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John Harvard's Journal

Faculty Well-Being: A Status Report

November-December 2007

For the first time, Harvard has asked its faculty members how happy they are. A survey conducted last November by the two-year-old Office of Faculty Development and Diversity (OFDD) measured the satisfaction of tenured, tenure-track, and other officers of instruction with various aspects of University life, both professional and personal. (For the complete report, see www.faculty.harvard.edu/05/index.html.)

Not surprisingly, tenured faculty were the happiest overall—their average satisfaction was 4.31 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 4 being “somewhat satisfied” and 5 “very satisfied.” Tenure-track faculty were significantly less happy, rating their satisfaction, on average, as 3.94 (with 3 connoting “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied”).

Two factors in particular probably contributed to the relative dissatisfaction of junior faculty. They were much less likely to feel their input was considered in decisions that affect the direction of their respective departments—40 percent of tenure-track faculty and 45 percent of non-ladder faculty said they did not feel they had a voice in such decisions, compared to 18 percent of tenured faculty. As for mentoring, those providing it tended to see the system as effective, while the recipients did not. Among tenured faculty, 62 percent said their departments did a good job of mentoring tenure-track faculty; only 40 percent of tenure-track faculty agreed.

Although increased faculty satisfaction is certainly a goal, the numbers indicate that Harvard still does better than average. The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), which is based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been polling faculties here and at 85 other institutions of higher learning on similar topics since 2003. Its results indicate that even the least satisfied Harvard faculty members are more satisfied, on the whole, than their counterparts elsewhere: among COACHE survey respondents, average satisfaction with their respective departments was 3.88 and average satisfaction with their overall institution was 3.65.

What was worrisome in the Harvard data was the gender breakdown. Women were notably less satisfied than men, with a mean score of 3.90 versus 4.27, respectively. Perhaps more alarmingly, 44 percent of female faculty said they did not feel they had a voice in departmental decision-making; only 24 percent of male faculty reported feeling that way. Lisa Martin, Dillon professor of international affairs and senior adviser on diversity issues to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), says some of this may be attributable to gender-based differences in communication style. In faculty meetings, she says, “Women have to present their ideas very forcefully to get a response,” and too often those ideas are dropped, rather than made the basis for action. The solution might be as simple as making people aware of the problem, Martin says. Discounting women’s ideas “isn’t something people do on purpose,” she says. Rather, “it’s something they’re socialized to do from a very early age.”

Even if Harvard has an edge in overall satisfaction, it does not top every category. A COACHE survey found that Harvard ranked among the top schools in terms of junior-faculty satisfaction with two specific areas of university life: compensation and nature of work. The University did not stack up as well against its peers with regard to tenure clarity; work-family balance; and overall satisfaction.

So-called “quality of life” factors such as readily available childcare, affordable housing, and a short commute are more important to the current crop of junior faculty than to previous generations, COACHE and Harvard officials agree. They say Harvard can no longer rely solely on its cachet to help it attract leading minds. “For some time, the attitude appears to have been that no matter how different the climate is for faculty at Harvard, people will come here anyway because it’s Harvard,” says COACHE assistant director Kiernan R. Mathews.

A recent COACHE report highlighted gains that public institutions are making on quality-of-life issues and faculty satisfaction, and Harvard’s private peers have also taken some steps recently that make them more attractive. Last spring, Stanford announced new childcare grants for junior-faculty members. Princeton began offering maternity leave and childcare assistance to graduate students. Yale established similar parental-leave and childcare policies, and also revamped its tenure process to detach tenure evaluations from funding concerns, which historically prevented even the best and brightest candidates in a given field from getting tenure if a slot did not open up at the right time. Although some individual faculties at Harvard have made recent changes—FAS junior faculty are now guaranteed a review for tenure, Lisa Martin notes—there has been no comprehensive reform. She believes Harvard will need to consider broader changes, including introducing additional flexibility into the system, for instance by creating a mechanism for tenured and tenure-track faculty to work part-time temporarily while caring for young children or elderly parents.

Harvard has already made some advances in what Evelynn M. Hammonds, who is both senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity and Rosenkrantz professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies, calls a “positive arms race” among elite universities on such issues. Her office has launched a pilot program of research-enabling grants to cover the cost of dependent care. Associate professor of anthropology Cheryl Knott’s grant enables her three-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son to accompany her to Borneo, where she has a research project studying wild orangutans. Jesse Snedeker, Loeb associate professor of the social sciences, received a grant to hire an assistant for her research on eye movements and language comprehension in children with Asperger’s syndrome, children with cochlear implants, and children who were internationally adopted, freeing Snedeker to spend more time with her own infant son while the investigation continues.

In other developments, FAS introduced a new early-evening babysitting program; the business and medical schools both implemented new family- and medical-leave policies; and the Graduate School of Design increased junior-faculty salaries across the board. These add to initiatives from the first year of OFDD’s existence, such as promulgation of new University-wide faculty parental-leave standards, and the creation of a new office to address the needs of Harvard’s more than 3,700 postdoctoral fellows.

This year, OFDD is compiling information on the state of mentoring efforts in Harvard’s various schools. It will then assess what makes for effective mentoring and issue guidelines to aid the schools in aligning their practices with what works. Hammonds expects to present a more detailed report on the satisfaction study—officially dubbed the Full Faculty Climate Survey—soon. The numbers will serve as a baseline for evaluating programs’ impact in the years to come.

She doubts that faculty members—junior or senior—are dissatisfied enough to start leaving the University or declining to come. Still, she says, “We want to make sure that we are helping our faculty do their best work. That’s just critical to the mission of a great university.”