The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track

Melissa Morris spent the first week of her parental leave grading essays about the American…

Melissa Morris spent the first week of her parental leave grading essays about the American Revolution. It was 2017, and Morris was in her first semester as an assistant professor of history at Bridgewater State, a public university in Massachusetts. She was teaching four courses — a standard teaching load at Bridgewater — and struggling to keep up. A week out from her due date, she started her parental leave: two paid and six unpaid weeks. She wanted to use as much of that time as possible to bond with her daughter. So as soon as she exited the classroom, she got to work.

Morris was under no illusions about the challenges of becoming a parent while on the tenure track. As a graduate student, she knew she wanted to have children; she also knew she wanted an academic job. She resolved to pursue both goals, even though each would be difficult — “differently difficult.” In her last year of graduate school, at Columbia University, she became pregnant; at 35, she’d decided she couldn’t wait any longer. She was five months pregnant when she defended her dissertation and eight months pregnant when she started her first tenure-track job.

In many ways, Morris’s situation was a good one. Everyone at Bridgewater was very accommodating. When she took leave midsemester, her department found two people, a tenured professor and an adjunct, to fill in for her. “I never got the sense that they were like, ‘Wow, this is super annoying that you turned up and had a baby,’” she said.

But still, there were problems — problems “that even the nicest department chair couldn’t do anything about.” Because her health insurance didn’t kick in until two months after her employee start date, the birth would not be covered. She wondered what she was going to do: “I can’t have a baby with no insurance.” Her husband, also a historian, was working as an adjunct, so he had no health insurance either.

Morris thinks now that in a way they were lucky: Because they were a low-earning household, they qualified for Medicaid. She returned to teaching seven weeks after her daughter was born, at which point her health insurance finally kicked in. (Had Morris taken a longer leave, she would have been responsible for the full cost of her health insurance; she needed to return after eight weeks in order for her employer to contribute.) Still, it was hard: there was no day care on campus, no child-care subsidies, and her husband was commuting by train to his adjunct job at Providence College. (He was making only $5,000 a semester, but, like many adjuncts, he was trying to “stay in the game” in order to earn a more permanent position.) They had no family in the area, although her parents and in-laws helped a bit financially. “Whatever my husband made, we were like, ‘That’s how much we have to spend on childcare,’” Morris said.

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.

“This is a story of how stratified academic life is.”

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.

When Jennifer Nash was at her first tenure-track job, at George Washington University, she noticed something about the colleagues in her department: Very few of her female colleagues had young children. Some senior women had grown children, and some junior male colleagues had young children. (These colleagues either had stay-at-home wives or wives who worked part-time.) There was one female assistant professor who had a child and who had taken parental leave, “but there was this sense that it was strange.” Though no one said anything directly, Nash got the message: “It was clear that if you wanted to be successful and taken seriously at that point in your career, you delayed having children.”

No one ever told Nash not to have kids. No one told her to have them, either, or when to have them, or how to manage the competing demands of research, teaching, and parenting. She once asked her graduate adviser, a woman in her 60s, how she thought about tenure and publishing and family, but “she was not prepared to talk about that.” Nash had to make her own observations and do her own research.

She was well-equipped to do so: Nash is a scholar of gender, sexuality, and feminism; she recently published a book called Birthing Black Mothers. Now a tenured professor at Duke University, Nash thinks very deliberately about how and when she presents herself as a mother. She doesn’t keep her daughter a secret — she might bring her to a departmental holiday party — but she doesn’t bring her to class or to campus. “I know all the barriers to Black women being taken seriously, and one of the ways we’re discredited is by being seen as reproductive,” she said. “I’m very careful to ensure that people see me as a scholar, and not just as a mother, because I understand that people see those two things as in conflict.”

For Nash, ensuring that colleagues saw her as a scholar meant delaying getting pregnant until she was 35. She wanted only one child, and she wanted to be sure that having that child wouldn’t affect her chances at getting tenure. She had her child during her sixth year at GWU, when her book was out and her tenure case was “completely solid.” “I felt like I could do it without it feeling risky,” she said. Nash ended up moving institutions in July, when her daughter was 6 months old. Nash was hired by Northwestern, with tenure. She took parental leave during her first year at her new job.

