While it's unclear precisely how many faculty members and administrators are seeking to work fewer hours in order to spend more time with their families, it is clear that it's happening more and more often.
As someone whose research focuses on work-life issues, I am regularly asked for advice from professors on how to secure a reduced-hours arrangement. So I've put together a primer on the subject. To keep things simple, let's assume you are an untenured assistant professor and a new mother. (I will come back later to the matter of those requests coming from senior faculty members and men.)
It's too soon to talk about this publicly. Do not talk to anyone at your institution about your plans just yet. Start, instead, by thinking through what you'll need, what you're willing to give up, and for how long. For example, can you afford to work at half-pay? Can you afford to give up benefits? How long can you afford to work a reduced schedule?
Once you've figured that part out, if you're on the tenure track, think through the tenure clock. Would you like it stopped for a year or two? Longer? How will you feel about coming up later than originally planned for tenure? (If your feelings aren't mixed, I'd be very surprised.) If you are working on grants or planning to apply for some, how would you manage those on a part-time basis? If you are working closely with graduate students, how much of that work would you want to slow or hand off?
You may also want to think through alternatives such as a less-dramatic modification of your current duties, or a year or two of full-time leave, if you can afford it. At this stage, be idealistic about what is possible, and realistic about what you need.
It's not just about you. Think through your department's needs. What does it need from you in terms of serving students, managing grants or laboratories, and handling committees and other service work? Would foregoing half your salary free up enough money in the department's budget to hire someone to cover for you? If so, would qualified people be available? If not, could you help with grading or other nonclassroom work, or could the department get by for a while without some of your courses? Are there service tasks you could continue?
Think through the "win-win" possibilities, so that at least some colleagues will want to help you make your request for reduced hours happen.
Next think about your potential allies and your potential "hard sells." If you are lucky, your department head will be an ally and will want to set a precedent for accommodating your request. If you are unlucky, your only allies may be the other untenured colleagues who could help you think this through but probably cannot afford to stick their necks out.
Read the fine print. Find and read your institution's policies regarding part-time appointments. Sometimes those documents remain silent on faculty members but will say something about staff members. Usually you will find language about reduced-hours options under the benefits section, and it can be a big sticking point (e.g., "the university will cover 50 percent of health-insurance premiums for faculty members with appointments of 50 percent or less"). If that language exists, then part-time options are officially permitted -- at least that's how I would read it.
See also the American Association of University Professors' statement on family responsibilities and academic work. It explicitly supports stopping the tenure clock for up to two years for family commitments. (That translates into four years of half-time work, which might be all you need.)
However, as I read the AAUP rules, faculty members should receive a half-year of credit for a half-year of proportional work, allowing a far-longer tenure clock in cases in which the half-time appointment extends for more than four years. (The AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has not ruled on that as of yet, and I doubt it will anytime soon). For model language, see the policies of Ohio State University or the University of California system. You may also want to check the wording of formal-leave or modified-duties policies.
Now it's time to start talking to people. You've probably already begun talking to family members about this, but, with your homework done, it's time to also start talking to friends and colleagues. Think of your most likely ally on the campus and speak with that person, particularly about who else to involve and about next steps.
If your institution doesn't have a policy or hasn't permitted reduced-hours arrangements, your best bet is to try to create the policy for the next generation. Without a formal policy, you can achieve only an ad hoc arrangement, and that will be dicey for everyone.
Meet with the powerful women on your campus to get some knowledge of institutional history (has this been done before?), to get ideas (should policies be changed?), to get advice (what makes your chair and department tick?), and to get support. Those women will be crucial for you and for those who come after you. If you are lucky, a precedent will already exist. You may also discover precedents set for older scholars who have experienced health problems and were provided reduced-hours arrangements.
Meet informally with senior faculty allies to discuss the situation and specifically to get ideas on how your reduced hours could operate fairly and without burdening the rest of the department.
Talk to your department head. You might want to do that before talking to other colleagues if your chair is a natural ally. If not, you need to proceed carefully to ensure that your chair does not feel like you've gone around him or her to secure what you want.
If I can offer one crucial piece of advice here, it is not so much about being prepared, as making sure the chair doesn't have a chance to say No during the first meeting. You just want to get him or her thinking about how this new arrangement might work and what obstacles would be involved. Like many other facets of academe, the longer you can put off that No, the more likely the answer will be Yes.
Demonstrating that you understand your institution's policies is usually good, and asking the chair to check into precedents that you have already discovered also helps, as does thinking about your proposal as a one-year or maybe even a one-semester trial.
Telling the chair that you have the support of a dean or provost is probably not a good idea, but bringing up the positive and negative implications of part-time arrangements for the department may help.
Threatening to quit is an option -- if you are certain you could and would do it -- but that's a very big stick to pull out, and could easily alienate the chair.
If you succeed and achieve reduced hours, it would be helpful if you shared your knowledge and experiences with others on your campus and throughout academe. So many academics feel alone in these efforts, but they are not, and would genuinely appreciate your help and support.
My advice for men in similar situations is the same, including the possibility of networking with powerful women on the campus, since they may be sympathetic to your situation. You might also find male allies, but maybe not.
For those of you who need reduced hours and have already achieved tenure, my advice is similar, but with an important exception. Your situation seems simpler because the tenure clock is not an issue, but if you are currently an associate professor, you should talk to the relevant people about expectations for promotion to full professor. Many women (and men) get stuck at the associate level, and you can at least help to ensure that that doesn't happen to you as a consequence of working part-time.
My research on biases against caregiving in academe revealed that many faculty members, particularly women, do not even use existing tenure-clock and leave policies. Much as I wish it were not so, using existing policies, much less changing them, typically poses significant career risks.
What you are doing requires courage, but the cause -- making academe a better and more inclusive workplace -- is a good one.