The University Record, December 7, 1998

President, provost talk with faculty women

By Jane R. Elgass

Approximately 80 women faculty attended a “Dialogue with Faculty Women” Dec. 3 in the Pendleton Room, Michigan Union, that was hosted by President Lee C. Bollinger and Provost Nancy Cantor. Among the issues raised by those in the audience were:

Issue: The tension that exists surrounding dual-career couples, particularly as it relates to retention of senior women faculty, without infringing on the autonomy of the units

The academic and research units have been “encouraged to be collaborative in general around a whole series of issues, and there has been good responsiveness,” Cantor said.

There is a dual career program jointly administered by Cantor’s Office and Human Resources. Sally Grace, dual career coordinator in Human Resources, works primarily with non-academic placements. Katherine Soper, assistant to the associate provost, works with deans and directors to smooth things in the academic arena.

Cantor has opted to steer away from rigid programs, which might say, for example, “You can only get two years’ support.”

“Everyone knows how critical this is, that we bend, be flexible, make things happen.”

Bollinger concurred that the approach he and Cantor prefer is one not based on a stated program and budget, but rather one that relies on people saying, “Let’s try to make this work.”

Cantor noted that these activities “are still somewhat hidden. People don’t feel free to push, particularly junior faculty. I worry about junior faculty access to institutional resources to make things work [for them]. We grow a great faculty here,” Cantor added, “and we need to start with junior faculty.”

Issue: Absolute power of department chairs that is not challenged by deans or the central administration, as well as chairs who serve without time limits

Universities are special organizations with an extended autonomy that everyone prizes, Bollinger said, “but we have to realize that there are some tradeoffs. We are constantly negotiating with this. We need to think in terms of the problems faced by human beings, not policy. Fifty percent of what goes on depends on who’s administering the policy.”

Cantor doesn’t want to rush to impose term limits on chairs or “erode the power of chairs until we get more women [chairs]. That’s a critical issue. We have to grow wonderful women leaders, to get people of color in academic leadership positions.” Cantor’s dream during her tenure as provost is “to see the color and gender profile of chairs change over time.”

“The cultures are very different in the schools, colleges and research units. We have to think about this in that context,” Cantor added.

Issue: The rigidity of the tenure clock, based on the assumption that work is the ultimate priority, while the reality is different for women

Cantor said the University wants to put some flexibility in the system for a variety of reasons. Faculty are doing new kinds of work in different ways “and we haven’t changed the canonical structure,” she noted.

The four working groups she will be appointing as a result of the recent retreat on the future of the professoriate (non-tenure-track instructional faculty; tenure-track faculty and the integration of research, practice and teaching; interdisciplinary work; and research faculty) will be asked to think broadly about the structure of faculty appointments.

In addition, the University will be undergoing accreditation review by the North Central Association and, in preparation for that, will take on the question of faculty life in a collaborative, interdisciplinary university. “This will be an important avenue to get people to sit down at the same table and discuss these issues,” she noted.

“It’s not fast or immediate, but it’s critical to get enough information on the way faculty life is structured and then talk compellingly with deans on policy changes.”

Issue: The high number of women denied tenure

“Any global answer won’t describe the complexity” of this situation, Cantor stated. “If we’re to make progress, we need to live and understand at the level where the decisions are being made. We need to work with existing cultures and get them to change, raise awareness and get people to talk about these issues.”

Bollinger said he believes the low tenure rates for women “mean that a group of people are not flourishing the way they should in the institution, but what does this mean individually? We need lots of people to think about these things, so there will be more likelihood that all will flourish.”

Issue: The disproportionately large number of women lecturers

It was made very clear in the retreat on the future of the professoriate, Cantor said, “that we should stop being obsessed with tracks and move toward a better understanding of the responsibilities of various positions” as well as the institution’s loyalty “to people capably serving the University,” Cantor said.

“We want both men and women to be able to have flexible careers and not close the door to those who cannot fit rigid tenure-track expectations.”

While increasing the number of women in tenure-track positions is important, “we need to make other positions attractive and functional,” Cantor said. These would attract more men and ultimately create more equity.

Bollinger noted that this type of discussion highlights implicit notions about groups. “Do we think of some as second-class? If so, we need to address over time the attitudes that underlie that culture.”

Issue: The importance of diversity

“Universities provide a special environment where people can suspend belief, can learn different ways to look at the world, can imagine,” Bollinger said. “This is very difficult to do and we all do it imperfectly. One of the great things a university does is provide a special, protected environment to do that. Diversity is a piece of that [environment], not an add-on.”

“Diversity is central to the core mission of this University,” Cantor added, “allowing us to bring minds together across lines, to train people in ways of thinking about themselves and the world that is open to challenge of assumptions and traditions.”

Issue: Faculty should find the U-M the most desirable place to work, but there are “gendered” differences in research support

“The standard we should have,” Bollinger said, “is that we not lose a single faculty member because there is a better environment elsewhere. We can’t do anything about the mountains and oceans, but we can aim to be among the best in offering not just money and resources, but also collegiality, because some of our finest experiences come from that collegiality.”

He and Cantor, he said, “do try to make adjustments at the margin that address [resource problems]. It’s our job to make sure classics has everything it needs to be the best,” he said.

The environment also can be influenced by the people who are appointed and recruited, Cantor noted. “While it is understandable that some may feel ‘we can’t make exceptions,’ there is a role we can play in stepping back and intervening, even if that is special treatment.

“We want deans who feel they can make those exceptions, we want to change the flavor of what people feel they can ask for.” Based on her own experience as a woman faculty member, Cantor noted that “just asking is gendered.”

Issue: Lack of department support of junior faculty who were productively doing interdisciplinary work prior to being hired

“This is one of the key questions” Cantor will be asking the working groups to consider, she noted, because there must be a way “to assure junior faculty that [interdisciplinary work] is not a death sentence. I’m very willing to look at proposals for this and work them through the system.

“We need to make sure that the voices of senior faculty who do interdisciplinary work get heard in the review of junior faculty.”

Bollinger said this “goes to the heart of why we have disciplines and raises the question of how to evaluate across disciplines.”

The president said that when he was pursuing tenure he sacrificed some things that really interested him to “work within the framework. I’m not proud of that, but it is part of reality.

“The system poses certain risks. You have to make sure you have people you trust who can help you.”

The “Dialogue with Faculty Women” was a collaborative effort of the Academic Women’s Caucus, Center for the Education of Women, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Women of Color in the Academy Project, Women’s Studies Program and the President’s Commission on Women’s Issues.

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