'Life of the Mind and of the Heart'

February 2, 2005

Colleges are at risk of losing some of the most talented young academics -- especially female ones -- if they don't make major changes in the faculty career path. That was the message at a briefing Tuesday for presidents attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The briefing was a preview of plans about to be released by the American Council on Education Office of Women in Higher Education and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Those plans go beyond traditional efforts, such as improving mentoring or providing child care options, to help women and young parents. Rather, the groups are recommending that colleges consider substantial changes in tenure policies and the creation of new kinds of academic positions.

Young academics "want a home life," said Cathy A. Trower, a research associate at Harvard University who is leading a major study of the American professoriate. The academy "may have never been less attractive" to faculty members than it is now, and many are leaving for other careers, she said.

It's time, she said, "for a national dialogue" on how colleges can make faculty jobs more attractive to those who want "a life of the mind and of the heart."

While Trower and other speakers stressed that the changes they are seeking would help many men, too, they said that many more women find themselves unable or unwilling to navigate the traditional tenure track. John Curtis, director of research for the American Association of University Professors, cited data showing that married women with children up to the age of 6 are 50 percent less likely than comparable men to enter the tenure track.

Lotte Bailyn, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlined the types of recommendations that colleges will be urged to adopt. Institutions, she said, should:

  • Create new types of academic positions, equivalent to postdocs, for academics who are returning to full-time work after not working professionally or working part time so that they could care for children.
  • End the informal, but real, "penalty" that search committees give to academics with gaps in their careers because of family obligations.
  • Allow leaves of absence of more than one year.
  • Give people up to 10 years (instead of the traditional 6 or 7) to be considered for tenure.
  • Use cafeteria-style benefits so academic couples could have one partner sign up for health insurance while the other could get money toward child care.
  • Create more flexible retirement options, such as letting people work part time for up to five years at the end of their careers, so that departments can hire young talent.

Taken together, Trower said, these and other ideas would "reconceive the ideal academic worker."

The presidents who were at the session appeared genuinely concerned about the issues that were raised, and open to the ideas being discussed. But several asked questions related to costs and how much colleges could afford to invest in these policies.

In an interview after the session, Trower said that the question about costs was a legitimate one. But she said that there are also costs associated with the status quo. When colleges lose talent and become less effective because of turnover, there are costs. When colleges have to run a new search, there are costs, she said.

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