• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Policy and Parental Leave

This semester, my institution has been moving toward developing a family leave policy for faculty and staff. I'll start by being frank about the current situation: it is not a policy. It's a patchwork system, almost impossible to piece together and relying almost entirely on state and federal policies, with a single area of exception that only applies to faculty.

April 19, 2009

This semester, my institution has been moving toward developing a family leave policy for faculty and staff. I'll start by being frank about the current situation: it is not a policy. It's a patchwork system, almost impossible to piece together and relying almost entirely on state and federal policies, with a single area of exception that only applies to faculty.

(That exception is that any faculty member -- male or female – is automatically eligible to receive a course release the semester during or after the birth or adoption of child; you can buy yourself out of an additional course for 10% of your salary. [The standard teaching load at my institution is 2 courses per semester.] Arguably, buying yourself out of both courses gives you a semester of "leave," but it's important to note that it's course releases rather than full leave; that individual departments expect different things of the course-released individuals during that time; and that -- oh, right! -- you have to give up 10% of your salary to get this full benefit.)

This semester's discussion came about because in recent years two different female faculty (“Cindy” and “Harriet”) found ways to use the system to take more than a full year of leave. (In both cases, it’s part of a semester and then all of the following year. Harriet received almost 100% of her salary during all of that time; Cindy took one semester without pay.) The hostile interpretation of the administration's response – which boils down to, holy crap, we need a policy now! -- is that the goal of the policy is to make it impossible for individuals to take a full year. That's not wrong. I do think that the administration is concerned about what is starting to look like a trend, and that they’re concerned about how year-long leaves apart from and in addition to the normal sabbatical cycle will affect departments, programs, students.

A more sympathetic interpretation is that these two cases made the administration realize that the lack of a policy has resulted in a situation of significant inequity: people who read the Faculty Handbook with an eagle eye, who have the patience to comb through the four different chapters in which these various policies are described, and who have the determination to have multiple meetings with the Head of HR and the Dean insisting on their interpretation of the various policies, get more – significantly more – than people who scan it quickly and take what is offered on the surface.

A case in point: A colleague (whom I’ll call Jane) had a baby a couple of weeks ago. She’s taking her two course releases this semester, and will be back teaching full-time in the fall. Another colleague – Cindy, whom I mentioned above – gave birth at roughly the same time of year, but taught for the first half of the spring semester, used her state-mandated “disability leave” to have paid leave for the remainder of the semester, and then took her course releases in the fall. I'm not convinced that Jane made a conscious decision not to have three months more at home with her baby; my sense is that when she was making the arrangements she didn't really realize that she could take them.

What I like about my institution’s fairly embarrassing situation of devising a parental leave policy in, ahem, 2009 is that it lets us ask all the right and urgent questions: How much time is enough? Should men and women be equally eligible? Should tenure-clocks stop? How do these leaves affect small departments, in particular? How do these leaves affect students? How do we translate calendar time-frames (that is, months or weeks) into academic time-frames (that is, semesters)? How do we ensure that birth and adoptive parents get comparably adequate leaves? And so on.1

The answers to all of these questions are complicated, and I, frankly, don't have them. But I do have two additional thoughts that I can raise here in ways that it isn't useful to raise them on campus. One is the kind of political-radical point that is both important in policy questions but also, in certain ways, useless to them. The other is about the particular difficultly the nature of academic work poses for these discussions.

First, the radical point. The U.S. -- tragically and shamefully -- has no national system of healthcare, no nationally-mandated and -subsidized program of parental or maternity leave, and no nationally-subsidized system of high-quality childcare that starts with infancy. There's no question that this is terrible and needs to change. None. But, as a result, we've turned to the private sector to take care of these issues. And while that's been necessary, I also think that as we make our employers provide better, fuller, more substantive maternity or parental leave policies, we actually undermine our arguments that this isn't an employers' responsibility: this is a social responsibility, a responsibility of the state.

In terms of strategy, this leaves us nowhere: We shouldn’t work locally, with private institutions and employers, to make the conditions for new parents better? Because we should be working for the larger change that may or may not ever come? I can’t agree with that, but I also believe in principle that the solution does not, cannot, and should lie within the private sector. I don’t believe that it’s an employer’s responsibility to support the (biological and social) reproduction of the nation.2 It's in an employer's interest to support its employees, to make sure that they are happy and healthy and productive.3 I object in many cases to turning to the private sector to solve public sector problems (although I’ll concede that it’s sometimes not only necessary but also appropriate). And in some ways, it seems to me that that's what we're doing here.

