putting limits on the academic workday

Today, among the various administrative tasks of scheduling meetings with students and other responsibilities, I decided to RSVP yes for an upcoming evening talk.  I didn’t make this decision lightly, as it involved coordinating schedules with another party (i.e., fellow dual career parent).

With the use of technology such as email, increasing job precarity, and belief in facetime as signalling productivity and commitment, the workday in the US has elongated, blurring boundaries to the point that work can crowd out other responsibilities to family, community, hobbies, and self-care.  However, one Ivy  institution is exhorting its members to rethink making evening events and meetings the norm.

In this nuanced statement issued to department chairs, Brown University’s provost outlines the stakes and consequences of an elongated workday:

This burden [of juggling work and family commitments] may disproportionately affect female faculty members. Although data on Brown’s faculty is not available, national statistics indicate that male faculty members (of every rank) are more likely than female faculty members (of every rank) to have a spouse or partner whose comparably flexible work schedule allows that spouse or partner to handle the bulk of evening-time household responsibilities. Put differently, male faculty members are more likely than female faculty members to have the household support to attend campus events after 5:30. We must be attuned to issues of gender equity when we think about program scheduling. We must also take into consideration the particular challenges faced by single parents on the faculty when required to attend events outside the regular hours of childcare.

The statement notes structural issues (that onsite daycare ends at 5:30pm) and acknowledges proposed solutions, with an emphasis on putting limits on the workday:

Faculty with young children are of two minds regarding the university’s responsibility to provide equitable access to the scholarly opportunities that come from participating in lectures, seminars, and workshops. Some argue that Brown should provide onsite drop-in childcare between 5:00 and 8:00; if you can drop your child off in the lobby of Ikea or the Boston Sports Club, surely you should be able to drop your child off at Brown. Others contend that offering more babysitting can hardly be considered family-friendly; Brown should avoid forcing faculty to choose between work and family on multiple nights a week by making a conscious effort to steer the research life of the university towards working hours. What’s clear is that the status quo is not tenable for a sizable segment of the faculty. Over the last year, attention to family-friendly scheduling has yielded new accommodations: the monthly university faculty meetings now adjourn at 5:30; some departments have moved meetings from late-afternoon to lunchtime; and some programs such as the Watson Institute have made thoughtful efforts to incorporate faculty parents by utilizing more of the workday for scholarly programming and asking standing seminars and workshops to vary their schedules (e.g. lunchtime meetings one semester, late afternoons the other).

The statement concludes a handy list of best practices:

Best Practices for Chairs and Directors

Recognize that 5:30 is not a time at which “everyone is free.”

Acknowledge the challenges (logistically, financially, and interpersonally) that 5:30 events and late afternoon teaching blocks pose to faculty with family responsibilities.

Distinguish between programming meant to serve the broader community and programming meant to bolster the research capacity of the faculty. Programming in the latter category should happen during the workday.

Vary the times of workshops, seminars, and lectures so that the same people are not perpetually excluded.

Accommodate faculty with family responsibilities by creating opportunities for workday interactions (e.g. coffees, lunches) with visiting scholars. In particular, make sure that junior faculty with family responsibilities do not miss the professional development or networking opportunities essential for tenure.

Enfranchise faculty by making sure that departmental governance and other essential activities take place during the workday.

Advocate for family-friendly policies, including efforts to reconfigure the scheduling grid with new seminar times.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about speeding scholarly snails.


Written by katherinechen

September 28, 2016 at 7:16 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Many institutions are doing this, not just Brown. In fact, I’d guess most institutions with NSF-ADVANCE programs or similar locally funded efforts have pushed to keep academic business in usual work hours, with greater or lesser degrees of success. (Some departments simply resist, others run into problems with scheduling and/or room availability.)



    September 28, 2016 at 9:09 pm

  2. Interesting mix of issues. At my first job (Louisville) we all worked nights because the night school was integral to the university and we got extra pay for teaching an extra class in the night school. At the time I did not have children and I was one of only two female faculty; the other also did not have children. (This was a long time ago!) The men who had children sometimes brought them to campus during breaks. I think campuses that cater to commuting students are much more likely to have night classes and for them night work is likely to be non-optional. But optional stuff like meetings or lectures that are in the evening are a different issue. Agree that there are privilege patterns about whose schedules are more flexible.



    September 29, 2016 at 7:10 pm

  3. Not an academic, but love seeing this as somebody who has experienced the same issues as a parent of young children in the legal profession. Anne-Marie Slaughter is doing God’s work bringing attention to the issues in the U.S., but after reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy earlier this year, I’m afraid that almost nobody is fully aware of just how urgent the problems may be. If you buy Hrdy’s arguments that human prosocial tendencies evolved out of cooperative breeding and its unique demands, then we’re in danger of losing what it is that makes us most human.


    Michael F. Martin

    October 4, 2016 at 6:18 pm

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