Applying an Equity Lens to COVID Impact Statements

Documenting the pandemic’s effect, especially on women faculty and those of color, is vital, write Donna Riley and Mangala Subramaniam, who offer advice on how to assess such statements.

November 12, 2021
 
 

In recent months, we’ve been hearing much discussion about how the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests for racial justice have impacted people across the world. It’s clear by now that these forces will continue to have long-term ramifications within academe. In fact, documenting the effects that they’ve had, and will continue to have, on faculty members is vital. That’s especially the case for women and faculty of color, which also means that the college leaders evaluating them should interpret such documentation in an equitable way.

How can you best assess a faculty member’s COVID impact statement using an equity lens? We will try to answer that question in this essay by providing promotion committees some points to consider when reviewing such statements. We hope it will be helpful, as concerns have surfaced about how chairs and members of promotion committees will evaluate impact statements. Will they be compassionate and value people’s efforts to recalibrate to a new reality during an unprecedented time? Or will they dismiss any impact statement as an inappropriate plea for accommodation from a faculty member—or a reflection that person just hasn’t been resilient enough?

Many colleges and universities have created guidelines for reviewing impact statements, and best practices for such documentation have been provided through the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University. But we frequently hear questions about whether and how faculty member should document the impact of COVID-19 and how senior administrators and promotion committees should view them.

Meanwhile, faculty continue to experience challenges brought on by the pandemic. The drop in female academics’ research productivity during the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak was clearly reflected in the decline in women’s submissions to journals. This has partly been attributed to women’s role in caregiving even before the pandemic. Some people have also blamed women’s disproportionate service roles and the emotional labor they do. None of this changed substantially months into the pandemic in the U.S., or has since, which was confirmed again in a formal study. The productivity of faculty members, especially women, continues to decline due to shifting demands on faculty time, effort and priorities. And without meaningful acknowledgment and interventions, the trend is likely to continue.

For example, some institutions have provided accommodations in response to COVID by extending the tenure clock, but that may, in practice, be a setback for women. And continuing responsibilities for the care of families and others, as well as adjusting to new modes of teaching and additional mentoring or service needs, will very likely continue to limit some faculty members’ time for research. Women of color, in particular, face higher burdens as they, their families and their communities face higher risks of exposure to COVID. Vulnerable faculty members, such as primary caregivers, must balance full-time employment with childcare or elder care. Such faculty are also likely to be uncomfortable articulating their changing needs due to COVID-19.

In short, intersectional inequalities—of gender, race, ethnicity, health status and immigration status, among others—influence both the effects of the pandemic and the ability of various faculty members to voice those effects. Thus we’ve developed some examples of the types of areas that senior administrators and promotion committees should review, along with the questions they should ask, when it comes to evaluating their faculty members’ COVID impact statements.

Reallocation of time, effort and priorities. How did the faculty member reallocate their time to the key areas of research, teaching and service?

No. 1: Research. Consider the ways in which the faculty member had to readjust their time or shift their priorities for research, due to constraints such as: availability of lab space, supplies for lab-related experiments, travel restrictions on field research and data collection, lack of access to subjects for interviews other than virtual, longer-than-normal review times for publications, or shifts in timing for funding opportunities. For example, perhaps the faculty member:

  • Had to rely on already collected data to write for publication or to revise existing drafts for submission.
  • Lacked lab access to generate preliminary results for grant applications
  • Experienced travel limitations to conferences in the early part of the pandemic and presented only at virtual conferences in the later part of the pandemic.
  • Found that requests for proposals on some topics were withdrawn or canceled as COVID-related topics became a priority.

Depending on type of research—lab, field, archival, digital—what specific constraints along these lines did the faculty member experience? How did they adjust their research, writing, publishing? Consider those adjustments in light of new priorities, as well as innovation, as the faculty member’s responses may hold within them new avenues for future scholarly pursuits.

No. 2: Teaching. Note the time the faculty member spent in moving lectures to the virtual mode in the first months of the pandemic. Also pay attention to:

  • Any changes in virtual teaching platforms and the time and effort the faculty member had to invest in restructuring courses and syllabi, readjusting service learning and study abroad courses, or redesigning labs for the virtual mode.
  • Inordinate time the faculty member spent in responding to student emails given face-to-face meetings weren’t possible in the first six months of the pandemic.
  • Whether the faculty member had to spend time navigating new COVID-prevention rules and accommodating escalating and evolving student needs.

No. 3: Service. Recognize that demands for faculty to perform committee work and other forms of service have heightened significantly. For instance, campus safety committees have often worked many additional hours. Diversity, equity and inclusion committees have invested much more time and effort in planning rapid responses, revisiting strategic plans or creating additional development opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Thus, it’s important to:

  • Be aware that service to one’s profession during the pandemic often has meant significant additional effort. To cite just two examples, conference program chairs have had to retool programs that moved online, and associate editors have often had to work much harder to find available reviewers for journal submissions.
  • Acknowledge service to the institution that the faculty member may have undertaken on an ad hoc or hidden basis—such as convening a faculty development circle to share best practices for transitioning online, or supporting students in crisis.

New responsibilities. What new responsibilities did the faculty member take on, and how did they deal with them?

  • Keep in mind that any such new responsibilities probably required the faculty member to invest greater effort, effort, creativity and time to accomplish certain tasks or milestones.
  • Recognize that many of these new undertakings have involved significant ingenuity, novelty, innovation and new emergent practices that deserve scholarly recognition, even if the faculty member hasn’t had sufficient time or an appropriate venue to formalize these achievements.

Changing institutional priorities. How did the balance among teaching, research and service shift to meet crucial institutional priorities during the pandemic?

  • Consider shifts in people’s time and effort to support changing mentee needs or student learning, including new or exacerbated challenges to student success.
  • Be open to recalibrating contributions across these areas, as general rules or expectations for time allocation across teaching, research and service often could not be met or sustained during the seismic shifts brought on by the pandemic.

Greater demands for care work. During COVID, how have shifts in work-life circumstances and greater demands on the faculty member to care for family and others impacted their contributions to the institution and its mission? Consideration of such care work is vital, and promotion committees should be attentive to the issues that many faculty have continued to face.

  • Determine whether the faculty member has spent increased time supporting colleagues and students, as well as caring for their children, elderly relatives and other family members. Such responsibilities always existed, but they have been exacerbated by disruptions to availability or safety of childcare or elder-care services.
  • Consider how care work along these lines has impacted the faculty member’s scholarship, teaching arrangements and service work.

In sum, the review of a faculty member’s COVID impact statement and record must be rooted in equity, considering the disparate effects of COVID-19. As the consequences of the pandemic will be felt for several years, higher education leaders must learn to recognize and fairly consider relevant but potentially invisible impacts.

Bio

Donna Riley is Kamyar Haghighi Head and professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Mangala Subramaniam is professor and Butler Chair and director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University. She also serves as state co-director of the American Council on Education’s Women’s Network of Indiana.

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