MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 3
January / February 2005
Initial Impressions
Food for Thought:
Issues for the Next 10 Years
An Open Letter to the MIT Faculty: Maintaining Integrity at MIT
Themes On Love; Like This;
Within Another Life
Some Further Thoughts on the FPC Suggestions on Faculty Governance
Aimee Smith Found Not Guilty
Quality of Life Issues at MIT
What's All This About Export Controls?
In It But Not Of It:
Nine Years in the MIT Administration
Nuclear Engineering Department
Changes Its Name
An Update on the Cambridge-MIT Institute
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Research Expenditures By Primary Sponsor, 1997-2004
"Please rate the following dimensions of your program" [from the Graduate Student Survey 2004]
Printable Version

Quality of Life Issues at MIT

Jacquelyn C. Yanch

I am a tenured, full professor. I am also the mother of three children, 10 years of age and under. I love many aspects of my job; MIT is an incredibly exciting and stimulating place to work. However, the demands of my job make it next to impossible for me to feel satisfied that I am doing a good job as a mother.

Fortunately, MIT has started taking steps to investigate the dilemma of balancing work and family life. In 2001, the MIT administration charged its Council on Family and Work to conduct a survey investigating factors that affect quality of life. The results were clear. Fewer than half of all women faculty at MIT are satisfied with their overall quality of life. In other words, they are not satisfied with their ability to integrate a fulfilling and productive work life with a fulfilling personal and/or family life. The same is true for junior men. Less than half of untenured male faculty are satisfied with their quality of life. However, at the same time, over two-thirds of tenured MIT male faculty over the age of 45 years are satisfied with life at MIT.

How does this lack of satisfaction arise and why is "senior men" the only faculty group satisfied at MIT? Perhaps it'is because 64% of tenured men have a spouse/partner at home who tends to home responsibilities either full- or part-time, whereas a mere 10% of tenured women and no untenured women have a spouse who takes on the major share of home and family responsibilities.

At the same time, MIT faculty work significantly more hours than they did a decade ago. In 1989, fewer than half of MIT faculty reported working 60 or more hours in an average week. By 2001, however, nearly two-thirds of MIT faculty members reported working these hours.

According to the survey data, over 90% of tenured women and 77% of tenured men feel that no matter how hard they work, they cannot accomplish everything they need to - and 62% of all faculty, regardless of gender or tenure status, feel that the pace, pressure, and stress of MIT negatively affect their personal and family life. Exacerbating the "time" crunch is the fact that salaries have lagged woefully behind the soaring cost of housing in the Boston/Cambridge area, forcing faculty with children to live further and further away from MIT in search of affordable housing in communities with highly-rated public school systems. The longer commuting time adds more hours to the work day. Less income also leaves fewer resources for housekeeping assistance and high quality child care. No wonder stress and burnout levels are inordinately high - no wonder satisfaction levels are dispiritingly low.

Gone are the days when MIT could count on faculty who came equipped with a spouse or partner at home who took primary responsibility for caring for the children, for management of the home, and for establishing and maintaining links with the local community. As the older (satisfied) male faculty retire, the typical MIT faculty member will be one who needs to, and wants to, save some of their energy and their time for family and community.

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If MIT does not become a place where a thrilling academic career (and it is thrilling) can be had simultaneously with a satisfying personal life, then MIT will surely suffer. First, we will suffer as Harvard University ramps up their efforts in science and engineering and as they make good on their goal of bringing in and mentoring large numbers of junior faculty. We will run the risk of losing the best and the brightest to a place, just down the road, that offers better salaries, attractive faculty housing initiatives, and a comparable name. Second, we will suffer in terms of diversity, since we will self-select for one type of individual. (Already the fraction of women faculty at MIT who have children is far below the national average; the same is not true for male faculty.) This will not be good for the long-term health and vitality of the Institute. Third, and most importantly, we will be substantially reducing the size of the pool of high-quality applicants from which we will be selecting our new faculty.

