Children, universities, and hard decisions

Tomorrow, I’m leaving for our Midwest Faculty Conference, featuring John Sommerville as our plenary speaker. (Check out my quick review of his book, The Decline of the Secular University, as well as his latest essay in the Chronicle, “Universities Are Corporatized Because They Are Secularized”.) Since starting these summer faculty conferences a few years ago, we’ve tried to make them times of refreshment – for both faculty and their entire family. Our planning team even coined a new word for these events – confamication:

This event encompasses much more than the word conference can possibly contain, so a new word has been added to the lexicon. “Confamication” captures the fact of it being a stimulating conference, a restful vacation, which can both include and be a delight to the whole family. And it is a welcoming place for singles, couples and children as well.

Unfortunately, not all of academia shares this attitude that the “good life” includes rest, spiritual refreshment, and time with families and children. Lisa Belkin, who writes the Motherlode blog for the New York Times, recently published a heart-breaking letter from a young graduate student who, faced with an unexpected, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, has decided to have an abortion so that she can complete her degree. The decision was far from easy – you can hear her agony in her letter to Belkin. Explicit and implicit pressures from her graduate program were a major factor in her decision. Here’s how she described her sitaution:

A lot of your readers asked if I could take time off from the graduate program. They do not allow for any time off. There’s no deferral, classes are only offered once in the two years, and there aren’t any incompletes. I have been talking to students who are already there, who have had children, who are married and are quite a bit older, and who said it is really hard. I’m looking at 20 hours in class and 20 hours of papers and field research out of the classroom. Students with part-time jobs found it nearly impossible to keep up with the work, and a baby is not a part-time job. They also warned me that professors aren’t just tough, they can be especially harsh to the pregnant women in the program. By the time the baby would be due, there would be papers, projects, research. I can’t miss a single class without risking the whole program, that’s just the way it’s designed. It matters if you show up.

She ends her letter try to find hope in the midst of her sorrow:

If I get my degree then maybe the path it will take me on will lead me to work on women’s issues. Maybe one day I’ll make a million dollars and start a scholarship program for pregnant graduate students. I can’t believe that nothing good can come of this, I know I’ll do something right one of these days.

This tragic situation highlights only one aspect of the difficulty of having a family in academia, especially in the high-pressure world of research. Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this month that a growing, but still not huge, number of colleges and universities offered “family-friendly” policies, like maternity/paternity leave and tenure clock extensions (here’s a link to the full report from U. Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women). However, I’ve heard from some faculty that formal policies do little to prevent under-the-table discrimination against faculty members (especially women) who take advantage of them. Competition for tenure is so intense that it takes very little to move someone from “on track” to “off track.”

At Following Christ 2008, a tenured faculty member at a major research university told me that, in his experience, Christian faculty receive tenure at a much lower rate than nonChristians, and it has little to do with explicit ideology. Instead, he’s found that Christians usually value things like spending time with their family, involvement in a local church, and teaching their classes well – values that count for little when it comes to tenure decisions. He then raised the question of what kind of faculty was left when tenure decisions consistently “weeded out” people who loved teaching, made time for their family, and thought community involvement was important. (I hope that we’ll be able to publish an article in the fall based on his observations.) During the ESN Day Ahead’s panel discussion about different types of colleges, a faculty member at a research university noted that, at his school, two children is considered to be a “large family,” and that at least half of his department had no children at all. In contrast, a faculty member at a small Christian college said that almost all of his colleagues were married with children. (Evangelical Christianity’s suspicion of single adults or childless couples is a topic for discussion unto itself!)

Not all of the pressure against having children, though, is intentional or nefarious. For example, the most intense time of a traditional academic career coincides with the optimum years for having and raising children (biologically speaking). And, as my wife pointed out to me, it’s simply impossible to “have it all,” whether you’re a man or a woman – every major decision necessarily eliminates other possibilities. Our partner ministry in InterVarsity, Women in the Academy and Professions, has explored many other angles to this question, including whether you can have both a family and a fulfilling career, tough decisions along the way, and the choice to remain childless.

I could write a lot more and provide many more links, but I’ll end here with a few questions for you, our community:

Do you agree that there is pressure against having children in the academy? Have you experienced this yourself? Conversely, have you had good experiences?

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your college or university, either to make it more “family friendly” or to embrace a more Biblical view of life and work?

How can ESN and InterVarsity support students and faculty who are facing family and career choices?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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