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WASHINGTON – Not so long ago, faculty work-life balance equated to one thing: maternity leave -- and even that was administered in a haphazard fashion at many institutions. So higher education has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, administrators said here Thursday at a conference on faculty flexibility sponsored by the American Council on Education and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

At the same time, participants said, colleges and universities still have a long way to go, and -- despite being producers of new knowledge -- lag behind other employers in innovation in career flexibility.

“There’s a poverty of imagination,” said Kathleen Christensen, director of the Sloan Foundation's Working Longer program, which studies work-life trends in the U.S. “People are not ill-willed, and they want to do what they think is right, but there is a poverty of imagination.”

About a decade ago, the Sloan Foundation joined with ACE to identify and promote existing best practices in faculty flexibility and promote further innovation. The partnership has seen successes, and Thursday’s “National Challenge for Higher Education” meeting was designed to share those results, as well as remaining obstacles.

Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of ACE’s Center for Effective Leadership, said it’s been assumed for some time that flexibility policies benefit not only professors but institutions, due to the hefty costs associated with losing faculty members who think they can’t balance their professional and personal lives. That’s especially true in the sciences, where individual faculty members bring in so much external funding, she said.

Now, Van Ummersen said, real “evidence” that flexible policies mean happier, more productive employees is beginning to emerge through faculty satisfaction surveys. And some of the most promising innovations and gains have been seen at medical colleges and universities, which have been quicker than other disciplines to rethink traditional faculty roles, she said.

Administrators of Stanford University’s “Academic Biomedical Career Customization” program, for example, were eager to talk about the how the Sloan-funded initiative, now two years old, helped medical school faculty members find some breathing room in their packed schedules and get credit for service work.

“The elephant in the room was faculty workload,” which for many professors is, by necessity, more than 70 hours per week, said Jennifer L. Raymond, associate professor of neurobiology and associate dean of the School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity and Leadership. “And we’re not changing it. We're just doing little tweaks, and we’ve found that giving [professors] a little bit of breathing room makes a big difference.”

The voluntary program works like this: Faculty members work with program officers to track exactly how they spend their work weeks, including on service tasks that have been pre-defined by their departments. Professors get credit for those tasks in a kind of “bank,” which they’re able to trade in for various kinds of compensation, including cleaning services and meal delivery at home from third-party vendors.

Raymond said the program has increased “transparency” about who does service work, given that women take on more of this work than men, at the expense of their research. Also as a result of the program, more faculty members have “stepped up” to fill in for clinical shifts, and program participants have higher grant success rates than the school’s faculty in general (among other gains).

Magali Fassiotto, said that the program costs about $3,000 per participant -- but that figure doesn’t take into account financial benefits from the program, which are more difficult to quantify. She said she thought the program would work well in non-medical divisions, and that other academic departments and institutions have expressed interest in the model.

In another example of medical school innovation, Luanne Thorndyke, vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said she’s offered her full-time faculty members the opportunity to move to part-time schedules due to temporary personal obligations or even on a longer-term basis. Stanford also has introduced new medical faculty models that deviate from the typical tenure-track job but offer stability in the form of long-term contracts and -- in the case of one model -- guaranteed funded research time.

Other institutions have made significant changes to their faculty flexibility policies. The University System of Maryland, for example, used to allow faculty members to take only 15 sick days to care for ailing parents -- an increasingly common responsibility, said Chancellor William (Brit) Kirwan. So the system revised the policy, allowing for faculty members to use any paid sick time they’d accrued to care for parents.

Many speakers said eldercare was increasingly playing into their campus discussions about faculty flexibility and faculty life span; some said they worried about how the costs associated with caring for aging parents would push faculty members who would otherwise retire to continue working.

Similarly, Andrea Chapdelaine, provost at Pennsylvania's Albright College, said a recent climate survey revealed that her faculty members were increasingly worried about supporting their college-graduate children who were living with them in a stumbling economy. The college recently changed its child leave policy to a more general family leave, and faculty members don't have to disclose specifically what it's for.

It's not just a dearth of ideas that’s stopping higher education as a whole from embracing change, other participants said. Many speakers said institutional inertia and deep-seated cultural factors have prevented the full-time faculty role from evolving much over time. For example, several speakers said, senior faculty members sometimes discourage junior faculty members from taking advantage of family leave policies so as not to damage their careers. Or search committee chairs discount women candidates because they assume their spouses won’t relocate, participants said -- calling such attitudes evidence that even the best flexibility policies won’t be exercised until the broader academic culture changes.

Possible stigma surrounding the use of work-life policies concerns the National Science Foundation, as well, said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of its Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The foundation offers faculty flexibility supplements to grant recipients, but "uptake has not been what we expected, and we're interested in that," she said.

Others said that in an era of reduced public funding, what counts as research for tenure applications also needs rethinking. Molly Corbett Broad, president of ACE, said things such as data analytics and the digital humanities pose questions about what constitutes research, and open up possibilities about research that "doesn't necessarily have time and space limitations." She added: "We're on the cusp of some pretty dramatic change in [the sciences]."

Kirwan said faculty flexibility needs to be addressed from the “bottom up,” but also the top down, since junior faculty members are demanding more work-life balance, and colleges and universities can use it as a recruiting tool.

Summing up the day’s discussion, Deneese Jones, provost at Drake University, said administrators must create an “urgency” around the issue, and then prioritize how they’re going to address it.

“We as intelligent beings cannot continue to admire the problem,” she said. “We have to get busy.”

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