Paul L. Caron

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Quiet Crisis Of Parents On The Tenure Track

Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track, by Maggie Doherty (Harvard):

Parenthood can be punishing for academics. Too often, colleges fail them. ...

Fifty years after the sexual revolution, there is still an essential conflict between child rearing and professional advancement in academe. While law firms and tech companies typically provide employees with paid parental leave (and even, in some cases, fertility treatments), many academics must do without such accommodations. Academic parents often have no paid parental leave, no child-care subsidies, and sky-high expectations about their productivity during the most intensive years of child rearing.

Things have certainly improved since the 1960s, the days of the nearly all-male professoriate. In the 1970s and the 1980s, as more women were hired on the tenure track, activists both inside and outside the academy fought for and won important improvements to workplace policies. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, for example, amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, and national origin. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which covers a range of family and medical experiences that may require time off from work, including caring for and bonding with a newborn. Under the law, covered employees (roughly 60 percent of workers in the U.S.) may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs.

FMLA is important but imperfect. Not all academic workers are covered by the law: Those who have been employed for the less than 12 full months are not covered, and some graduate students and postdocs may not be considered employees by their institutions, although this is changing as a result of grad-union activism. Because the mandated leave is unpaid, many academic workers can’t afford to take full advantage of it. While some states, such as Massachusetts, require employers to offer additional accommodations, including paid leave, many states don’t.

Academic parents must also grapple with the culture of academe, which remains hostile to family life. “Academic life, at least as I’ve experienced it, still rests on a fantasy that the faculty are wealthy gentleman-scholars who would enjoy sipping sherry and smoking a pipe at 7 p.m. with other gentleman-scholars while the womenfolk raise their sons and heirs or something,” Jill Lepore, the author and Harvard professor of American history, told me. Having children on the tenure track makes it hard to sustain the appearance of scholarly single-mindedness, unencumbered by the demands of the body and utterly devoted to the job.

For this piece, I spoke to or corresponded with more than 20 parents from across the country who were tenured or on the tenure track. They included historians, psychologists, scientists, and literary scholars. Some were single, others married; some straight, others queer; some had given birth, while others had not. I heard from faculty who work at prestigious private universities and those who work at state institutions. Together, they tell the story of a quiet crisis, one that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic but that long predates it. Parents told of inadequate accommodations, stress and exhaustion, and de facto exclusion from professional life. Many I spoke to had navigated this crisis without institutional help and at great personal cost.

In recent years, and especially since the summer of 2020, diversity, inclusion, and belonging have become buzzwords — and sometimes even offices — at colleges and universities across the country. But when it comes to parenthood, college and universities do not live up to their stated values. Institutions of higher learning can’t solve the problem of parenting in the U.S., a wealthy country that guarantees neither paid parental leave nor affordable child care to its citizens. But they can certainly do more than they are doing now.

Chronicle of Higher Education, Support for Tenure-Track Parents Is Still Lacking, Readers Say:

Maggie Doherty’s recent article about the challenges of parenting while on the tenure track resonated with many readers. So we asked for your stories: What has your experience with parenting in academe been? Did you feel supported by your institution? What is your university doing right — and what can it do better?

Here’s what some of you said.

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