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Over the last year, faculty members have experienced enormous disruptions to their work and lives. Report after report documents the challenges the pandemic has brought, as well as the uneven impacts of the crisis on women, caregivers, early-career scholars and faculty of color. One recent report details the particular challenges that women caregivers confront. Another report, issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, warns that without appropriate intervention, women’s gains in STEMM may soon be rolled back.
As members of the National Science Foundation-funded UMass ADVANCE team, which focuses on long-term gender and racial equity in STEM, we believe that colleges and universities must adopt a number of measures to avoid an unnecessary loss of talented and hardworking faculty members. We have previously described our TREE model, which emphasizes how institutions can think ahead, provide needed resources, recalibrate evaluations and focus on equity. As we argue, cultivating the ground in the right ways can help ensure that faculty members grow through the pandemic rather than experience blighted careers.
Here, we lay out four concrete steps to best implement that model, including the most important ones that institutional leaders can take to create equitable systems for supporting faculty.
Create clear communication flows. Communication is incredibly challenging in a pandemic. But a number of communication flows must be tended consistently to ensure that universities acknowledge and address the difficulties that faculty are experiencing.
First, faculty members must be able to talk to both their colleagues and administrators about issues regarding access to their research sites, advising challenges, teaching online and leadership. Such conversations are vital. They allow for recognition and sincere demonstrations of compassion, while also providing necessary information to decision makers. Specific personal stories can elicit effective responses. Surveys and other forms of data collection can also be useful, particularly when anonymized.
The truth is that faculty members experience the pandemic in very different ways. One person may feel that they have more time for research and that teaching is no more challenging online. Others may be in fields in which conducting their research is impossible and their teaching has been dramatically impaired. Unless faculty members can communicate honestly among themselves and with administrators, institutions will be unable to craft the right kinds of supports and revise deleterious practices. Our provost and two deans played a powerful role at a June 2020 ADVANCE-sponsored town hall with faculty members in ensuring that our university’s response was effective -- in large part by listening to concerns submitted anonymously.
A number of universities and higher education systems have established task forces and committees to address the effects of the pandemic. For example, the University of Denver has a COVID-19 Accommodations Committee, while the University of Wisconsin system has a Caregiving Task Force. These bodies identify the challenges, recommend best practices and ensure a transparent communication flow.
At the same time, administrators must clearly communicate to midlevel leaders across the campus any policy changes and efforts to address the pandemic’s impacts. Provosts or deans should discuss changes with department chairs as well as the committees charged with evaluating faculty progress. Good policies, such as pandemic impact statements, only work if the institution adopts them evenly and if evaluations seem fair. Where leaders are transparent about their equity goals and emphasize impartial implementation, outcomes are better.
At the same time, department leaders should also be communicating clearly with faculty. For example, evaluation committees can create statements about how the pandemic has impacted their discipline, including them in any reviews. In some institutions, tenured department members have held votes to ensure that faculty will not be blamed for the pandemic impacts on their record. By promoting transparent and compassionate communication, such practices are both reassuring and clarifying for colleagues who are preparing for reappointment, tenure or promotion processes.
Offer supports. As our TREE model suggests, universities must provide a range of supports for faculty members. Those include offering automatic tenure delays as well as giving individual faculty members the opportunity to create their own impact statements about how their research, teaching, mentoring and service have been affected.
Pandemic impact statements can provide lasting documentation of the enormous disruptions that may well be forgotten in a few years but could still thwart a faculty member’s career development. One fear that faculty members have is that these statements will create more work. Thus, we strongly recommend that universities identify how to document the impacts, provide examples or templates that faculty can adapt, hold online pandemic statement writing sessions where faculty can ask questions, and emphasize that these statements need not include excessive documentation.
Another important support is automatic tenure delays. Why automatic? In the pandemic, it can be overwhelming for a faculty member to have to request a delay and expose the challenges they’re grappling with, particularly if those challenges are personal in nature (for example, getting COVID, caring for sick family members, supporting children who cannot go to school or losing friends and family members to COVID). Making delays automatic means that every faculty member has one. Anyone who wants to come up at the traditional time can simply move up the date without providing any justification.
