A Scholarly Approach to Work-Life Issues

Written by: Elizabeth Simmons

Primary Source: Mend the Gap

Some of the most challenging conversations I have with faculty In my role as dean concern topics that span the boundary between the professional and personal realms: appointments, promotions, raises, disability-related accommodations, and leaves. These matters must always be handled deftly because they can affect an individual’s sense of how much he or she is valued by the academic community.

However, when a faculty member begins the conversation by telling me that colleagues claim the system works in a certain rigid way, diplomatic communication is likely to become paramount. What they have been told by their highly intelligent and well-intentioned colleagues is, unfortunately, often wrong.

As I discussed in my last column, it is important for faculty members to adopt a scholarly approach to managing their academic careers. In this piece, I discuss the implications for career issues that are not purely academic but impinge on the personal side of life.

In framing academic assignments for their students, faculty members instruct them to use the best, most reliable and well-documented evidence possible as they formulate their hypotheses and conclusions. Along the way, instructors teach students about the difference between primary and secondary sources and how to judge the quality of a given source. This attention to the nature and quality of evidence is essential to the work of a scholar or educator in any discipline.

Yet, in handling their own personnel issues, faculty members often succumb to a “Wikipedia” approach they would never tolerate in their teaching or research — seeking information only from the most convenient source rather than consulting the most reliable one.

I think there are three underlying reasons why that happens: (a) They may not realize that a “friend down the hall” is an unreliable source; (b) they may not have thought systematically about what would constitute a better source; and (c) they may be nervous about approaching some of the best sources.

This article discusses all three aspects of this issue and points faculty toward a more scholarly and effective approach to managing the personnel aspects of their careers.

Why the Friend Down the Hall Is Not the Most Reliable Source

When seeking information about sensitive professional issues that cross into the personal realm (e.g., parental leaves, raises, promotions, dual-career issues, nominations for prizes), a faculty member often prefers to ask a close colleague for advice. After all, the colleague may have passed through similar career or life stages already and may be a regular confidant with whom the individual has developed a rapport.

However, this friend may (unwittingly) be an unreliable source. A situation that seems similar to yours may still differ in some crucial way.

Perhaps, for instance, you are seeking to change the time of day at which you will teach next year. Your colleague may not be aware that her recent request for a schedule shift was successful because teaching times are rotated to distribute unpopular slots fairly and she was already high in the queue for a more desirable time. She may also not know that your recently diagnosed medical condition could be relevant to the discussion.

Even if the details of your situations are identical, but his occurred a few years ago, the rules may have been altered in the meantime and he may have no reason to be aware of the change. For instance, my university recently updated its parental leave policy; people seeking leaves more recently were pleasantly surprised to find the rules were more favorable than water cooler conversation had suggested.

If your colleague is at a different institution, the likelihood of a mismatch between your situations increases still further. Each institution has its own local practices and constraints. Public and private colleges tend to take very different approaches to personnel issues due to differing historical precedents or degrees of government oversight. The existence of a faculty union could also impact policies and procedures.

In addition, institutions with different primary educational missions may parse personnel matters from divergent perspectives. You should certainly distrust any assertion that “all colleges” handle an issue like raises, leaves, or tenure reviews in the same way.

Identifying More Reliable Sources 

What, then, are more reliable sources for information on managing the personnel aspects of your own career?

In the context of scholarship, you would know how to answer this kind of question. If you were wondering whether a paper of yours was suitable for submission to a particular journal, you would read the advice the journal’s website offers to authors and skim a few back issues. If you were thinking about applying to an unfamiliar grant program, you might phone or email the program officer to ask questions that the call for proposals did not answer. If you were planning to try a new technique in class, you could read an article in which the technique was assessed for effectiveness in a comparable course at a similar institution. In other words, you would seek authoritative sources.

When you are confronting issues at the life/career boundary, there are several authoritative sources available at colleges and universities.

