We have to do better than pausing the tenure clock.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of our daily lives: going to campus, seeing our students and having regular access to our labs, equipment and colleagues down the hall. Of course, child- and eldercare have also been thrown for a loop with impromptu homeschooling and the closure of adult day-care facilities.
With all of this madness, college and university administrators across the country have turned to an increasingly used tool to help faculty members deal with setbacks in teaching or research: pausing the tenure clock for them. While clearly well-intentioned, institutions have not thoroughly examined the cost of such measures and how they might actually exacerbate both racial and gender inequalities. Nor have they considered alternative policies that might provide the same relief without causing an undue financial burden on already vulnerable faculty.
Perhaps one of the first questions someone examining this issue might ask is: Who is most likely to pause their tenure clock? The answer will probably be faculty members with research agendas that the COVID epidemic has negatively impacted. An early look into this topic shows that women have been disproportionately affected. Many faculty members working from home as a result of the current pandemic have also had to reckon with the burdens of home life, including raising children, taking care of elderly family members and cooking and cleaning. Many of those tasks are more demanding than ever, given the lack of external support from K-12 schools, childcare programs or paid helpers at home.
Every woman with a successful career reminds us that the secret to balancing work and life is understanding that it takes a village. Yet during the lockdown, the village we built may be inaccessible, while the responsibilities and expectations have often increased -- and women academics will usually be the people who shoulder them.
In addition, discussions about proposed adjustments to the tenure clock have raised the issue of the limited validity of student evaluations of courses that were abruptly transferred online after campuses closed. A key issue with those evaluations specifically concerns women faculty members or those of color. Research shows that times of crisis correlate with increased xenophobia and racist attacks. As such, we may also witness magnified student biases in terms of their evaluations of courses that diverse faculty members teach. Hence, it would be inconceivable to assume “sameness” and “objectiveness” in the review without taking into consideration those potential biases.
Last, in the wake of COVID-19, colleges and universities will be more reliant on faculty service for a multitude of operations. Research reveals that women and faculty of color are the most likely to undertake a disproportionate amount of service, and, as such, their workload will probably increase even after returning to their campuses. They are also the most likely to be underpaid for their work across disciplines.
Given all this, we should examine how these pauses might hurt the very faculty members they are meant to help. For example, consider a hypothetical case where a tenure-track faculty member starts at a university and receives annual raises of 3 percent with $5,000 raises upon promotion -- a fairly typical compensation structure. Let’s assume that the faculty member receives promotion to full professor after five years of service as an associate professor. In this case, a single one-year pause could lead to decreased earning of almost $18,000 over a 30-year career, according to our estimates. If the faculty member takes two yearlong pauses -- perhaps for family leave and then separately for COVID-19 -- that person would lose more than $35,000 in income over the same period, according to our estimates.
The American Association of University Professors notes that tenure “actually serves society and the common good by protecting the quality of teaching and research and thus the integrity of institutions of higher education.” Given the unprecedented context, colleges and universities should invest in a more complete mapping of how the pandemic directly impacts women faculty and faculty of color in order to offer alternative models for review that are fair and comprehensive. Evaluation criteria must recognize the pandemic’s differential impact on women and faculty of color and should ascribe equal value to the range of faculty responsibilities, acknowledging how each contributes to the university’s success. Surely, at this crucial moment in time, meaningful service that advances an institution’s mission, helps attract or retain students, and furthers positive change through outreach and community improvements should be counted as much as traditional scholarship.
Academics have long decried the cruel inconsistency between healthy -- and equitable -- living and the tenure-track process. The tenure process sends a clear message: life-altering events such as parenthood, divorce or a pandemic unlike any humanity has encountered in the last century shouldn’t affect research output or teaching evaluations. Times of crisis can usher in revolutionary change and if we owe these faculty and the communities they serve anything, it is the reimagining and enactment of a more equitable tenure review process.
Instead of pausing the tenure clock, let us really think what an equitable tenure process looks like. Part of that should be that life cannot, and should not, be put on hold for the professoriate. Life happens: babies happen, marriage happens, illness happens, unforeseen crises happen. Let us be vigilant that our solutions do not exacerbate already existing inequalities -- and instead be thoughtful and helpful in our responses.