Many colleges have programs that, in theory, allow faculty members to work part time while remaining on the tenure track. But these programs are little known and many academics fear that their prospects for advancement diminish if they participate.
Now, amid growing discussion  of the need for academe to be more "family friendly," the University of California is considering one of the most ambitious programs ever for tenured and tenure-track faculty members to work part time for extended periods in their careers. The plan  has only just been formally released for review -- and is probably months away from adoption -- but proponents hope it could lead to drastic changes in faculty career paths.
And the prestige of the university could lend support to other institutions -- especially research universities -- that are considering such policies. That's because California's policy is also attempting to tackle one of the toughest issues in the development of such part-time options: how to evaluate research productivity.
"The idea here is to create an equitable and productive work environment for all faculty," said Sheila O'Rourke, executive director of the Division of Academic Advancement for the university. "This could open the door to all kinds of faculty members having these options."
O'Rourke said that the university has an existing policy that allows for part-time tenure-track work, but the rules on evaluations are vague, and few young parents use the policy, for fear of the impact on their careers. Of 8,400 "ladder rank" faculty members systemwide, only 6-10 such appointments typically exist at each campus. And most of those are people who have another job outside the university.
Marc Goulden, principal analyist for the UC Family Faculty Friendly Edge,  a systemwide program to promote better options for professors, said, "I think this policy is a substantial breakthrough. Academia for the ladder rank has been more or less full time or no time."
The California policy would have no time limits on it and could be used before or after tenure, although officials expect more use after tenure.
In developing the new policy, the most contentious issue was how to evaluate faculty research. Pay issues are relatively easy -- people who work half time get half of their salaries, and people who work at least half time get their benefits. Teaching and service requirement are also pro-rated. But as the draft policy notes, research is more difficult.
For instance, in fields where publishing journal articles is expected, a half-time professor might just be expected to publish half as many such articles. But the draft asks what departments would do about expectations in other disciplines that might result in a part-time professor being told to produce "half a book." Another problem is that in still other disciplines, the research expectations are such that a regular work load requires so much work that a part-time appointment would have to be totally spent on research to keep up with departmental expectations.
"If a part-time is held to a full-time expectation for scholarly activity, then a part-time appointment is not truly part time, but represents a 'buy-out' of teaching and service expectations," the draft report says.
California's proposed solution is to be flexible on time, but not standards. So if the norm for promotion from associate to full professor in a given department is to have written a book in a three-year period, a half-time professor would be evaluted for output over six years. O'Rourke said that this represented the view of faculty leaders that the university not be flexible on research excellence.
Goulden also said that his research project did surveys of university faculty members and found that the approach of being flexible on time attracted much more support than being flexible on output. Asked to compare policies of pro-rating standards vs. time, Goulden found much stronger support for the latter:
|Opinion of Policy With...||Pro-Rated Timelines||Pro-Rated Standards|
|Very Supportive||52 pct.||45 pct.|
|Somewhat Supportive||33 pct.||29 pct.|
|Not Too Supportive||10 pct.||15 pct.|
|Not Supportive at All||5 pct.||11 pct.|
Those statistics, Goulden said, show the importance of the approach the California policy is taking. Faculty members will only take advantage of the new policy if there is strong support from their colleagues, he said, and the figures for pro-rating timelines suggest that support.
Not surprisingly, support for the new policy is strongest among female faculty members with children, 74 percent of whom said that the policy would be useful for them. But just over half of men and just over half of full professors said that they too would find the policy useful -- and the policy could be used to care for elderly parents or ailing spouses or as a transition to retirement.
Goulden's research suggests that while the part-time policy is largely talked about in terms of gender, it also could help in terms of retaining minority faculty members. Of underrepresented minority faculty members, 71 percent said that they would find the policy useful, while the figure was 67 percent for Asian professors and 55 percent for white faculty members.
The policy will now be reviewed by faculty members and administrators on each of the system 's campuses.