Thursday, 28 October 2010

Colleges and universities meet to discuss work-life

by Leslie DiPietro

Jobs Vacancy, Employment, Job Vacancies

Reflections on Culture Change in the Academy

“We’ve come a long way, Baby!” That was the sense I got at the CUWFA (College and University Work/Family Association) conference in Santa Barbara in March. There was more talk about strategic planning and a focus on what Linda Siebert Rapoport (University of Illinois, Chicago) termed “total institutional transformation” – broad scale shifts in culture, rather than piece by piece change efforts. Work/life practitioners at universities are getting much more skilled in finding ways to integrate and “brand” what they are doing to further the overall mission of the school.

I also had the sense that the upper echelons of administration at many schools are—(finally!) beginning to “get it.” Several work/life directors came with their bosses (or their boss’ boss!) in tow, and they seemed actively engaged in the conference.

Competition for human capital is the driver here, expressed most frequently in terms of faculty recruitment. Academia is only just beginning to understand the impact of the large numbers of faculty who are fast approaching retirement. The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) calculated that in 2003, 35% of all full-time faculty were 55 and over. Work/life directors and practitioners are finding ways to calculate the percentage of potential retirees – both staff and faculty – and broadcasting ways the work/life program can help.

However, I did not hear a lot about the need to target programs or policies to staff, particularly hourly workers. (There are notable exceptions, i.e. UC Berkeley and Ohio State). Although there is general support and some movement toward flexibility policies, I didn’t hear of many institutions that were actively making progress towards adopting new policies, let alone policies that had an appeal process. Likewise, I didn’t find much movement toward management training for flexibility – something that we all agree is necessary to bring about a real culture change. This may be a function of many “old school” HR administrations, where a majority of work/life programs are housed, but work/life programs need to figure out how to make change in this arena.

Childcare services have (finally!) come into the limelight, particularly in terms of infant and toddler care. Several of the “top tier” schools, such as MIT, Harvard, Michigan and UC Berkeley, have built, or are building, new centers, and it's just a matter of time until pressure from peer institutions brings more schools into the fold. Many are choosing to outsource the management of these centers, although some have formed creative partnerships between the work-life programs within the University and outside vendors. Most of the change in this area seems to be coming from the need to recruit top-level faculty by showing the “bricks and mortar” commitment, whereas students’ childcare needs are by and large being met through additional scholarship money. In this way, more student-parent families can be served than would be the case if they were allotted a small proportion of spaces in campus childcare centers.

If you had asked me a year ago whether domestic partner benefits were prevalent at universities and colleges, I would have said a resounding “yes” (with the exception of some Bible Belt schools.) Today, however, I am less optimistic, given the voters’ repudiation of Affirmative Action policies in states like Michigan, where the courts recently overturned domestic partnership benefits in public universities and colleges.

Also, there are clear indications that students are leaving school – both graduate and undergraduate – with staggering amounts of debt. This may be an area with which work-life programs (the ones that serve students, at any rate) may be able to help by sponsoring financial planning workshops for students, for example..

I asked some attendees if they thought there were areas where business could learn from colleges and universities, and Sam Hester, CUWFA President and work-life manager at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, had this to say: One of the strengths of the academy is its emphasis in providing and nurturing an environment that promotes creativity and freedom of though and expression. Some of the “great” companies have created a corporate culture that fosters creativity and open expression of ideas. I think that our long history of academic freedom might provide a model to business in creating this type of open environment.”

Linda Rapoport believes businesses could apply the tenure clock flexibility model (the practice of pausing the “time to tenure” clock for faculty who need time off due to birth, adoption or care for a family member with a serious illness) to careers in accounting firms, for example. And Jennie McAlpine, director of the Office of Work/Life at the University of Michigan, pointed out that some colleges have had childcare programs as part of their teacher training curriculum since the 1940’s, and that currently they set a high bar for quality in the communities where they are located.

CUWFA members saw a potential for partnership, agreeing that universities have a lot to offer in terms of research capabilities. Businesses would do well, they said, to tap their expertise.

David Thompson, a friend and former work-life director at both Purdue and Microsoft, once told me that it takes universities about seven times as long to make meaningful cultural changes as it does for private industry. (I don’t know what his source was, but I’m confident he has one!) This fact obviously reflects huge differences in academic culture versus business culture. Although it can be maddeningly hard to wait to see these changes adopted, if I learned one thing when I was in academia, it was that change will happen, and it will be “well-tested” in the process. So hopefully, the change will stick!

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