Northwestern has fairly generous parental leave policies: Nash took two quarters off from teaching, at full pay, and taught only during the spring quarter. “I was really protected from service,” she said. “I had my away message up.” For Nash, the challenge was coming back from leave: back to the early evening faculty meetings, the conferences out of state, the events that started at 5 p.m. and went into the night. Having tenure helped some, as did several of Northwestern’s relatively progressive policies: If you had to travel to a conference, you could apply for a grant to cover child care. But there were weeks when there were five events, and they all started at 5 p.m., and Nash didn’t want to pay for child care — she wanted to spend time with her child. (“When you don’t go” to one of these events, Lepore said, “people think you’re either arrogant or lazy, when, really, you just want and need to be with your children.”) There’s a “relentlessness” to the job, Nash said, “which has no sensitivity to the fact that people have families.”

Hokyoung Kim for The Chronicle

During our conversation, Nash observed that parental leave and other policies across higher education in the U.S. are extremely varied. “This is a story,” she said, “of how stratified academic life is.” Elite private institutions, which have more resources, tend to offer better accommodations for parents: In addition to Nash, I spoke to scholars who became parents while teaching at Brown, Harvard, and Princeton, where full-term leaves were easy to come by, and where tenure clocks stop as a matter of course.

But accommodations don’t tell the whole story. In my reporting, I found an inverse relationship between an institution’s accommodations for parents and its culture around parenting. At well-resourced institutions, parents were more likely to have paid leave, but they were also more likely to feel pressure to keep their family life separate from their professional life. Like Nash, these faculty members were generally reluctant to bring their children to campus, or to beg off departmental meetings and events because of child-care responsibilities. “There is an idea that academic work and life (e.g., the demands of being a parent) can be kept in watertight compartments,” Ben Parker, an assistant professor of English at Brown, told me. By contrast, faculty at institutions without many accommodations for parents had, by necessity, less separation between work and family life. Parents told me about bringing their young children to campus on days when there wasn’t school; on these days, colleagues took turns watching each other’s kids. They were more open with colleagues about the joys and difficulties of parenting. During her first pregnancy, Sarah Blackwood, an associate professor of English at Pace University, received a baby quilt — a joint gift from a dean and the chair of women’s studies. “There is a recognition that people have lives,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Wait, you’re having a baby this summer? What about your book?’”

At some institutions, this kind of solidarity manifests in the sharing of the few resources that exist. At the University of Wyoming — where Morris now teaches, and where she gave birth to a second child — faculty members borrow each other’s sick leave in order to get additional time at home. “They’ll send out an email: ‘I’m having a baby or my wife is having a baby or I’ve got cancer,’” she said.

But faculty can only do so much for one another in the face of strict policies and inadequate resources. At some institutions, faculty members who take parental leave will be required to make up any missed teaching by teaching extra courses later, or by doing extra research or service — sometimes even during the leave period itself. When Aurélie Viallette, an associate professor of Hispanic languages and literature at Stony Brook University, found out that she would have to make up the two courses she wouldn’t teach while on parental leave, she was shocked. It “creates this situation of debt,” she said. “You feel you owe them something.”

Indeed, many institutions require some form of make-up work. Just what that might look like often depends on the whims of the department chair. I heard from those who had witnessed make-up worked doled out in an unequal fashion: One person might have to redesign a web page, while another might have to revamp an entire graduate curriculum. “If you have a chair advocating for you, your chair’s not going to make you be on a committee or do your advising that semester,” said Blackwood. “If you don’t have that chair, they might.” Newer faculty often have less leverage with which to negotiate, while research shows that women and people of color face challenges when negotiating; these faculty members may end up with more substantial make-up work than other colleagues. “It leaves individuals exposed to varying degrees,” said Blackwood.

