American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Faculty careers and work lives: Are we balanced?

Celia R. Hooper, Professor and Dean, School of Health and Human Performance, University of North Carolina Greensboro; KerryAnn O'Meara, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Maryland

At the recent ASHA 2009 convention, Dr. KerryAnn O'Meara presented a thoughtful review of her recent book, Faculty Careers and Work Lives (O'Meara, Terosky, and Neumann, 2008), followed by a panel of deans who are also professors in communication sciences and disorders. The lively question and comment session that ensued resulted in group affirmation that there is much a campus, or an administrator, or a colleague, can do to foster more work and life balance. Interestingly from the prospective of one person (the first author of this article), I have attended many workshops and seminars on academic leadership (chairing a department, management and leadership in higher education for deans and provosts, etc.), but very few address this topic unless the workshop/seminar audience is particularly focused on a female audience. I would challenge the reader to consider this issue, work and life balance, or faculty careers and work lives, an issue for everyone no matter what the rank, what the gender, or what the age. I also think we must think beyond work-life balance as a gender, child care, or elder care issue and one that encompasses life enjoyment as part of the balance. There are colleagues among us who enjoy avocations, such as fiction-writing, jewelry design, woodworking, quilting, hiking, etc. and they want to fit these passions into their lives for a more balanced existence. On our own campus, and in my own unit, we are focusing our new strategic plan on health and well being. We want to be models of this behavior for the whole campus.

The ASHA session incorporated Dr. O'Meara's view point that it is much more constructive and helpful to view faculty careers and work lives in a professional growth perspective rather than the old "narrative of constraint" model (O'Meara, Terosky, and Neumann, 2008). The constraint model imposes repression, constriction, control and limits, some external, some self-imposed. The professional growth perspective allows us to look at our development as people, and as faculty, through four aspects: learning, agency (ability to assume), professional relationships, and commitments. She elaborates on these four aspects through the lens of many types of faculty, including minority faculty, tenure and non tenure track faculty, full and part time faculty, and all ranks of faculty. Much is not known about work life balance in several categories of faculty, including men with young children, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered faculty, and part time faculty with and without other jobs/careers.

In keeping with the positive professional growth perspective, faculty can think about their personal vision as well as something sociologists and psychologists have long referred to as "person-environment fit" (Robert and Robins, 2004). Personal vision can be thought of as the integration of place, love, work and purpose or living in the place where you belong, with the people you like, and doing the right work (Katz and Morahan, 2007). Some would say that personal vision includes our short and long term goals. Others would include our values, including our views of the world from our generational standpoint. We fit in our environment and flourish in our job if it fits with our values and needs and if our abilities match those needed and rewarded in our environment. There are many talented faculty who report that "X University just wasn't right for me," without thinking about person–environment fit. Robert and Robins (2004) looked at the objective (employee evaluation) and the subjective (employee happiness) factors in person–environment fit. We do a great service to our doctoral students and young faculty if we help them examine what type of university they prefer and how they might fit the needs of the position as it fits within their value system.

A very important message in the O'Meara book, among many others that review the value of the academic life, is the message that faculty are often very passionate, committed people. Learning and a life of the mind is central to every faculty member. They will navigate barriers, grow through professional relationships, and work very hard to incorporate life situations into the academic career. Unfortunately, there is much we do not know about faculty learning and growth. We do not know much about the best environment for faculty members at different career stages. We do not know if the three legged stool of teaching, research and service, are right for everyone or if we should "unbundle" for some people (O'Meara, 2008, p. 167). What we do know about faculty is that they can support and challenge each other in their work, and in their lives, as part of a group. As one assistant professor told us, "I work here because I feel part of something bigger than myself." This faculty member could work outside of academia, or could work alone in private practice. But she is supported, challenged, and enjoys the environment of learning.

What can we do to help each other in our academic careers? Table 1, "Imagineering" Shared Agreements that Address Faculty and Institutional Needs [PDF] suggests faculty and institutional needs that we could address with imagination, creativity, and a willingness to change. Some of these agreements would take the cooperation and support of academic leaders, including department heads, deans, provosts, senior faculty and external boards. But many of them are "bottom up," and take only a willingness for people to care about each other and to start working to move an institution forward. Perhaps you could suggest or implement one small change as a model for your career or your department. Someone has to be first. Perhaps you could convince a university wide committee to examine a policy and suggest a change, "just as an experiment." If you are a dean, department head, or senior faculty member, you could support a change to benefit a junior faculty member, modeling that behavior for others. Try something new in your department, write an article about it, and bring prestige to your university. It could catch on! And hopefully, you will feel like Noel Coward when he said, "Work is more fun than fun!"

Read More About It

Bolman, L. G. and Deal. T. E. (2008). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership. 4th ed., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Colbeck, C. L., O'Meara, K. & Austin, A. (eds). (2008). Educating Integrated Professionals: Theory and Practice on Preparation for the Professoriate. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Volume 113.

Gappa, J. M., Austin, A. E., & Trice, A. G. (2007). Rethinking faculty work: Higher education's strategic imperative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Katz, J. K. and Morahan, P. S. (2006). Dissecting Accomplishments as a Career Compass. Academic Physician and Scientist, 10: 4–7.

Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to Change. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

O'Meara, K., Terosky, A. L. and Neumann, A. (2008). Faculty Careers and Work Lives: A Professional Growth Perspective. ASHE Higher Education Report, 34(3).

O'Meara, K. (2007). Striving for What? Exploring the Pursuit of Prestige. J.C. Smart (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XXII, 121–179.

O'Meara, K., Kaufman, R., & Kuntz, A. (2003). Faculty work in challenging times: Trends, consequences and implications. Liberal Education, 89(4), 16–23.

O'Meara, K., & Bloomgarden, A. (2009, in press) Prestige at what Cost: Examining the consequences of striving for faculty work-life, reward systems, and satisfaction. Journal of the Professoriate,4(1).

Roberts, B. W. and Robins, R. W. (2004). Person-Environment Fit and Its Implications for Personality Development: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Personality, 72:1.


This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Access Academics and Research.

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