Research Universities Work to Increase Faculty Flexibility

“The new generation of faculty candidates is looking for work that’s compatible with having a life.”

Dr. Patricia HyerDr. Patricia Hyer

Female professors are rare at research universities. Although women earn more than half the PhDs awarded in the United States to U.S. citizens, they leak from the pipeline at every stage. More women and people of color are getting doctorates, but they’re not as successful at getting tenure, partly because the tenure system is so rigid.

Advancing workplace flexibility in all sectors is a goal of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Noting how many PhDs choose to work in industry over academic jobs, in 2003 Sloan began a grant to the American Council on Education (ACE) for the project Creating Options: Models for Flexible Faculty Career Pathways.

Project goals are to raise awareness, initiate a national dialog and generate tested approaches to increase faculty flexibility. The initial focus is on tenured and tenure-track faculty at research universities.

Dr. Gloria Thomas, associate director of the Office of Women in Higher Education (OWHE) at ACE, is associate di-rector for the Center for Effective Leadership/Sloan projects. Doctoral student Jean McLaughlin works with the project as an ACE intern. They spoke at the CUWFA conference in March, together with Dr. Patricia Hyer, associate provost at Virginia Tech.

“It’s been helpful that we’ve been working with very seasoned leaders,” Thomas told WIHE. Former OWHE director Dr. Claire Van Ummersen, president emeritus of Cleveland State University and now head of ACE’s Center for Effective Leadership, told them advancing career flexibility works only if leadership comes from the top. Sign-off by the president and provost isn’t enough; it needs to be a real priority for them.

Heeding that advice, ACE used the first grant for a national awareness campaign. Ten university presidents or state system chancellors spoke at events around the country and helped create An Agenda for Excellence: Creating Flexibility in Tenure-Track Faculty Careers (ACE 2005).

Among its suggestions:

  • Create re-entry opportunities, such as post-docs for PhDs who want to return to academia later in life.
  • Abolish hiring penalties for family-related career gaps.
  • Develop ways for full-time faculty to go part-time for defined periods of up to five years.
  • Create flexibility in the probationary period for tenure, allowing up to 10 years without changing criteria or standards.
  • Reduce resource competition among units by giving colleges and departments block grants to meet their productivity goals.

Copies went to every university president and provost in the country. ACE gets several calls or emails a week requesting guidance.

Meanwhile the Sloan/ACE project moved to a second phase: $250,000 grants to selected universities to accelerate their already successful policies, programs and practices. After a rigorous application process to identify leadership and commitment, grant winners were the universities of Florida, Washington and California (UC Davis and UC Berkeley split a grant), and Lehigh and Duke.

Now Thomas and McLaughlin are analyzing the data from the award winners and other applicants. They described the challenge and the promising results.

Overcoming bias avoidance

Family is a serious barrier to academic career success for women. Among tenured faculty, “married with children” describes only 44% of women but 70% of men.

Women’s family status contributes to leaks in the pipeline, especially early in a career. A woman PhD is 21% less likely to enter a tenure-track position if she’s married and 28% less likely if she has a baby. Once on the tenure track, women are 27% less likely than men to become associate professors. Past that hurdle, they’re 20% less likely to become full professors within 16 years.

What family-friendly policies are common at the universities that applied for the Sloan awards?

96% Tenure clock stoppage
91% Disability for serious illness or injury
86% Paid leave for biological mothers
75% Partial relief from duties
73% Part-time appointment with budget line protected for their return to full time
71% Written policies on workload for part-time faculty
63% Benefits for same-sex partners
62% Paid leaves for adoptive mothers
61% Memo stating expectations during leaves
60% Paid leaves for adoptive fathers
58% Paid leaves for biological fathers

Although flexibility policies have been on the books at the University of California for 20 years, faculty have been unaware of them or afraid to use them for fear of repercussions.

UC Berkeley and UC Davis used their grant for a big awareness and acceptance campaign. Berkeley created an online newsletter called UC Families as part of the Berkeley Parents Network (, with an interactive blog and links to policies and programs.

Davis expanded to all 10 UC campuses its model of central funding for replacement teaching costs during parental leave or Active Service Modified Duties (ASMU). Departments are more receptive to replacement teachers when it doesn’t come out of their budget.

Both campuses introduced extensive training. Davis holds a daylong workshop and brownbag series for new faculty and a mandatory two-day training session for new department chairs. Berkeley developed a comprehensive online train-ing and information resource, Creating a Family Friendly Department: Chairs and Deans Toolkit.

