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The TICKING of the Biological and Tenure Clocks

The TICKING of the Biological and Tenure Clocks

Princeton University institutes new policy, placing the school at the forefront of family-friendly workplaces
By Patricia Valdata

Colleges and universities are arguably among the most enlightened and progressive institutions in America. So when it comes to maternity and career policies, one would expect that they’d be at the forefront of similarly progressive accommodation practices.

Not necessarily.

Princeton University, however, is taking steps to ease the burden for assistant professors who are new parents. The university recognized that junior faculty must cope with the added stress of ticking clocks — not just the biological clock, but the tenure clock as well. It’s hard enough to edit one’s dissertation into a book, while also teaching, advising and working on committees. Add in twice-daily runs to the daycare center and trips to the pediatrician, and what was already stressful quickly becomes a time-management nightmare.

Many colleges and universities, very aware of the problem, have adopted policies allowing faculty to request an extension of the tenure clock, but it’s usually not automatic.

“The anecdotal evidence is that women are reluctant to ask for an extension of the tenure clock for fear it may have negative consequences,” says Dr. Jane Buck, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Princeton University officials came to the same conclusion after a task force conducted a study in 2003 on the status of female faculty in the natural sciences and engineering, says Dr. Joan Girgus, professor of psychology and special assistant to the dean of faculty.

According to Girgus, the task force’s findings showed fewer faculty requested the extension than expected. A report this year on the status of women in the humanities and social sciences showed similar results. Both task force reports focused strictly on gender equity issues without the added factor of race.

“Both men and women told us they were reluctant to use it, because they didn’t know how the request for an extension would be viewed,” Girgus says. “This was even more prevalent and was said with greater feeling by the women in the survey. There was a lot of concern that requesting the extension would be viewed as a sign of weakness. They thought that was worse than having to deal with the absence of time and no sleep.”

Princeton’s policy for tenure extension dates back to 1970, when female assistant professors were allowed to request a one-year extension for pregnancy, with a maximum extension of two years. In 1991, the policy was expanded to include extensions for male faculty and adoptions. A workload relief policy followed in 1998. This policy allows an assistant professor who gives birth or adopts a child to stop teaching or performing administrative duties for one semester, or to do half-time work for two semesters.

The task force found that although men and women applied for faculty workload relief about equally, more men than women applied for tenure extension. The survey also showed uncertainty among the faculty about whether an extension would hurt their careers. If an assistant professor opted out of the extension, would he or she have the time to meet the level of achievement required for tenure? If faculty opted to take the extension, would the extra year be seen as an unfair advantage?
One former Princeton professor noted in her survey response, “During my pregnancy [my last year on the tenure clock,] I was never given the option of an additional year. In fact, once I had the child, I was harassed by the chair to return to work, which I did two weeks after my child was born.” Another commented, “I have not met a woman who is a leader in my field and who had babies prior to tenure.”

The anxiety and questions about the policy led the task force to recommend making the extension of the tenure clock automatic. The university approved the recommendation, making Princeton the first in the nation to do so, Girgus believes.

“We didn’t know that when we did it,” she says. “We didn’t ask ourselves whether other people had done it or were doing it; we simply had our own internal data about usage of the old policy and survey data about people’s anxieties, and that pushed us forward.”

No Limits

Girgus brought the task force’s recommendation to Dr. David Dobkin, dean of faculty, who approached Princeton president Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman.

“She’s obviously a person who cares deeply about these issues,” Dobkin says. “She was the one who suggested taking it to the [department] chairs and using them as a focus group.”

The department chairs raised the issue of the two-year limit on extensions and the possibility that an assistant professor who had twins or triplets might need additional time to apply for tenure. The multiple birth rate in New Jersey is nearly double that of any other state in the coun   try, according to a recent article in National Geographic,    so it’s not impossible that a professor who had quintuplets would automatically receive five extra years to apply for tenure under the new policy.

“Someone said to me, ‘Explain how having twins is not twice as hard as having one baby,’” Dobkin says. “It’s just obvious, so literally as we were writing up the final proposal and bringing it to the faculty advisory committee on policy, we made the change of putting in no limit.”

Department chairs are now responsible for informing the dean’s office that a member of the faculty is giving birth or adopting. That faculty member automatically receives the extension, but also has the option of applying for tenure early, if desired.

Since the new policy went into effect in May, four assistant professors have received the automatic extension.

