Taking (or Not Taking) Leave in Academia

I want to start with a few stories about taking leave in academia:

Story #1: When I was an adjunct instructor, teaching 6-8 composition courses a semester at two different community colleges to make a living, I had a stroke. My doctors told me to take six weeks off and that I would probably recover slowly over the next year. Luckily I had health insurance, which covered the bulk of my medical expenses, but I was in a panic about how I would earn a living.

When I called the department chair at one of the colleges to let her know about my situation, and before I had mentioned how long my doctor said I would be unable to work, she mused out loud, “I suppose we’ll need to replace you if you’ll be gone more than a couple of weeks.” I immediately assured her I’d be back in two weeks. I needed that job and couldn’t take a chance that they’d replace me for that semester and beyond. My first day back at work, my then-husband accompanied me, holding me up when I couldn’t stand on my own, helping me keep track of time and conversations, which was still challenging for me, and carrying my teaching materials.

Story #2: A few years ago, a colleague on my campus proudly told me that she hadn’t taken a single day of leave when she had cancer or when her own other was dying in hospice. When she told me this, she was chair of her department and expressed frustration that the faculty in her department took leave for every cold and minor illness.

Story #3: When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, I became his caregiver. As a full professor, I have health insurance, access to FMLA job protection, and enough sick and annual leave saved up that I can comfortably take time off from work to care for him without my pay being reduced. Avoiding a pay reduction is important because since his stroke, he’s been unable to work and while disability might be approved for him sometime soon, it hasn’t been yet (we applied in September!), and even if/when it is approved, it will only make up a portion of his lost salary. Since August, I have taken about 6-10 hours/week off from work, with complete support and understanding from my supervisors (as a faculty member with administrative duties outside my department, I have two supervisors: a department chair supervises me in my faculty role and an AVP supervises me in my administrative role). The only sticky point came when my department chair expressed concern that there was no department policy allowing me to reduce my service commitments in the department without it being potentially held against me at my next review. Because I’m already a full professor and have overdone service historically, I’m comfortable taking my chances on having a semester with a lighter service load.

These three stories show how deeply embedded ableism is in policies and practices around faculty leave. When I had a stroke as an adjunct instructor, financial insecurity made me feel the need to place my chair’s concern about having to find another instructor to teach my classes ahead of my own doctors’ advice for my recovery. Going back to work two weeks after my own stroke was dangerous and stressful, but it felt less dangerous and stressful than potentially losing my job. It’s impossible to say what impact going back to work so quickly had on my recovery; I do know that once the idea was put in my head that I would be replaced if I missed too many classes, I never cancelled a class, regardless of how ill or contagious I was.

I’m sure that when my chair mused out loud about having to replace me, she was thinking about students needing to be taught. However, the assumption that an adjunct instructor will not get sick or need time off relies on the idea that being sick or needing time off is not normal. In fact, in this particular situation, it was viewed as cause for being dismissed.

I have a colleague in a non-tenure track full-time teaching position who is a caregiver for a loved one; she does not have the same access to paid leave that I have. She and I are both full-time faculty and we are both caregivers; I can take 6-10 hours/week of leave to care for my husband without taking a pay decrease but she cannot. Why should we have different access to leave when we essentially do the same job? Why does my institution view it as more normal for me to need time off than for her?

Now that I do have access to leave, I’m able to make decisions about taking sick days for myself or to care for my husband without the added stress of worrying about how our finances will be impacted. Without leave, I would quite possibly become resentful about the high level of care my husband needs, or I would be regularly stretched too thin to be a good caregiver or a good professor. As it is, even with leave, I have had moments of burnout. Even with leave, I am judicious about taking it, and I typically bring work with me to my husband’s appointments so I can respond to student papers or plan a class in the few minutes between arriving at an appointment and being called in to see the doctor. I’m still aware that even with leave, there’s a perception at my institution that “good” employees don’t take leave.

This is exactly the attitude that was expressed by my colleague when she bragged that she hadn’t taken leave during her own or her mother’s health crises. She shared that story to highlight her devotion to her job and her professionalism, which she contrasted with the “less professional” attitudes of the faculty in her department who did take days off when they were ill. She did not express compassion for people who got ill, but rather, found fault with them. This is a class ableist thought: people who do not have ideal health are not as worthy as people who do or people who can pass as if they do. My colleague, remember, did not have ideal health and neither did her mother, but she worked hard to pass as if she and her mother did.

In an ableist model, getting ill or taking leave are framed as shameful, unprofessional, indicative of a lack of commitment to a job.

Even in the third story, which is a much happier story than the other two, there is the sticky point about whether a reduced service load while on leave can be negotiated. I am able to take leave, but the expectations for my service are not changed by me working less. In other words, I am still expected to do 100% of my service work, but in less time. Because of the privilege afforded me by being a full professor, I am not particularly worried about repercussions in my next review, but someone without tenure or someone hoping for a promotion would rightly worry.

In this situation, the ableist assumption seems to be something along the lines of, “We’re already giving you time off, now don’t put an unfair burden on your able-bodied colleagues by slacking on service.”

How do we change the culture around faculty leave? Here are my ideas:

  1. Fight for all employees to have access to paid leave. Yes, even adjunct instructors. Start from the assumption that people will get sick rather than from the assumption that they won’t.
  2. If you have access to leave, take it when you need it. The more normalized it becomes for people to take leave, the more normalized it becomes for people to take leave.
  3. When colleagues take leave, be supportive. Don’t question whether they “really” need the leave; assume that they do.
  4. Work to change retention, promotion, tenure, and other review policies to account for employees taking leave. Don’t treat the situation in which a colleague takes leave as an anomaly; plan for it.

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