For general descriptions of policies and procedures regarding personnel matters, look to the official communication channels offered by your university: the faculty handbook, the union contract (if you belong to a collective bargaining unit), the institution’s human resources website, or an HR officer. Each is specifically employed by the institution to communicate this kind of information.

For more specific details about how a policy is implemented in your unit, consult the line administrator (e.g., a director, chair, or dean) whose job includes responsibility for that topic. This is the person who is expected to know the answers, trained to deal with the issues, and evaluated based on how well the unit handles these matters. He is the gatekeeper who must give formal written approval of your request for a leave, raise, or nomination.

She is also the equivalent of the surgeon who has performed a procedure numerous times before – she is familiar with a wide range of situations, understands the alternatives and is prepared to handle your issue appropriately.

In some universities, there may also be a special faculty advocate or equity officer at the department, college, or institutional level who is charged with helping faculty understand their options and obtain fair treatment. Such an individual will also be trained to have accurate information at hand and may be specifically expected to help faculty make contact with their cognizant local administrator to resolve concerns.

If you are not sure which administrator is in charge of a given issue, and if your departmental website does not make this clear, try asking the HR staff member for your department or college. This individual should know who is officially responsible because he or she will see which administrator routinely signs the related paperwork.

Keep in mind that an HR officer will likely be an expert on formal procedures and policies but may know less about the specific practices by which departments implement them. For instance, the HR staff member will know that a faculty member who adopts a child is entitled to six weeks of paid leave at your institution but may not be aware that your department sometimes implements this (in consultation with the faculty member) by instead arranging a semesterlong reduction in teaching load.

Preparing to Consult Your Sources

What should you do if you feel shy or ill-prepared for starting a conversation with your chair, director, or dean?

Here is a context where your friend down the hall or down the road can be quite helpful. While she cannot predict precisely how your situation will be handled by the department, a chat with her can give you a sense of the likely range of possibilities. Indeed a friend from another institution may even open your mind to options that are unconventional, but still possible, at your school.

Similarly, reading the information available on your departmental or HR website can arm you with some key questions for starting the conversation with your chair, director, or dean.

Assuming that the chair is the person who acts as the gateway for your issue, you may wish to have a preliminary confidential conversation with an associate chair before your official talk with the chair. The associate chair should be familiar with how the chair approaches these matters and be able to correct any misinformation you have encountered in your initial research. Having a little practice in explaining a sensitive matter may also make you feel a bit less awkward when you meet with the chair.

To the extent that you feel comfortable doing so, sharing a few relevant personal details with your chair may garner you more reliable assistance.  Your experience as a scholar tells you that using the correct keywords in an online search is crucial for obtaining useful results.  Similarly, providing your chair with context can enable him to parse your request more accurately.

Say, for example, that a new chair is unaware that you have taken a leave related to parenting or that your teaching schedule is designed, in part, to accommodate a disability. This could adversely impact the quality of the advice he offers about your promotion timetable or future teaching options. You should think carefully about how to balance the value and the risk associated with disclosure in your own professional context.

What if the chair turns out to be ill informed about the issues and does not appear to be following the university’s guidelines? Just as in scholarship, if one source proves unreliable, seek another. If an archival manuscript were corrupted or eaten by silverfish, you would visit another archive to study an intact copy. If the chair is unhelpful or obstructive, approach the dean’s office to inquire about the rules and about the correct way to seek permission for the accommodation or resource in question.

Alternatively, you could contact the institutional head of human resources, academic human resources, or administration. There may also be someone with the title “deputy” or “associate” in these higher-level offices who can provide accurate and confidential advice via a preliminary conversation.

In summary, I urge you to extend the scholarly approach to your career by seeking out the most appropriate and reliable sources for information about the boundaries where your professional and personal lives touch. While these sensitive issues can feel awkward to broach with an individual you do not know well, getting accurate information about your options pays off handsomely in the long run.

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Elizabeth Simmons
Dr. Elizabeth H. Simmons is Dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics in the Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy.