Awards boost university career flexibility

Five universities are being recognized Monday for infusing more flexibility into the academic career path. Duke University, Lehigh University, the University of California (Berkeley and Davis campuses), the University of Florida, and the University of Washington have each won a $250,000 "accelerator grant" to build on their policies regarding everything from child care and part-time work to phased retirement.

The awards aim to promote the idea that universities, like businesses, need to revise an outdated model of work that assumed scholars would have a spouse to take care of the home front. While such issues are particularly critical for women's careers, flexibility advocates say, both men and women are increasingly wanting a better work-life balance.

"To achieve the kind of excellence that our universities are seeking on a global stage, they clearly need to attract and retain the best and brightest faculty they can.... I'm delighted to announce that there's a clear national trend within higher education for career flexibility," says Kathleen Christensen, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, the award sponsor.

Several of the winning universities plan to add policies to offer job-transition assistance to the spouses of new faculty members, in recognition of the high proportion of dual-career couples. Others will boost the number of subsidized child-care slots for faculty and strengthen parental leave policies. Adding advisers who can counsel faculty about transitions at various life stages is another priority.

The winners and many of the other applicants also share the goal of communicating better throughout their campuses how flexibility policies benefit the whole institution.

"You can have lots of wonderful policies, but somehow people don't take advantage of them," says Ana Mari Cauce, executive vice provost at the University of Washington. That stems partly from fears among faculty, particularly women, that if they take advantage of family-friendly arrangements they might not be seen as serious scholars, she says. Her campus has already started leadership development in the science and engineering departments to promote more flexibility, and now it will expand those efforts to all departments.

About 20 percent of the 259 eligible research universities in the United States applied for the Sloan awards. Surveys and an extensive review of policies enabled applicants to see how they stack up against peers on a wide range of flexibility factors. That process for selecting winners was conducted by the American Council on Education, an association of colleges and universities, and the nonprofit Families and Work Institute.

On another front, a major push for flexibility came in a national report released last week titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers." Produced by a committee of the National Academies, it calls for immediate reforms to practices that it says stand in the way of women reaching their full potential in academic science and engineering.

One set of recommendations calls for revision of hiring and promotion policies. Universities should "visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty with children or other care-giving responsibilities to maintain productive careers," it reads in part.

At a minimum, the report urges, institutions should provide paid parental leave, subsidies for child care, extensions of the time period allowed for finishing a dissertation or earning tenure, and family-friendly scheduling of key meetings.

For more, see Monitor article from June 29, 2006 titled, "The ivory tower gets more flexible."

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