Splitting Faculty Positions Allows Couples To Integrate Research, Family

Research, Family Author: Lee Katterman Susan Verhoek and Stephen Williams have been doing it for 21 years. Andrew and Carol de Wet have been at it for five years. Jane Lubchenco and Bruce Menge did it from 1977 to 1987. And Natalie Adolphi and Andrew McDowell just started it in September. These married couples-and many more-have been involved in sharing a single tenure-track faculty position in the sciences. Most such arrangements, which also occasionally involve non-married pairs of scientist

Oct 30, 1995
Lee Katterman

Research, Family Author: Lee Katterman

Susan Verhoek and Stephen Williams have been doing it for 21 years. Andrew and Carol de Wet have been at it for five years. Jane Lubchenco and Bruce Menge did it from 1977 to 1987. And Natalie Adolphi and Andrew McDowell just started it in September.

These married couples-and many more-have been involved in sharing a single tenure-track faculty position in the sciences. Most such arrangements, which also occasionally involve non-married pairs of scientists, generally occur at small liberal arts colleges, but some large research universities have also made room for this practice. The reports from the trenches are that shared or split positions are professionally and personally successful. The obvious hurdles of how to handle tenure decisions, how to assign fringe benefits, and how to live on one salary apparently are being solved to the satisfaction of both the faculty members and the institutions. But there is much variety in how such faculty appointments are structured, and in the reasons people have for pursuing them.

For botanists Verhoek and Williams, who were job-hunting in the early 1970s, the shortage of assistant professor openings prompted them to apply jointly for a single position. "A number of places were cool to the idea," Verhoek recalls. But Lebanon Valley College in Anneville, Pa., warmed to the pair of scientists and their proposal to share an assistant professor of biology position. The shared appointment has survived tenure and promotions to persist today to everyone's satisfaction.

The de Wets sought to divide a full-time faculty position into two slots for several reasons. "We wanted to be able to work in the same place and avoid commuting, and to continue our professional careers while also raising a family," Carol de Wet recounts. The de Wets have split a position in the geosciences at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., since 1990 and plan to apply for tenure next year. They have three children under the age of seven.

In 1977, Lubchenco and Menge left two full-time positions at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts, respectively, to assume a pair of fractional tenure-track slots in marine biology at Oregon State University. "We knew we had spent every waking, breathing moment on research and teaching [as full-time faculty], and we knew we wanted to add in a family," explains Lubchenco. Splitting one faculty spot-trading salary for time-was the way they decided to accomplish this.

Lubchenco believes a split position can prevent the "burnout" that saps the creativity and productivity from a scientist. "I see too many [full-time] faculty who are struggling to excel at everything in their careers and also do justice to their families," she says. In a 1993 article (Biosciences, 43[4]:243-8), she and Menge describe the split position as an alternative to the "mommy track" or "fast track," coining the phrase "sane track" for the situation of devoting part time to profession and part time to rearing children.

McDowell and Adoplhi AS THEY LIKE IT: Andrew McDowell and Natalie Adolphi have found freedom in their shared assistant professorship in physics at Knox College. "For us, it was the freedom to define the job to be whatever we wanted," says Adolphi, who began sharing with her husband an assistant professorship in physics at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., this fall. "We have a young daughter, so we have time to spend with her," she notes. "Also, we're only starting our teaching careers, so we're not too efficient yet. It's nice to have extra time to prepare."

In some of these partnership situations, the two scientists share everything, from splitting the courses (including, sometimes, the lectures within a course) to committee work and even responsibility for earning tenure. In other cases, however, the full-time position is split from the start. Each person assumes an individual, fractional, tenure-track position that continues on its own merits alone.

Dawleys SHARED CHAIR: At Ursinus College, Robert and Ellen Dawley are joint chairpersons of the biology department. In either situation, these scientists do not have to be relegated to the margins of their fields. At Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., Robert and Ellen Dawley have shared a biology professorship since 1989. Then in 1993, they were appointed to share the department chair, a position they hold today. Others who have shared or split positions have gone on to earn prestigious fellowships and endowed chairs.

Adolphi and McDowell are sharing their appointment, from the teaching load and benefits to the chance to become tenured. "Each of us is evaluated [for tenure] independently, but both of us must be deemed tenurable for the shared position to continue," reports McDowell. If one of them does not receive tenure, the college will declare the position open. The tenured spouse would be free to apply for the opening as a full-time person. "After tenure, if one person leaves, the other person assumes the full-time position as the first option," McDowell elaborates.

de Wet MAKING TIME: Carol and Andrew de Wet, with baby Cameron, three-year-old Emily, and six-year-old Gregory, share a geoscience position in order for each tohave more time for their kids. The de Wets at Franklin & Marshall and Lubchenco and Menge at Oregon State are couples who split full-time faculty positions into independent, fractional tenure-track positions.

The terms "shared" and "half-time" have "real bad connotations" that may suggest a lack of professional seriousness, according to Carol de Wet.

Lubchenco believes it is important for each spouse to have an independent appointment: "It alleviates one of the conceptual difficulties some people have with doing this at all. In most institutions it's difficult to work less than 'full-time' and still be tenure-track."