But the second issue has to do with the particular nature of work in the academy. A friend of mine summarizes this in two different ways, both of which are apposite here: 1) "I can work any 80 hours a week I want!" and 2) "As an academic, there's the time I'm working and the time I should be working." The particular combination of freedom and tyranny that academics face is that, on the one hand, most of us don't have to work from 8 am to 6 pm (or from 9 am to 10 pm if, say, you're in one of those professions) every day in an office away from home. On the other hand, though, there's always work that spills over into evening and weekend hours -- partly because (as with many other professions) there's too much work to complete in the "work week" and partly because (as with a few other professions) the work is defined in part as stuff that happens at other times (and as requiring certain kinds of near-constant availability). And while the teaching-and-service arms of academic work are defined as things that we do "for our students" and "for our departments" and so on (for "others," essentially), the research arm is defined -- at least in the humanities and some social sciences -- as what we do "for ourselves."

Furthermore, "leave" -- leave from teaching, leave from advising students, leave from committee work -- in the academy is typically shorthand for "research leave." "Parental leave," then, is somewhat hard to distinguish in practice from that other kind. A colleague whom I’ll call Hannah -- pre-tenure, female, heterosexual and married, childless, about to have her junior research leave -- reports being advised by senior colleagues in her department that she should have a baby during that leave because then she'll get "more leave time." That’s a suggestion that basically implies that parental leave and research leave are both, really, research leave, sort of. In fact, we can't police how people use their leave. I don't know whether my colleagues on parental leave are using (some of) that time to write, and I don't think that it's particularly appropriate for me to know.

And yet I also do. Let's say that I have two colleagues who are at the same point in the tenure clock, and they have children at the same time, and they take the same amount of leave. Charlotte has a partner who also has considerable parental leave, and during their shared period of leave, s/he shoulders 50+% of the childcare duties, so Charlotte has time to write and publish a couple of articles. Emily has a partner whose employer gives almost *no* parental leave, and while they use hir vacation time to gain a couple of weeks, Emily has to provide 90% of the childcare during her leave period, and has no time to write and publish anything. When they come up for tenure (at the same time, both having had kids at the same time, but with vastly different publication records), what do we do? (How) Do we factor in the fact that Charlotte essentially got some extra research time, but Emily did not?

I don't know the answer to that one, but the inequity troubles me. It's often (but not always) a gendered inequity. Another friend -- a sociologist by training -- is wont to point out that men who have children during graduate school typically finish faster than their childless peers; women who have children almost always take longer. I'm fairly sure that there's no way to police this at the level of policy -- and, in any case, I'm deeply troubled at the prospect of either our employers or the state scrutinizing our childrearing decisions and practices in that level of detail.

One last complication (for now), which brings us back to my particular institutional case but also opens the issue(s) up further, is that there are a lot of calls for professions rather than particular institutions to be more flexible and forgiving of the demands of biological and social reproduction. More workplace childcare centers, more flexible hours, more ways for people to take "time off" from their careers and then to re-enter without losing all ground, and so on. I guess I'm wondering where the line is -- if there is or should be a line at all -- between "parental leave" and "time off to raise a family." I'm not convinced that either Cindy or Harriet -- who had 18 and 15 months, respectively -- would describe themselves as "taking time off" from their careers. Both continued to write during those leaves and both have used some paid childcare during the latter portion of the leaves. And I guess I need to say that I'm not sure. I think that it's hard on students to have faculty gone for long periods. It's certainly hard on departments, and unsurprisingly harder on smaller ones.

I don't have answers. I'm a bit troubled to find myself arguing against parents being given, basically, an automatic year of paid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child, and yet that's what I seem to be doing. I guess all that I can say in conclusion is this: these issues are complicated, and there aren’t perfect answers. Institutions don’t just need to take care of the faculty who want to become parents; they have to balance that need against the sometimes competing needs of the students and the other faculty and staff. Because while it seem better if we could all be given leave for a year or more whenever our familial needs and demands make that necessary, that would actually just mean that we’re all easily either dispensable (if we aren’t replaced) or that we’re fungible (if it’s easy to replace us). I’d hope that neither of those is true.

A Mother Professor is an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college.


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