Reposted from Science Magazine, 26 August 2005

Princeton University wants to level the field for tenure-track faculty members starting a family. Starting this fall, both men and women who become parents will receive an automatic tenure extension. This first-of-its kind policy is seen as one way to help boost the number of tenured women in science and engineering departments. But some say the policy could provide an unfair advantage to scholars who are not the primary caregivers.

Many universities, including Princeton, already allow new parents to request extra time for tenure decisions. But studies show that many women (and men) worry that asking might be seen as showing a lack of commitment to academic life ( Science, 17 December 2004, p. 2031). "There is a feeling among assistant professors that stopping the clock could hurt your chances of getting tenure," says Princeton psychologist Joan Girgus, who chaired a 2003 campus report that recommended changing the current policy. Assistant professors at the university will now automatically receive one additional year for every child born or adopted, although they can request an early tenure review.

Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a sociologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who studies gender issues, says the impact of the new policy is hard to predict. "If going up early for tenure ends up becoming the norm, then you haven't solved the problem," she says, adding that the policy could end up favoring men with stay-at-home wives or partners who do the actual work of child-rearing. "An extension would allow them to be more academically productive," she notes.

One solution, in the works at the University of California (UC), would give automatic extensions to those with "substantial care-giving responsibilities," says Marc Goulden, an analyst at UC Berkeley's graduate division. The policy would require faculty members to submit a letter attesting to that status.