The problem of how to combine a demanding work life and a satisfying personal life is difficult and it is not a problem that is unique to MIT. However, MIT is in the business of solving hard problems, and we need to solve this one.

There are perhaps two options. MIT could relax its expectations of effort and productivity and redress the decade-long trend toward increased working hours among its faculty. This is not likely to happen. Although not impossible, MIT directly benefits from the productivity and would be hard pressed to make the substantive changes that would result in faculty spending less time/less effort on MIT activities.

The second option is for MIT to think of creative ways for faculty to meet both sets of needs and obligations. Here's an easy (and low cost) way to start. What if we simply choose one evening per week, or one Saturday per month, to be that time when all/most/many after-hours activities requiring faculty participation should be held? Departments would be strongly encouraged to hold anything that needs faculty involvement on that particular evening of the week. Age-appropriate activities for children, from toddlers to teenagers, could be simultaneously offered so that "MIT night" could become exciting for my kids, instead of the night their mother doesn't come home for dinner and isn't there when they go to bed.

Given the richness of the backgrounds of the entire MIT population, one could imagine a wonderful range of possibilities of activities or learning experiences for children. Grad students from Germany could teach German (for example), undergrads from Japan could teach origami, undergrads who love intramural soccer could teach soccer, grad students from the Middle East could teach about their culture; there could be math clubs, chess clubs, even movies – the possibilities seem exciting, endless, and inexpensive. Instead of a burden to me, my spouse, and my children, "MIT night" could be a night when my kids are excited to be doing something interesting, a night when they are "with me" for at least part of the evening instead of not with me at all, a night when my spouse gets a few hours to himself instead of, once again, having to do all of the at-home and bedtime activities on his own. Everybody wins.

Here's a bigger-impact idea but one that also comes with a significant price tag. What about a K-12 school on/adjacent to the MIT campus for children of faculty and staff?

The idea of a school on campus is not a new one, but perhaps the justification for it is. Although expensive there are many advantages, all of which decrease the stress for faculty with kids and simultaneously improve the sense of community at the Institute. If the quality of school district were no longer an issue in buying a home, junior faculty could now afford to buy a house in those close-to-MIT communities made less expensive by the fact that their school systems are poorly rated. A shorter commute means more time for either MIT or for family, and a reduction in stress. Parents could easily and productively participate in their kids' school, say a few hours each week. And, the pressure on the spouse at home would substantially diminish since the MIT spouse would likely be the one who drops the kids off, picks them up, responds if the child becomes sick, etc.

Currently, the other spouse typically has primary responsibility for the children. A lot of friction is generated since that means the non-MIT spouse really has trouble maintaining any sort of career for themselves. This friction seems to be a particular problem for women faculty. There are many other advantages to a school on campus, such as the richness in terms of ethnicity and religious background of the children and parents and the excellence and variety of the "after school programs" we could (and would need to) create. Out-of-class faculty contact with MIT students could dramatically improve as undergrad and grad students become intimately involved with the lives of our children (teaching, coaching, even babysitting). The existence of a well-run, high-quality school would also be a significant recruiting tool. I think this would certainly be true for women faculty; it would also be significant for junior men faculty. Since, in its ideal formulation, the school would really help develop the community feel of MIT, it may also help in the recruitment of undergraduate students who would see a warmer, friendlier, more "whole" MIT environment as they leave their own home, perhaps for the first time.

This problem of balancing a demanding professional career with a satisfying personal life is not a local one. It affects employers/employees across the country and in many sectors of society, not just academia. And while the problem itself does not have the cachet of an exciting scientific discovery, robust creative solutions could have an enormous societal impact. This is a difficult problem but we're all pretty smart people here and, after all, solving hard problems is something we spend a lot of time doing.

[Editor's Note: Results from a similar survey conducted in 2004 are not yet available in published form. Questions asked on the 2001 and 2004 surveys are not identical, making direct comparison of survey results difficult.]

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