• September 30, 2014

Job Sharing on the Tenure Track

When Mark L. Kuhlmann and Mary E. Allen began job hunting in the late 1990s, they were looking for a college that would let them share a teaching position. They didn't have children yet but knew they wanted time in their lives to raise a family. Job sharing, they thought, was the solution.

The trouble was, few institutions were interested in the concept, until Allen interviewed for a tenure-track position in microbiology at Hartwick College. During her interview, Allen brought up the idea of job sharing, and to her surprise, college administrators looked intrigued.

While Hartwick officials couldn't do anything about it at the time, they said they would be open to such an arrangement down the road. So Allen accepted a full-time job at the liberal-arts college, and her husband took an adjunct position there, with the understanding that they could later approach the college about job sharing.

"We thought that once we got there," Allen says, "we could figure out how to make the arrangement work."

So in the summer of 1998, the couple said goodbye to Florida State University, where they had done their graduate work, and headed north to Hartwick's 425-acre campus in Oneonta, N.Y.

Within two years, Hartwick had made good on its word, allowing the couple to split a full-time, tenure-track position in the biology department (although technically they share a position and a half). The college also became one of the few institutions to create an official policy on such arrangements. Allen and Kuhlmann -- still the only professors ever to share an appointment on the campus -- helped craft the policy.

John W. Curtis, director of research at the American Association of University Professors, says that in seeking to recruit and retain professors, colleges frequently offer couples full-time jobs in different departments, but rarely do they allow two people to share a single position. "Many of these situations are a bit ad hoc," he says. "It's a matter of making accommodations that work for particular people. But the conditions for the appointment should be set down at the beginning so everyone knows what the plan is."

For Allen, 36, and Kuhlmann, 37, the split position means that they each have more time to spend with their daughter, Emily, 4, and son, Nathaniel, 1. Allen, a specialist in microbiology and microbial ecology, is a tenured associate professor. Kuhlmann, a specialist in marine and aquatic ecology, is an assistant professor who comes up for tenure next year. Each works three-quarters time.

That was not the arrangement that Hartwick came up with on its first attempt to develop the split position. Its first proposal outlined more of a truly "shared position," in which the couple would have been evaluated as one unit. "We didn't like the idea of each other's tenure being linked so closely," Allen says. "If we didn't get tenure, we'd wonder what caused it. Was it him? Was it me?"

So the two professors came up with a counteroffer for Hartwick officials, asking to share a position and a half, and to be evaluated separately for tenure.

The officials came back months later with a rewritten policy and a new contract proposal. Both reflected everything the couple had requested, including that the professors would be evaluated for tenure individually on their own merits, on their own timetables, and with their part-time employment in mind.

Allen and Kuhlmann signed the agreement in July 2000 and began their split position that fall. The college's four-page-long policy on shared appointments was added to the faculty manual.

The couple's division of labor is clear on the campus and at home. During the fall semester, for example, Allen taught two lecture courses and a lab; Mr. Kuhlmann taught a lecture course and two lab courses. Both work on the campus on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the children are at home with a baby sitter. Allen stays home with the kids on Tuesdays; Kuhlmann, on Thursdays. She works Friday morning. He works Friday afternoon. Both put in long hours after their children go to bed.

"I don't know if it's so much for them as for me because I wanted to watch them grow up instead of getting home at 6 p.m. and getting them ready for bed by 8," Kuhlmann says. "I feel like I'm raising them, rather than leaving them."

"We constantly say, 'I can't believe it's all worked out so well,'" he adds.

The split position has had its financial drawbacks. Allen's part-time salary is in the low $40s; Mr. Kuhlmann's is in the mid-$30s. They acknowledge that they could make more money if both had full-time positions at separate institutions or at Hartwick.

The biologists also worry that they aren't devoting as much time to research as their peers. Allen is studying the microbial communities in the leaves of the purple pitcher plant. Kuhlmann is investigating how a nonnative species of crayfish has become abundant in local streams.

"As far as contributing to the field in a larger way, I think I would be able to do more if I were working full time," Kuhlmann says. As a part timer, his scholarly output is lower than that of most full-time faculty members, and he wonders whether that has kept him from getting some grants. Still, he adds, "I'm willing to make that trade-off."

Kuhlmann says he hsn't thought much about what would happen if he were denied tenure. "It's possible that we would look for academic positions elsewhere," he says, "or maybe I would just do something nonacademic." Their contracts with the college stipulate that Allen would automatically move into a full-time position if her husband left the split arrangement.

What the two biologists see as deficiencies hasn't hurt them at Hartwick, though. Allen earned tenure in the fall of 2002. Kuhlmann goes up for tenure in the fall of 2005. His tenure clock started later because he wasn't in a tenure-track position from Day 1 at Hartwick, as was Allen.

Ronald M. Brzenk, a professor of mathematics and chairman of the tenure-and-promotion committee at Hartwick, says that at each of the professors' midprobationary reviews, there were no major concerns.

"The only place where their less-than-full-timeness came through was in the teaching load," he says. "But when one examined the quality of their teaching, it didn't much matter."

Brzenk says the two professors are expected to do only three-quarters of the work, in terms of teaching, scholarship, and service. If anything, he says, officials have had to caution them not to overextend themselves.

He applauds the split arrangement, saying it has helped the college to retain two good professors in one department for a little more than the price of one. "We live in a small, dinky town, and it's difficult to recruit academic couples, so anything we can do to recruit two quality professionals, we should do," he says.

As for Allen and Kuhlmann, they predict there will come a day when they can do more for the college -- perhaps as soon as their children enter elementary school.

"I'm imagining that when the kids get older, my productivity will pick up," Kuhlmann says, "and then I'll have extra time and make up for the deficit now."

Julie Nicklin Rubley, a former senior editor at The Chronicle, is a freelance writer in Virginia.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.