Family policy in the academy

Bethany Letiecq, section chair
Content Area
Family Law and Public Policy

When I began my career at Montana State University in 2002, there were few family-friendly policies in place for instructional nine-month faculty. Even though my work centered on family law and public policy, I hadn't investigated what policies were on the books until I became pregnant myself. What a shock it was to learn that I would not be eligible for any leave after the birth of my daughter because she was due in June and by then I'd be off contract. Through negotiations with my department head, I was offered a one-course release that fall if I wrote a grant and produced at least one manuscript.

During that first year as a new mother, I remember being exhausted, unfocused, out of balance, and in survival mode—not how I had hoped to experience my long-awaited role as a parent. And as I commiserated with others, we lamented not living in Sweden, not working for one of those Fortune 500 companies (who offer some of the best leave policies in the U.S.), not feeling good about our production as workers or as parents, and not feeling supported by the very academic institutions to which we had been so committed. Of course, I was reminded that I had it better than many of my academic elders and others in the academy or in the U.S.—I at least had accrued paid sick leave to take should my kiddo become ill, and I had a private office with a locking door, where I could express milk whenever I needed. No pumping in the bathroom stall for me!

Wondering what others were experiencing, I began to gather narratives from colleagues documenting how pregnant women negotiated leaves within their units, what (mis)information was being shared about leave-taking, how they felt about their circumstances, and how they perceived the academic climate as they transitioned to motherhood.

Giving voice to these experiences birthed a movement at Montana State University to advocate for better family policies for all parents and other caregivers. After a few years of organizing, advocacy, and sacrifice, we successfully saw our institution adopt more family-friendly policies and practices (including a paid "family advocate" position sponsored by the Provost's Office, tenure-clock stoppage, and a dedicated family care room).

In 2013, when I joined the faculty of George Mason University, I was again shocked to find that the institution did not have a parental leave policy for faculty (other than sick leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act). Again, we organized. We collected narratives, compared policies from our sister institutions, and began meeting regularly to strategize how we could move the university to expand definitions of a "well-being institution" beyond the individual level.

After two-plus years of faculty and staff advocacy, and with support from key administrators, I am thrilled to report that George Mason University (as of October 2015) now offers all instructional faculty (men and women) a 50% reduction in workload in the year following a birth or adoption. This policy, decoupled from sick leave and Family and Medical Leave Act, is offered in addition to tenure-clock stoppage.

I share these stories in the hopes that others will take up family policy education and advocacy in the academy. There remains a great deal of work left to do, and a growing body of resources is available to support these efforts (which are often linked to advancing women and other underrepresented faculty in STEM fields and in the academy more broadly). Please email me for more information.