Stopping the Clock -- Without Asking

If you are a junior professor at Princeton and become a parent, you get an extra year before tenure review -- automatically.
August 16, 2005

One of the most common policies adopted by colleges seeking to help their professors who are young parents is allowing them to "stop the clock" so that they get extra time before the tenure review that typically is based on six years of work.

In theory, this benefit lets new parents devote more time to their children without fear that it will hurt tenure reviews. In practice, many academics are afraid to stop the clock and feel that taking advantage of this benefit will stigmatize them and hurt their chances. A series of reports have urged colleges to find ways to take away that stigma, so that more parents -- mothers and fathers alike -- feel comfortable stopping the clock.

Princeton University may have found such an approach. The university is now giving all new parents an extra year before tenure review -- automatically. Many colleges promise to award the year to anyone eligible who asks. But at Princeton, you don't ask -- it now just happens. And it can happen multiple times for people who have more than one child (and those who have twins can get two extra years at that time).

"Our working assumption is that the time slowdown that new parents inevitably experience warrants an additional year," said Joan S. Girgus, special assistant to the dean of the faculty at Princeton and also a professor of psychology.

Girgus said that the policy, which was approved by the faculty, was developed following a survey on the old policy, which like those of many colleges offered the year if people asked for it. The survey found that only a small minority of professors took advantage of the extra year, even though many said that they wanted to. "Most of the comments we received said things like 'we didn't know how we would be viewed' or 'we thought it might be viewed as a sign of weakness,'" Girgus said.

"So what we thought about was, How do we organize this so that the onus is on the university?" she said.

A faculty member who wants to be reviewed earlier than would be expected under the new policy has that right, Girgus said, just like a faculty member can request a review now after four or five years. The important thing, she said, is that the new norm will be longer for anyone who becomes a parent.

Girgus said that she did not know of any other colleges with a policy like Princeton's, although she said she hadn't done enough research to declare that it's a 'first."

Marc Goulden, principal analyst for the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge, a University of California effort to help professors with family issues, said he thought the Princeton policy might well go beyond  anything in place now. The University of California is currently reviewing a series of improvements in policies for new parents, including a specific statement that they are entitled to extend their tenure clocks. University officials found that earlier language, saying that professors could ask for such time, suggested that it wasn't an entitlement, and discouraged faculty members from stopping their tenure clocks.

Experts on family issues in higher education called Princeton's move significant. "I think that what it is saying is that the institution believes that this is an important time in the life of a family and therefore has made this automatic," said Claire Van Ummersen, director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education.

Van Ummerson said that the Princeton survey finding reluctance to ask for an extra year was typical of what she has heard on many campuses.

"There is a stigma about asking and concern about bias," she said. She predicted that Princeton's policy would change the dynamics at that institution, and said she hoped it would help many mothers and fathers. "It's not only women, but men who have been held back from using these policies," she said.


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