Whether or not they’re required to, many academic parents feel pressure to continue working during leave — and to hit the ground running when they return to full-time work. Several told me that they felt pressure to be “good citizens” in their departments, which might mean responding to emails during their leave, or working long days on campus while breast-feeding. Staying off campus can give rise to a certain stigma. “‘I never see her around campus,’ — I still hear that all the time,” Lepore said.

But child care in the U.S. is hard to access. Many child-care centers don’t take children who are younger than three months; this policy poses problems for parents like Morris, who must return to work before their children are 12 weeks old. Then there’s the expense: Over the course of the last 40 years, the cost of child care has increased by 2,000 percent. As of November 2019, the average cost of child care in the U.S. was $16,000 a year. Only a few of the parents I talked to had received any financial assistance with child care from their employers.

Without accessible and affordable child care, some new parents worry that they will fall behind other junior colleagues who aren’t parents. “If it’s a tenure committee that’s not familiar with your personal life situation, it’s going to look like: Here are two people at the same stage and one of them seems to have done a lot more,” Morris said. Historically, these two hypothetical people have been a man and a woman, and the man would seem “to have done a lot more.” Several studies have suggested that male academics take advantage of parental leave and other accommodations to advance their careers, while female academics, many of whom are recovering from labor, are often fully absorbed in child care. According to some researchers, this places female academics at a disadvantage, since they will go up for tenure with fewer publications than their male counterparts.

This contrast is less pronounced among today’s junior faculty. The male academics I spoke to were highly involved parents who had used family leave to take care of children. While they appreciated that colleagues tended to be supportive of their decision to have kids — something a couple of them chalked up to gender privilege — some of them were frustrated that these same colleagues had assumed that they wouldn’t have any trouble balancing work and parenthood. Saul Zaritt, an assistant professor at Harvard with appointments in comparative literature and Near Eastern languages and civilizations, said that the message he got from older male colleagues who had been “particularly productive” on leave was that “it was easy to hold the baby and write the book.” But for Zaritt and other male academics who split child care evenly with their partners, it’s been far from easy. A child is “an enormous impediment to productivity,” said Parker, the assistant professor at Brown.

The men I interviewed had many of the same worries about publishing and tenure as their female counterparts. Both suggested that clearer expectations for tenure would help them feel less anxious about taking advantage of accommodations for new parents, or about working less during the earliest, most intense years of child rearing. Sophia Roosth, an anthropologist who joined NYU this year as a visiting associate professor after being denied tenure at Harvard, connected this lack of clarity around tenure to the balance of power in the university: “There’s a mystique around tenure at certain institutions, and that obfuscation is a technique of power.”

Peter Sokol-Hessner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, took a 10-week leave in early 2018, after his wife had given birth to twins. Since he’d started at DU, no one in his department had taken parental leave, but Sokol-Hessner felt “a cultural responsibility to take it so that everybody who followed after me would feel like, ‘Well, he took it, so I can take it too.’” But he worries about what will happen when he goes up for tenure, particularly about what an external committee will think: “I’m definitely afraid of that hidden cost.”

This fear of “hidden costs” is a feature of life in the academy. In a profession where so much depends on personal relationships — with dissertation advisers, lab heads, faculty mentors, and influential scholars — and standards for hiring and promotion often range from hazy to fully opaque, scholars are warned against doing anything that might suggest they are less than fully committed to their work. For doctoral students and junior faculty, that means being ready and willing to move if their professional advancement requires it. Faculty advisers may grumble if doctoral students, though notionally free to choose their own paths, decline more prestigious jobs for ones closer to family.

Moving for a tenure-track job may mean moving to a state where childbirth and parenting are especially difficult. I spoke to scholars who had moved from states with guaranteed parental-leave policies to states without, from states with strong labor protections to states without, from states with robust health-care systems to states without. Some had moved far from partners, family, and friends, and from the kinds of networks people rely on to navigate the early years of parenthood. The academic-jobs lottery is also, in important ways, a parenting lottery: How hard will it be to bear and raise children in the place where I will be employed?

