Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Family Friendly Faculty Retreat

Future faculty scheming how they will run their retreats.
Does your department or research group undertake an annual retreat? If so, is it family friendly?

Retreats offer the chance to break from the routines and confines of day-to-day work to gather as a group to consider the Big Questions facing an institution. In my view, an essential part of an effective retreat is that it be away from the office, and that it span at least one overnight.

I know of several physical science departments for which the "retreat" consists of a full-day meeting at their workplace. But I worry that in the temporal and physical space that houses our day-to-day work, it is all-too-easy to fall back on day-to-day thinking. The goals of the retreat is much more grand: First, we seek to build community. Second, we seek to engage in blue-sky thinking and fresh approaches aimed at tackling the Big Questions! An overnight also means meals together, and it is over meals that I have experienced the most thought provoking conversations, and the opportunity to really check-in with colleagues.

However, (overnight) + (away from office) puts a retreat on a collision course with that sacred family-work balance that we seek. I have written previously about the excellent evidence that concerns about family-work balance adversely affect the retention of women in the sciences. So, isn't the idea of a retreat inherently problematic? Perhaps not, if the families are invited!

This past weekend I participated in the faculty retreat for the Department of Astronomy at Harvard. Our faculty and their families took the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We were away for 3 days (2 nights). (Oh, I know how this may sound. Not all departments can afford such an endeavor, but please bear with me here. My point, I hope, is a deeper one, and I think it there are analogs that could be employed under whatever financial constraints a group has.)

In the middle of Saturday afternoon, the faculty convened a 2 hour meeting, and we did indeed tackle some of the big questions that demand innovative solutions in the coming years. Some of my colleagues wondered whether 2 hours was enough. After all, isn't it rather inefficient to take 2 days to find 2 hours?

But it was in the time around the formal meeting that I learned the most from my colleagues. I had important discussions about teaching, about racial discrimination, about gender bias, about national scientific priorities and scientific controversies, about worries about the tenure process, and, yes, about some great science results, too. These conversations occurred at meals and in corridors and while walking to the beach, and all in the company of our families: These moments were precisely the ones outside the official business meeting. In this respect, the business meeting served as our decoy: A reason for us all to be there, but not the real reason. These inter-moments wouldn't have been possible with the family-first approach, since many of us with families wouldn't have attended.

But more importantly, my view is that the family friendly nature of the meeting was itself a key message. That message, I hope, was that it was not only possible to be a professor and care for family, but that it was a natural and fulfilling enterprise. In particular, I hope dearly that our junior faculty understood how much the department does value this, embodied by our choices and actions in organizing the retreat as we did. And I hope the senior faculty understand how essential such family-friendly endeavors are for many of our members to flourish. Beyond this, I think one develops a deeper empathy for one's colleagues when we spend time with them outside the confines of office and not decoupled from the partners and families that make their lives whole. I think that good will goes a long way in helping us negotiate a consensus when we later find ourselves in our Friday faculty meetings, back at the office.

Of course, some of our senior faculty do not have children, and perhaps some of the junior faculty do not plan on them. But by creating a weekend in which partners were welcome, and those of us with children could participate, we opened the space we needed for the very best conversations to which the faculty, and their families, could aspire.