Creative award programs encourage usage of flexibility policies. The University of Florida makes awards to department and unit leaders who take effective steps to promote an atmosphere of acceptance for career-friendly accommodations.

Lehigh University PA rewards faculty for participation, making automatic $6,000 grants to all tenure-track faculty who take family and medical leave for dependent care. This helps them maintain visibility, attend conferences or take other steps to stay connected and ease their re-entry.

“The point is to make cultural shifts so faculty can take advantage of what’s available and still thrive,” Thomas told WIHE.

Husbands, partners, kids

Dual careers and childcare came up again and again. “These are big issues that we’re still tackling,” she said. Traditionally thought of as women’s issues, they’re of growing interest to men as well, especially younger faculty.

Academic careers have long challenged scholar couples who both want a job. The first transition was from stay-at-home wives to career women. In a more recent shift, today “more often than not, it’s the woman who’s the first appointment,” she said.

Duke collaborates with neighboring schools—University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, North Carolina Central Univer-sity and North Carolina State University—to help place spouses or partners. Most are hired on a trial basis, with the first three years’ costs split among the two universities and the hiring department.

More than 160 companies in the nearby Research Triangle Park offer potential jobs for highly skilled workers. Duke partnered with the Research Triangle Park and the Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill Chambers of Commerce to host a conference for faculty partners, in shared hopes of attracting two-career couples to the area.

Lehigh participated in a regional consortium to share information about professional opportunities throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Lehigh also offers its alumni career services to faculty partners and spouses.

Grandparents or other relatives provide much of the childcare in the U.S., but research university professors rarely have that resource because they’re hired from all over the globe. Most live far from their extended family.

Shortage of childcare spaces threatened faculty recruitment and retention at the University of Washington. They reserved paid childcare spaces in existing area facilities and beefed up their resources and referral service, including a list of nanny agencies. They also partner with developers to include childcare centers in the architectural plans for faculty housing.


Just starting a program isn’t enough. Jean McLaughlin emphasized “the importance of tracking who’s using these initiatives and what are their individual outcomes.”

Virginia Tech, not a Sloan grant recipient yet but a leader in faculty flexibility, builds monitoring and tracking into its systems. Associate provost Dr. Patricia Hyer said culture change at Virginia Tech is not just about women or young faculty. It’s about attracting and retaining talent regardless of gender and providing flexibility throughout their academic career.

After increasing central funding for dual-career recruitment/retention and hiring a dual-career coordinator in 2005, Virginia Tech has kept track of cases and outcomes: faculty, staff or temporary employment, local employment not at Virginia Tech, accepted with no job for partner, etc. The self-reported experience of partners using dual career services was very positive for 41%, somewhat positive for 38% and negative for a handful.

Stopping the tenure clock for new parents, dependent care and extenuating circumstances has been available on the books for more than 20 years. Over the past six years 55 women and 34 men have requested stopping the clock. Bias avoidance may have kept many more women from asking; colleagues might see dedicated parenting as a sign of weakness in women but admirable in men. Now a one-year extension is automatic for new parents.

They also monitored tenure outcomes for faculty who stopped the clock any time in the last 11 years. So far 13 women and three men got tenure; three women were denied tenure; and three women and one man left the university. The rest haven’t yet reached the mandatory year for a tenure decision.

Tracking outcomes can alert the university to bias avoidance or unmask which units regularly penalize faculty for using available options. It provides guidance on which programs to keep, change or drop. It builds evidence for continuing successful programs when funding is threatened.

“You have to have the numbers supporting you and not just stories,” Thomas said. “It may be costly up-front but retaining faculty brings high return on investment.”

What’s next?

Another round of Sloan/ACE faculty career flexibility awards announced in January gave $200,000 to each of six master’s degree granting schools: Boise State University ID, Canisius College NY, Santa Clara University CA, San Jose State University CA, Simmons College MA and the University of Baltimore MD. They’re hoping for a third round of grants for liberal arts colleges.

Issues differ at each level, in part because of stark contrasts in resources. Master’s universities generally have far less money than top research universities. Liberal arts colleges range from the well-endowed to those scraping by on tuition.

Meanwhile data collection continues from the research universities. They plan to create an Academic Career Flexibility Resource Kit as a portal on the ACE Web site. “We have grand visions for this toolkit,” McLaughlin told WIHE, including guidance for administrators and tips for graduating students about what to ask in an interview.

It’s an opportune time to address these issues. The professorate is aging and the pool to replace them includes more PhD women and minorities than ever before. The new generation of faculty candidates is looking for work that’s compatible with having a life. To attract the best and brightest to the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track positions, higher education needs to accelerate progress in building flexible career options for all faculty.


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