Unique program helps recruit and retain the best faculty talent
Of the many meetings on Jadrian Wooten’s schedule as he interviewed for a collegiate faculty position in the Department of Economics, this one surprised him: a 30-minute appointment with a work-life liaison.
What exactly, he wondered, was a work-life liaison?
He found out in the half-hour Zoom meeting with Lizette Zietsman, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and then a work-life liaison in the College of Science.
Zietsman offered a primer on Virginia Tech’s work-life programs, policies, and culture, including dual-career resources, tenure clock extensions, parental leave and modified duties, commitment to diversity, and community resources.
She also offered to answer, confidentially and honestly, Wooten’s questions about Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, from “What are the students like?” to “Where can I get good Thai food around here?”
Since a yearning for better work-life balance had sent Wooten and his wife, Pitchayaporn Tantihkarnchana, back to the academic job market after years at Penn State, the work-life liaison meeting indicated to Wooten that Virginia Tech’s priorities mirrored his own. “It showed that the university spent money to set aside people toward talking about it,” Wooten said. “I hadn't seen that at any other university.”
In fact, the 10-year-old work-life liaison program, led by the Office of Faculty Affairs, in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, is a unique creation of Virginia Tech. Currently 18 faculty members from across the university serve as work-life liaisons, which last year meant meeting with 360 faculty job candidates to answer the crucial questions they often feel they can’t ask their search committee:
- How many people get tenure?
- What are your maternity leave policies?
- How can my partner find a job too?
- What are the public schools like in Blacksburg?
- What’s it like to fly out of the Roanoke airport?
- Where should I live?
- How can I find child care?
“That's some of the most important information in the decision-making process for a candidate,” said program director Rachel Gabriele, assistant provost for faculty initiatives and policies. “Those questions are the things that are going to make or break faculty hiring.”
Key to the program’s success is that work-life liaisons act as ambassadors for Virginia Tech — but dispassionate, impartial ones.
They aren’t part of the search committee nor even the hiring department, meaning they don’t have a horse in the race, so to speak. “There's not really a vested interest in me trying to sell them Virginia Tech,” said Quinton Nottingham, a department head for business information technology and a work-life liaison for Pamplin College of Business.
Instead, they honestly share information, said Gabriele, “so that the faculty member can make an informed decision about whether to come here or not.”
In their private meetings with candidates, liaisons present a wealth of resources about everything from work-life policies to guides to hiking trails and local religious communities — the kind of information that would take a half-dozen phone calls and hours of web research to track down at other universities.
Without the obligation to be a cheerleader, they also talk openly about their own experiences, good and bad (though liaisons are generally content at Virginia Tech). “If I'm meeting with a Black candidate, and they're like, ‘Well, so, how's it been here as a Black person?’ I share that I like it here,” said Nottingham. “And if I didn't like it then I probably wouldn't be here for so long. They understand that.”
At monthly meetings with faculty affairs administrators, work-life liaisons report on broad faculty concerns, offering a powerful source of insight into the needs of faculty and an impetus to create change.
For instance, when liaisons were asked again and again about affordable housing, Gabriele invited Matt Hanratty, Blacksburg’s assistant town manager and director of housing services, to present to the group about housing issues in the town.
The Office of Faculty Affairs didn’t stop there. Gabriele joined housing committees with the Town of Blacksburg and Montgomery County. “Before this, the Office of Faculty Affairs wouldn't have necessarily involved ourselves in housing conversations because it’s beyond our purview at the university," she said. "But from those conversations, we’re now working on affordable housing programs. It makes us advocate for improvements as much as we can.”
To Marie Paretti, a professor of engineering education and a former work-life liaison in the College of Engineering, “the real opportunity to be an advocate” and elevate work-life issues such as child care or post-Covid relief made her 10 years in the role her most meaningful campus service. “The fact that Ron [Fricker, vice provost for faculty affairs,] and Rachel listen, try to take action, and raise issues when and where they can, that's super valuable. I really appreciate faculty affairs and their engagement in this whole process.”
Even for current faculty members, liaisons can be useful.
Madeline Schreiber, a professor of geosciences and a work-life liaison for the College of Science, is occasionally contacted by faculty in the College of Science who want a refresher on modified duties when they’re expecting a baby. “Liaisons are a point of contact in the college who can remind people of what the programs and policies are,” she said.
No one would argue that work-life balance has been perfected at Virginia Tech. Some programs and policies work better in theory than in practice. Even a decade in, a few search committee chairs question why job candidates have to spend 30 minutes on a work-life liaison meeting.
But the liaisons regularly hear that Virginia Tech is the only place they’ve ever encountered with a program like this. “I think it's important not just in recruiting, but in building a culture at Virginia Tech in which more and more people are thinking about work-life balance,” said Paretti.
It was a game-changer for Wooten and Tantihkarnchana. It’s not the only reason they both accepted collegiate faculty positions in the Department of Economics, but it made it a lot easier to say yes.
For more information on Virginia Tech's work-life liaison program, see Rachel Gabriele's Inside Higher Ed op-ed, "Ask Us Anything."