When family-friendly faculty personnel policies are not enough

I’m just catching up on my reading in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I finally got to an article I had bookmarked a couple of weeks ago: “Fear of Stigma Lingers about Use of Family-Friendly Policies.” The article reports on two cases that show “how easily family-friendly policies can end up at the core of disagreements over critical points in an academic’s career… [and] raise questions about the extent of the career protections the policies can provide." 

The nation’s top research universities have had policies on the books for at least two decades that are designed to make it easier for professors to mesh their home and work life. By now, many other colleges do, too.

These institutions let parents stop the tenure clock, extending the time they can prepare to reach that milestone; assume modified duties, like temporarily reducing a teaching or service load while raising young children; or take part-time appointments.

But the policies offer no guarantee that the demands of parenthood won’t clash with the realities of academic life—especially for women. And professors who take advantage of the accommodations often worry they are ultimately penalized for doing so.

In other words, it isn’t enough simply to have family-friendly policies on the books. Even when institutions have such policies, they are often inconsistently interpreted and applied. In the worst-case scenarios, they can result in a stigma or backlash against the faculty member who chooses to avail himself or herself of the options provided. Many women, especially, are ambivalent about stopping the tenure clock or working a reduced load because they fear repercussions they might face during tenure and promotion review. Faculty who stop the clock or accept the reduced loads allowed by more family-friendly policies face big questions up front. For example:

  • "Will administrators or colleagues serving on review committees expect more productivity and better work because I had an "extra” (yes, please note the scare quotes!) year before application for tenure or promotion? If I go up for tenure in my eighth year, when the norm is seven, will they expect the equivalent of eight years of work, even though I should only be accountable for seven?“ This despite the fact that stopping the tenure clock is allowed in recognition that child care is important additional work that limits faculty ability to fully engage in the responsibilities of teaching and research.
  • At teaching-intensive institutions, "If I accept the allowed reduced load, will administrators or colleagues reading my file penalize me for not having the usual number of course evaluations for their review?” This despite the fact that a reduced load–something that by definition almost always produces fewer sets of course evaluations–is allowed by policy and negotiated in its particulars with the administration.

The article suggests four ways in which these problems can be addressed. The first three:

  1. Where possible, more men should avail themselves of such opportunities, thus normalizing that path.
  2. Institutions should work toward greater consistency in the availability of these policies across divisions.
  3. Administrators should push the importance of these policies, thus raising their profile and providing them with legitimacy.

Those three are very important. Much could be said about each one (and there is quite the critique that could be leveled against a system in which #1 is such a powerful tool). But I want to focus on the fourth:

Sometimes reducing potential backlash is as simple as bringing attention to the very thing that could cause it. Some institutions, like the University of California at Berkeley, alert external reviewers to the fact that the scholar whose work they’re reading has taken a year off work “and you shouldn’t hold this year against them,” Ms. O’Meara says.

We should not overlook the importance of sending the right signals to the right people at the right times regarding expectations of colleagues who take advantage of reduced loads or stopping the tenure clock. For example, department chairs and deans should be clear that deadlines may change for tenure application, but expectations of scholarly productivity do not. Where possible, chairs and deans should make sure that faculty have this in writing in the kinds of documents that are included in a tenure file (e.g., annual and other reviews, chair and dean letters, etc.). Committee chairs and administrators sitting in on committee meetings should assertively remind reviewers that the opting to stop the tenure clock should must in no way be held against them and shouldn’t must not raise expectations for their productivity. The same committee chairs and administrators sitting in on those meetings should reinforce the mandate or purview of the committee, and if that doesn’t include the timing of the tenure or promotion bid, if it doesn’t include whether a reduced load or tenure clock stoppage should have been awarded, then those issues shouldn’t must not be discussed. (There is also some protection here for the committee. If it does confine itself to its mandate/purview, ensuring that discussion does not range beyond that, and if it does not hold against a candidate the use of family-friendly policies, but it still rules against the candidate on his or her merits, then the committee has a much stronger case if and when a challenge comes.)

The bottom line is this: Having and even expanding the availability of family-friendly policies for faculty is not enough. We need vigilance in the implementation of those policies. This kind of vigilance–these assertive reminders of the intention and shape of policy–doesn’t require funding, deliberation, or a faculty vote. It just requires will. So while we’re making bigger changes, such as expanding access to such policies, let’s muster some will and make a difference now.

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