“That’s a pace of about 12 to 15 a year,” Girgus says, “obviously a much higher number under the new policy if the pace continues.” Under the previous policy, only about five faculty members a year applied for and received the extension.

Applying the policy equally to men recognizes that although women still tend to be primarily responsible for child care, more men are taking an active role in raising their children.

“Our sense here is that both men and women, when they have new family obligations while they are facing these tenure pressures, really need extra time to be able to do both well,” Girgus says.

Among the first to benefit from the new policy were Dr. Jennifer Pitts and her husband, Dr. Sankar Muthu, both assistant professors in the politics department. Pitts and Muthu had their first child, a daughter, in June.

“I think the decision to make the tenure extension automatic was an especially enlightened one,” Pitts says. “I’ve spoken to colleagues at other universities with tenure extension policies that are not automatic, and there can be subtle pressures not to take the extensions, or parental leave, under those circumstances.”

Pitts had received advice from elder female faculty elsewhere that having a child before achieving tenure was not a good career move. Since the pre-tenure years often coincide with a woman’s prime childbearing years, younger female faculty often have to make a difficult choice. Some give up on tenure in order to have a family. Some do not have children at all. Others postpone having children until they have an established career. But postponing conception can result in fertility problems or a higher-risk pregnancy.

“By making the extension automatic, Princeton relieves new parents from having to make exceptions of themselves or appear to be demanding special treatment,” Pitts says. “It eases the worry that you’ll be seen as less productive or somehow sacrificing your career in order to have a child.”

Both Girgus and Dobkin note that on-campus reaction to the policy has been positive. Although the university did not actively publicize the policy change, reaction off-campus has been positive as well.
“As a general principle, it is a sound one to extend the period of probation for these limited purposes. We hope that institutions see its merit and adopt it,” says Jonathan Knight, director of programs in academic freedom and tenure for AAUP.

Leslie T. Annexstein, director of the American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund, says, “Certainly, I think that’s a step in the right direction, to make it a right for all faculty members.” She notes, however, that many colleges and universities do not have a good track record when faculty who use these extensions come up for tenure review. She says that institutions “have to be vigilant in application, and ensure through their own monitoring procedures that it doesn’t disadvantage faculty members.”

Bringing the Ivory Tower into the 21st Century

The policy change underscores how colleges and universities are now positioning themselves as family-friendly workplaces, a necessary change if institutions are to attract and retain top faculty, especially women.

The number of female faculty at Princeton increased slowly but steadily between 1992 and 2002, the 10 years covered by the task force reports. In 2002, women represented 30.3 percent of the faculty in the humanities, compared with 26.5 percent in 1992. In the social sciences, 22.6 percent were women in 2002, compared with 19.2 percent in 1992. Percentages in the natural sciences and engineering were lower, reflecting a historic pattern nationwide. At Princeton, 16 percent of the natural sciences faculty were women in 2002, up from 11.2 percent in 1992. The engineering department more than tripled its female faculty, from just 3 percent in 1992 to 10.1 percent by 2002. In raw numbers, though, that’s still only 12 women in a department of 118.

About half of the Princeton faculty who have young children reported experiencing scheduling conflicts between their family and faculty obligations, according to the task force report. The university offers on-campus child care, but the spaces are limited and the waiting lists are long.

“We have two affiliated daycare centers that are on campus in university buildings,” Girgus says. “Between them they accommodate approximately 150 children, mostly between the ages of two and five. We’re very short on spaces for infants and toddlers.”

According to Girgus, the university has a child care working group that is exploring ways to double that number, but she expects the process to take three to five years.

Dobkin agrees that Princeton needs to improve its daycare capacity, which he believes will help the university recruit and retain younger faculty.

“The difficulty with child care is that you end up hurting the most vulnerable people, the post-docs and junior faculty,” he says. “So we are looking into that with the expectation of making changes here.”
In the meantime, the automatic tenure extension policy reflects Princeton’s current focus on improving policies for faculty, especially women. Increasing the number of female department chairs, hiring more female faculty in the natural sciences and engineering and eliminating any gender gaps in faculty salaries were all recommendations by the task force.

“This is the way the world ought to be in the 21st century, and universities ought to lead,” Dobkin says. “Princeton is acknowledging that childbirth and adoption have an impact on careers. Our goal really is not to give people extra time by going from six years to seven, but to have them realize on their own that taking a year out of their seven years to spend time with their family was ultimately a good thing all around.”

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