Silvia De Rubeis grew up in Roiate, a small village in the mountains of Italy, about 30 miles from Rome. There were 600 people in her village: It was “a super-tiny community.” Like many college students in Italy, she lived at home and commuted to school. “Sometimes the bus would not show up,” she said. “And some days, it was just too full of people and you didn’t fit. So every day was a bit of a challenge.”

De Rubeis earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cellular and molecular biology and began pursuing a Ph.D., all at Tor Vergata University of Rome. While she was working on the doctorate, her adviser received a job offer in Belgium, one that came with the promise of a “fancy new lab.” Along with three fellow graduate students, De Rubeis moved with her adviser to Belgium. “I initially thought, this is going to be a year, a couple of years, and then I’ll go back,” she said. “And then I never did.”

In 2013, four years after earning her Ph.D., De Rubeis moved from Belgium to New York City, where she took a postdoctoral position at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Her husband, a sommelier from Bellagra — a village just a few miles away from Roiate — moved with her. Four years later, she transitioned from postdoc to assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, which meant she would be in charge of her own lab. The same month that she started as a professor, she had her first child, a girl. She had a second daughter two years later.

When De Rubeis first became pregnant, she was anxious. She worried about recruitment for her lab, about getting grants, about publishing. She worried especially about whether her new hires would be able to handle their work while she was on her 12-week paid maternity leave. She didn’t stop her tenure clock. She worked full-time right up until the night before she went into labor; she went from “full-time worker to full-time mom overnight.”

When she came back to work after having her first child, she felt like she was “already behind on everything.” She had to scramble to figure out how to do her new job, all while breastfeeding. Around lunchtime, she went to one of the two lactation rooms on campus, a habit that disrupted her workday. All of this was easier when she had her second child — she trusted her staff, and she had an office where she could pump in private — but she still worked right up until she gave birth. “It’s hard to tell whether the pressure I felt was my own pressure or just the environment, the expectations,” she said. “Obviously no one spells them out for you.”

De Rubeis noted that she’s in a supportive workplace. She has colleagues who are also mothers, and her senior mentors ask after her children. “It makes me feel like, as a mother, I belong to this place, and that part of me is seen,” she said. “They actually care that I’m in good shape, and that my family is worth taking care of.”

But De Rubeis feels acutely the lack of family and communal support. “They say it takes a village,” she said. “Well, my village was across the ocean.” Like many academics, particularly international and first-generation scholars, she is too far from family to rely on them for help with child care. After her first daughter was born, her parents came to the States briefly, but for the most part, De Rubeis and her husband have been on their own. During her first parental leave, her husband had to go back to Italy due to a death in the family, leaving De Rubeis even more isolated. “I was trying to make some space for work, but I didn’t have anyone to whom I could say, ‘OK, can you look after the baby for a couple of hours? I need to get something done,’” she said.

When it was time to go back to work, De Rubeis was at a loss. Without a network in New York, she didn’t know how to find child-care providers she could trust. She ended up putting her daughter in day care, but her daughter had trouble sleeping there, and De Rubeis was constantly stressed about her child’s well-being. “I didn’t have that peace of mind of saying: ‘OK, she’s with my mom. She’s fine.’”

De Rubeis recalled reading a blog post from another academic that resonated with her and that she applied to her own life: “I can say, ‘I’m going to go home,’ referring to going back home to Italy,” she said. “But when I’m there, I say, ‘I’m going to go home,’ meaning New York.” Sometimes she feels like she has two identities, two sets of values. This can make raising children challenging: The childhood she is creating for them is radically different from the one she and her husband experienced. When we spoke in June, she hadn’t been back to Italy in three years; her youngest had never been there and didn’t know her extended family. “You sort of start putting up these walls, so as not to get hurt,” De Rubeis said.

