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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2007 / 10 

New policies help faculty members balance work, rest of life

October 23, 2007

Virginia Tech has joined a cadre of leading universities with progressive work/life policies that provide flexibility for faculty members and graduate students to address special family and personal issues without jeopardizing their professional progress.

In addition to existing benefits within sick leave, family leave, Family Medical Leave Act, and leave without pay polices, since 2006 the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors has approved a suite of workload adjustment policies, including stopping the tenure clock and modified duties. The new policies were forwarded to the board by the Office of the Provost and AdvanceVT, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program to promote and enhance the careers of women in academic science and engineering.

While AdvanceVT did surveys and convened study groups to identify and address issues related to recruitment, retention, and advancement of women, the work/life policies will also help men balance work, family, and personal health issues, said Patricia Hyer, associate provost for academic administration and co-principal investigator of the $3.5 million NSF Advance grant.

Megan Dolbin-MacNab, assistant professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, learned about the stopping-the-tenure-clock benefit at new faculty orientation when she joined the university in 2004. A couple of years later, she had reason to use the benefit and called Hyer for guidance. “She told me about the modified duties policy that was pending. I had my daughter soon after the policy passed.”

Dolbin-MacNab was the first person to use the policies. Since summer 2006, it has been used by men and women to adjust to a new member of the family and to cope with circumstances ranging from personal illness to family tragedy.

“We are trying to make work–life balance part of the university culture, rather than something special that we are doing for someone,” said Hyer. “We want to recognize that throughout their lives, faculty members have issues outside of work that need to be addressed. We now have policies that give us a framework to deal with those situations.

“What is unique about us is that we have a suite of policies and tools that allows us to mix and match to address a range of circumstances,” said Hyer. “It is not just for new parents. Senior faculty members have different issues, such as caring for elderly parents or personal health.

“In the extraordinary circumstances of this spring’s tragedy, we had policies that were immediately useful. We didn’t have to make something up to help family members who work at Virginia Tech.”

“Stopping the Tenure Clock” grants a one-year extension of the probationary period to tenure-track faculty members in recognition of the demands of caring for a newborn child or a child under five newly placed for adoption or foster care. The benefit can be requested by either parent or both, if both are tenure-track faculty members. An extension may also be approved on a discretionary basis for other extenuating circumstances that have had a significant impact on the tenure-track faculty member’s productivity, such as a serious personal illness or major illness of an immediate family member.

Workload adjustment can take the form of part-time employment or modified duties. An option to full leave, part-time employment permits faculty members to temporarily reduce their workloads, with proportional pay, to help them combine employment with new parenthood or other temporary extraordinary family obligations. Probationary faculty members moving to part-time status for the purposes of child or family care receive an extension of the mandatory tenure review date.

The modified duties policy allows tenured or tenure-track faculty members to request a semester of modified duties and flexible schedule, while remaining on full pay, in order to accommodate extraordinary circumstances. The Office of the Provost provides financial support to the department to accommodate the reassignment of responsibilities.

“I took eight weeks leave at the end of July 2006, and was on modified duties for the rest of the fall semester,” said Dolbin-MacNab. “In my case, modified duties meant I wasn’t teaching. I still had full time responsibilities, but I was doing other projects that provided me with much more flexibility in terms of my schedule.”

She typically teaches two courses per semester. “I returned to teaching in the spring semester. Having the opportunity to use the modified duties policy was invaluable because it provided me with the flexibility I needed in order to learn how to be a successful professor and a parent,” said Dolbin-MacNab.

AdvanceVT follow up includes asking whether women and men feel comfortable using the policies.

“At first I worried that people would think I was not committed to my career or not doing my part in the department,” said Dolbin-MacNab. “But the message I received from my mentors was, ‘You’d be silly not to stop the clock.’ I also received a great deal of support from my department head and colleagues to use the modified duties policy,” she said.

“Although the modified duties policy helped me to balance my career and family responsibilities, it wasn’t a vacation. With modified duties, you are still full time, just doing different tasks,” said Dolbin-MacNab.

“Only a handful of universities have as extensive a set of policies and tools to allow faculty members to fulfill their personal and professional lives,” said Hyer. “Now that we have this in place, other universities are contacting us for guidance.”

Meanwhile, “there are probably years of work on culture change so the policies work the way we intend,” said Hyer. “The provost’s office will do this through leadership training and meetings with departments. We are also working with department heads and the promotion and tenure committees about how to implement the policies.”

“We are receiving a good response from new recruits. They know these benefits are very important, whether or not they need them next year,” said Hyer.

“The new work-life policies were key to our success in recruiting our top candidate for assistant professor of Spanish last year,” said Jessica Folkart, associate professor of foreign languages. “This stellar candidate was looking for a place where she could build a dynamic career but also raise a family. A major reason why she accepted our offer is that we made it clear to her that Virginia Tech has enacted reasonable policies that allow this to happen. Our new hire told us that her peers in graduate school were highly impressed and envious at the work-life policies at Virginia Tech,” she said.

“This new policy has helped us be more competitive in recruiting the quality faculty we need and want. Even better, it will help us retain those faculty members, as they are able to merge their job and their life successfully,” said Folkart.

“It’s about changing culture,” said Hyer. “New Ph.D. graduates are now demanding a better balance in their lives, and universities must respond. Fewer will pursue a faculty career without flexibility. The workforce is changing and it calls into question the long-standing model of what it means to be a successful faculty member, which presumes a 24/7 commitment with someone at home to care for the family. If we want access to the best talent coming out of doctoral programs, we need to make these academic positions into careers people find attractive and can succeed at.”

A new work/life benefit has also been put in place for graduate students. The Graduate School, in collaboration with the college deans and the provost, has established a Work-Life Grant Program to provide temporary financial assistance to departments to enable them to continue support for female graduate students during pregnancy and childbirth.

“Virginia Tech is among the first universities to have such a policy for graduate students,” said Peggy Layne, AdvanceVT program director.

This grant program is a result of conversations with concerned graduate students and recommendations from the Advance Pipeline Element working group chaired by Nancy Love, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The program demonstrates the university’s commitment to be work-life friendly, by providing a supportive environment for birth of a child while simultaneously acknowledging a department's need for continuation of the work being provided by the graduate student as a GTA, GRA, or GA. Work-Life Grants provides the financial equivalent to a graduate assistantship stipend for six weeks to ensure that the research/teaching effort is not adversely impacted and the graduate student continues to be supported while she is on leave.

“We are moving away from accommodation as an exception to recognition that this is the way we will do business,” said Hyer.

“These policies seem like Virginia Tech’s way of communicating that they support my career and my family,” said Dolbin-MacNab. “I feel like I work at a place that is invested in my success.”

“But we are not done yet. We are still working on childcare,” said Hyer.

Learn more about work/life polices for faculty members and for graduate students online.