre-tenure faculty members to hold a part-time appointment, working at least half time or more to remain on the tenure track. Virginia Tech also introduced a policy to allow full-time pre-tenure and tenured faculty members to request and negotiate part-time appointments. To be successful, such appointments must be detailed in a written agreement that includes a clear time period and a statement of work expectations for the faculty member.

As another alternative to tenure's current stop-and-go settings, a few institutions have begun to think about offering new assistant professors an individualized tenure window with the option to design an extended or shortened version of the traditional tenure clock.

Our final column in this five-part series will take the idea of flexibility in another direction as we explore the desire of the new generation of faculty members to pursue interdisciplinary research.

Cathy Trower is research director and Anne Gallagher is assistant director of Harvard University's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. Coache is a group of colleges and universities committed to gathering the peer diagnostic and comparative data that academic administrators need to recruit, retain, and develop the faculty cohorts most critical to the long-term future of their institutions. Their first three columns in this series are "A Call for Clarity," "Why Collegiality Matters," and "The Demand for Diversity."