The parents I spoke with stressed that academe is not the only place, nor are tenure-track faculty the only academic workers, to suffer as a result of a slow-evolving and comparatively spare American system of parental-leave protections. It’s hard for almost any worker to be a parent in the U.S., and harder still for low-wage workers and gig workers. But academe’s competitiveness and self-image present real challenges: for graduate students, for adjuncts, and even for the lucky few who find their way onto the tenure track. As graduate student unions and contingent faculty unions fight for improved accommodations for their members who are parents, tenure-stream faculty are starting to think about how they, too, can act collectively on these issues.

Doherty-1115_uncropped.jpg

Hokyoung Kim for The Chronicle

When Ariel Nereson had a baby, there was no relevant policy on the books at the University at Buffalo. Nereson found out she was pregnant just two weeks into her job as an assistant professor of theater and dance. Her baby was due in May. Because the semester would be over by then, Nereson wasn’t offered any kind of accommodation — no teaching release, no paid leave.

Nereson knew colleagues who had given birth during the semester, and she knew that some had been offered a complete teaching release; others had been asked to pay back their teaching release, and still others had been offered nothing at all. “None of this was formalized,” Nereson said. “They were all handshake agreements with chairs.” To Nereson, this was a very “exploitative situation,” because “you’re at the mercy of someone’s benevolence and goodwill.”

When a subcommittee within the College of Arts and Sciences’ Policy Committee formed to look at how peer institutions handled matters like parental leave, she joined it, along with another new parent who was, like Nereson, “enraged” at how she’d been treated. The subcommittee members made recommendations for policies that would be “inclusive of all kinds of caregiving jobs, not just parental accommodations.” They were especially concerned that policies not be tied to pregnancy, since that would discriminate against adoptive parents. They submitted their recommendations right around the same time that New York State instituted mandatory paid parental leave for all state employees. Nereson was pleased that faculty worked together to put a more formal policy in place for caregivers of all kinds. Pregnancy, illness, disability are “part of faculty life,” said Nereson. These things are “part of everyone’s life.” Faculty empowerment was a common theme.

Zaritt, the assistant professor at Harvard, described how a group of parents on the tenure track had come together during the pandemic to advocate for more support for parents. “There was a kind of energy and excitement about coming together on something,” he said. Faculty at public institutions spoke about the importance of having a faculty union, even if the union couldn’t always fix some of the problems related to state policy. “All things would be better,” Brenda Elsey, a professor of history at Hofstra and mother of three, told me, “if faculty were more empowered.”

But faculty empowerment won’t be enough if faculty don’t start to see themselves as workers. Tenure-stream faculty won’t advocate for better accommodations, or take full advantage of the ones that exist, if they and their colleagues continue to view academic work as an all-consuming endeavor, one that must be prioritized over family, friendships, and health. Some faculty who took parental leave described how they were treated with suspicion: Even though they were hard at work caring for young children, they worried that some colleagues saw them simply as taking time off work. Too often, faculty members told me, children are seen as obstacles to flourishing. “The existence of a child is thought to be a boulder in the way of full productivity,” said Blackwood, the associate professor at Pace.

“It would serve so many people if higher education would start to function like a workplace,” Blackwood continued. “Not a place for special unicorns, but like an actual workplace.” This would involve establishing clear and transparent policies for parents and caregivers, but it would also require a cultural change. Faculty members would have to demand fewer sacrifices from themselves and from each other; they would have to recognize that, as Blackwood put it, tenure-stream professors are “professionals, but they also have these other full lives that they’re pursuing.”

Lepore offered a similar reflection. When asked how to improve the lot of academic parents, she described a redesigned university campus, one where the campus child-care centers had been moved from the university’s periphery to its central quad. “Children are at the center of our lives. They should be at the center of our campuses,” she said. This spatial arrangement would serve as a reminder that faculty are more than teachers or researchers: They are parents, caregivers, community members. The university, as a workplace, doesn’t exist in isolation; it is part of a broader social world.

There would be another perk, Lepore said, to this redesigned campus: Whenever “some guy says, ‘I never see her around campus,’ he’d have to say that over the noise of toddlers playing at a tot lot outside our department door.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-quiet-crisis-of-parents-on-the-tenure-track