While some institutions offered automatic tenure delays in spring 2020, they have not always followed through with such delays for 2021-22 -- even though faculty are facing the same challenges. Others only allow faculty to petition for delays, while still others have offered nothing at all. But we’ve found such delays can give faculty members a great deal of peace of mind. We also recommend that universities further attend to equity issues by backdating pay raises that come with tenure to the original tenure date. That way, we won’t see salary differentials over any faculty member’s career that reflect gendered or racialized pandemic effects.
Another approach is to recalibrate evaluations so as to judge faculty on the quality of their work and productivity vis-à-vis their working conditions (access to research, teaching modality and so forth). Monash University refers to this assessment framework as “achievement relative to opportunity.” Recalibrating still allows faculty members to come up for tenure at the regular time, while acknowledging how the pandemic may have disrupted their efforts.
Another way that many universities have already recalibrated evaluation in the pandemic is through the cessation of teaching evaluations during the pandemic or not including such evaluations in personnel records. At the same time, there have been multiple calls to value the important contributions faculty have made in recent months in the areas of teaching and leadership. Ultimately, all evaluators -- faculty colleagues, external reviewers and administrators -- must understand what it means to contextualize faculty performance in relation to their specific working conditions.
Train for equity. Leaders and faculty members need training in any changes in institutional procedures or adjustments in performance expectations. Just as STRIDE training has helped ensure that universities engage in equitable recruitment procedures, universities need to provide trainings to help supervisors fairly evaluate faculty members whose careers have been hampered by the pandemic. As a University of Michigan report notes, “Do not let the 25 percent of faculty able to be more productive during the global pandemic set the standard for the 75 percent who are not able to do so.”
We have encouraged universities to use pandemic impact statements to communicate about how the specifics of their work have been shaped by the pandemic. We also appreciate efforts to create pandemic impact statements that capture how disciplines have been affected. The idea is that this documentation can help inform evaluations now, as well as in the future. Evaluators also need guidance about how to consider these statements in assessing faculty. But pandemic impact statements won’t work if chairs discourage faculty from filling them out or evaluators disregard them.
This also means that internal and external evaluators need clear guidance. Personnel committees should discuss issues of bias before beginning deliberations and be educated about the differential impacts of the pandemic. We know from research on tenure delays for care that certain faculty members should not be treated as if they had longer probationary periods. Clearly laying out these terms to evaluators leads to more consistent treatment.
At the same time, universities should not ask external evaluators to compare a candidate to other faculty members. It has never been true that faculty members across the country all share the same access to resources, have the same teaching loads and have the same research or teaching assistance. Thus, comparisons have always been problematic and are significantly more so now, when faculty have experienced significantly different working conditions simply as a result of living through a pandemic.
Stay flexible. Universities must show flexibility in how they respond to faculty needs. Because faculty members do not all experience the pandemic in exactly the same way, one approach simply can’t serve all faculty members equally. Approaching issues flexibly, through an iterative process that emphasizes communication at all stages, is vital for ensuring that institutions take the steps needed to retain excellent faculty whose careers have been disrupted by the pandemic through no fault of their own.
Flexibility is challenging, as many faculty and administrators see equal treatment as central to the university. But adopting an equity framework is more useful. Rather than treating everyone the same, no matter of how they were affected, an equity framework asks us to provide what a faculty member needs given their specific experience. A dance professor whose performances have been canceled for the past year may need a different solution than an anthropologist who cannot go to their field site and does not know when travel there will be safe.
As Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian note, no faculty member has ever enacted the professor role exactly like any other, and “There are many different ways of doing a good job and being valuable to the institution.” This remains as true as ever in our current context.
Our goal is to ensure that institutions recognize -- and allow for -- the varying impacts of the pandemic on diverse faculty careers.