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John Harvard's Journal

How the Faculty Feels

September-October 2014

Harvard faculty members are a largely contented lot. They enjoy superb intellectual company, high-caliber students, and extraordinary library collections. But for a more objective and nuanced assessment, the office of the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity undertook a new “climate” survey during the 2012-2013 academic year, and published aggregate findings just before Commencement. In general, among the 2,295 faculty members surveyed (1,090 tenured, 493 tenure-track, and 712 “non-ladder” lecturers, etc.), 72 percent of whom responded:

• 81 percent were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with being a faculty member at Harvard (49 percent and 32 percent, respectively)—those with tenure especially. Some 84 percent, given the chance to do their careers over, would still practice their craft in Crimson.

• Amid general happiness with libraries, students, opportunities to innovate in teaching, teaching load, and even their salaries, the areas where a quarter or more of faculty members indicated modest or significant dissatisfaction included availability of travel and conference funds; support for securing grants (likely a rising worry, given federal funding constraints); and, especially, time available for scholarly work.

• Gender differences emerged regarding the academic “atmosphere.” Male professors tend to be more favorable than their female colleagues in assessing the “fit” of their department in terms of collegiality, accommodating family responsibilities, and so on. The survey analysis, said senior vice provost Judith D. Singer, aimed to tease out such differences—over time; by faculty rank; by gender and race and ethnicity (not always possible in the latter cases, given the small cohorts of some underrepresented minorities); and among peer institutions. Peer institutions reported similar differences between genders, suggesting that women in academia (as in other realms) are excluded from informal networks and more likely than men to perceive a need to work harder to be seen as legitimate scholars.

There were sharp differences at Harvard on other matters. Asked if their school or department makes genuine efforts to recruit female faculty members, 19 percent of women disagreed—but only 6 percent of men. Asked if the school or department climate is at least as good for female as for male faculty members, 43 percent of women disagreed to some extent, versus 20 percent of men.

Similar, but less sharp, differences emerged when the questions were posed concerning minority faculty members: they evaluated conditions considerably less favorably than did their non-minority colleagues.

•  A tenure track matters. One query captured a large change at Harvard. In the 2007 results, half of junior (assistant and associate) professors reported that they had only an informal mentor, and 12 percent had none. In the intervening years, a tenure track has been instituted (see “The New Tenure Track,” September-October 2010, page 48). That has made a world of difference: instead of conducting casual searches for junior colleagues, on the assumption that almost all would be leaving, professors now know they are searching for younger scholars intended to be reviewed for permanent appointments, as full peers—a much more serious undertaking. Professional counsel and guidance must therefore be the norm. In the 2013 survey, 72 percent of junior women reported having a formal mentor, as did 60 percent of their male peers—and almost all the rest had at least an informal mentor. Singer said the schools “deserve a lot of credit” for effecting this change quickly.

• Finally, the survey quantified the large issue still looming over academics and the society generally: the yawning gap between men’s and women’s household responsibilities. “This is not a Harvard phenomenon,” Singer noted. Among professors in a household with children and a working partner or no partner, women reported 10 hours more of household work weekly. Among junior faculty members in the same life circumstances, the gap doubled, to 20 hours more of childcare, adult care, or housework weekly (see graph)—during the period when the professional demands to build a record for tenure evaluation also peak. Skipping conferences and declining to write papers “are career-defining events for our tenure-track faculty,” she said. For this cohort, the rule apparently is: forget about sleep or leisure.

When she was appointed in 2008, Singer recalled, the six campus childcare centers had long waiting lists. (Excellent care is enormously expensive in the local market, on the order of $25,000 annually.) The need for periodic care—to attend a professional conference, for example, or conduct field research—was unmet. Since then, during renovations, some of the campus centers have been enlarged, and beginning in 2009, despite the financial crisis and budget cutbacks, the University has made available a cumulative total of $5 million for income-based subsidies of up to $20,000 yearly for junior faculty members to meet daycare expenses, at Harvard centers or elsewhere [Clarified 8-18-2014 to note that the funds were provided by the University, under a policy approved by the deans] . For ladder faculty, Singer said, “It is the best program in higher education today.”

The survey results show the effects: half of tenured and tenure-track professors with children age four and under now use Harvard-affiliated centers, up from one-third in 2007, and the share who sought but could not get a placement has dropped from 17 to 7 percent.

In 2008, Singer said, it was clear that Harvard as a whole had to invest in care facilities and other support if it wished to nurture the faculty generally, and the schools and departments had obligations to live up to the commitment to create and populate a tenure-track faculty with real promotion prospects. Given its evidence that on most measures faculty members report bettered conditions, the recent survey, she said, points more to actionable items “at the school level than the University level.” Opportunities for further gains lie in discovering and discussing local cases where disproportionate concerns are detected. There may be differences among the faculties in how clearly promotion criteria are spelled out and documented, for example, or in how mentoring occurs in a particular field or department.

For Singer, a scholar of statistics in her academic capacity as Conant professor of education, this may be the ideal definition of the senior vice provost’s future role: as the source of data—backing deans, department chairs, and others with the facts about what Harvard is doing well, relative to peers, in the care and feeding of faculty members, and where and how it can do better still.