Whether shared or split, many involved in these arrangements stress the importance of getting the parameters of the appointment clear, especially regarding tenure evaluation. Catherine Shrady and John Bursnell, who share a geology professorship at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., spelled out tenure criteria in their contract. "We would be judged on half the amount of research, teaching, and service, but of the same quality as any full-time member in the department," says Shrady, adding, "We made sure they [the review committee] had the contract in front of them during the review." Shrady and Bursnell received tenure last year, and they continue in their shared position.

After tenure criteria, the benefits package may be the next most discussed item in negotiating a shared or split faculty assignment. Shrady recently surveyed nine institutions with some kind of two-person/one-job arrangement on campus and found that all of the schools provided full medical benefits to both fractional faculty members, but split an individual "share" of other benefits. Shrady's survey, which included five liberal arts colleges and four research universities, is scheduled to be published this year in Geoscience Canada.

Extended Family EXTENDED FAMILY: Lynda Delph, at left in front rot, and Curtis Lively, at right in front row, are surrounded by their grad students and postdocs at Indiana University, where the couple share a biology faculty position. The Indiana University biology department found an inventive approach to one benefits hurdle. Retirement vesting requires one year of full-time work at Indiana. So when the biology department hired Lynda Delph and Curtis Lively to a shared position in 1990, it put Delph on the books the first year as a full-time faculty member, and then made Lively "officially" full-time the second year, although they shared their actual responsibilities for both years.

Colleges and universities benefit by having more energetic faculty members, argues Lubchenco. In most cases, those splitting or sharing a faculty appointment devote much of their unpaid time to research or working with students. Roy and Elise Turner left a pair of jobs at the University of New Hampshire to take a shared position at the University of Maine this fall. Now that they will split the equivalent of a full-time teaching load, both will spend even more time on research. Both arrived at Maine with active projects supported by the National Science Foundation.

At Ursinus College, "since we each have half the teaching load, we have that much more time to spend with students on research projects," Robert Dawley points out, more time than an individual holding the same position is likely to have.

For some liberal arts colleges, "offering shared positions adds stability to the faculty and reduces our difficulties due to attrition," according to Mark Schneider, chairman of the physics department at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. At a rural school such as Grinnell, he says, if only one spouse in a couple has a position at the college, the other may not be able to find satisfying work. A couple sharing a position may solve this problem as well as give a department added flexibility. Since the two don't each have a full teaching load, they may be available to take on additional courses when another faculty member goes on sabbatical or wants release time to conduct sponsored research or curriculum development.

Lubchenco is convinced that research universities can support split or shared faculty appointments and still emphasize their research mission. "Oregon State is a research institution, and it seems sufficiently pleased with the arrangement that they have made split positions possible for five or six or seven couples," she says.

Institutions also benefit by bringing in two people with their own ideas and approaches to research. Adolphi and McDowell will share a physics research lab at Knox College, says Adolphi, because "the hard work is maintaining the large equipment. But we'll each work on a separate line of research."

Career advancement need not be sacrificed, either. Both Lubchenco and Menge hold endowed chairs at Oregon State. Lubchenco received a MacArthur fellowship, was selected as a Pew Scholar, and is president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This isn't to say there are no negatives to shared or split positions. Probably the biggest is financial, since two people who might each earn a full salary now split one. One salary was a "serious problem at first," states Robert Dawley. Ursinus College is near Philadelphia, and living expenses can be high. The Dawleys solved this problem by teaching additional courses or applying for grants to cover salaries for research they did beyond their faculty assignments.

The other downside often mentioned is a sense of exploitation stemming from the unpaid time and effort expended in fulfilling faculty responsibilities. "If we did it over," says Shrady, "we'd probably ask for 1.25 or 1.5 appointments, since that's a better approximation of the time we spend on our shared duties now." Shrady thinks they might have gotten the department to agree, too, since she knows of other shared positions, even one in her field of geology, in which each sharing professor received a three-quarter appointment.

There is also a little "self-exploitation," acknowledges Robert Dawley, since he and his wife are often willing to spend more time preparing lectures, working with students, or handling other faculty duties than they're being paid for.

In a 1989 article, The Scientist examined shared positions, and asked, "Can they work?" (J.A. Nagorka, Feb. 20, 1989, page 18). In 1995, it seems that they can, judging by the number of couples who have earned tenure-and happiness-in such arrangements. Perhaps the new question is: "Can part-time, tenure-track appointments be offered to anyone, not just married couples?"

Lubchenco maintains that all of the benefits that married scientists now enjoy from fractional tenure-track appointments should be made available to any faculty member. She knows of a number of senior male faculty who have made quiet arrangements to reduce their teaching load in order to pursue other interests not strictly tied to their academic appointment. "Not many people realize that what they are doing is setting up fractional positions to give them flexibility," she comments.

Broader use of fractional appointments could also help the efforts by higher education to encourage more women to consider careers in science. When young women observe overtaxed faculty members struggling to meet all of their professional and personal goals, many shy away from science fearing that professional success and family life cannot coexist, Lubchenco says. "If the option of fractional tenure-track positions were more widely accepted, this wouldn't be as much of a concern to these young women.

"I recognize that this option is not what everyone would choose," Lubchenco comments. "But it's myopic to make people choose between career and children."

Lee Katterman, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is editor of Research News, a publication of the University of Michigan.

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(The Scientist, Vol:9, #21, pg.16-17 , October 30, 1995)
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