Ignorance About 'Stop the Clock' Policies

January 6, 2009

The best of colleges' "family friendly" policies may be profoundly unfriendly if you tell new parents about them, but not other key people -- such as those who evaluate those new parents for tenure.

That's the conclusion of a new study on "stop the clock" policies for parents who are on the tenure track. The study comes from national surveys of economics departments and found that even as "stop the clock" has become a common practice, most tenure review committees never receive instructions not to count the time that the tenure clock was stopped in terms of expectations of the quantity of work that should have been performed by the candidate.

The lack of guidance is significant because some tenure review committee members evaluate candidates based on output in the years since they were hired on a probationary basis. Since professors who "stop the clock" will have spent more years at the institution since being hired, this approach could result in new parents being held to a higher standard than others, as the expectation would be that they would have published more, or pulled in more grants or whatever the criteria are at a given institution. Such an approach clashes with the theory behind stopping the clock.

In fact, the survey found that a minority of economics departments -- generally more than 5 percent -- have instructed tenure review committees to count that way, rather than the way the policy was intended. In four recent years for which the study analyzed departmental policies, between 25 and 50 percent of departments provided correct information to tenure review committees on what stopping the clock means. The more common approach was just to let the committees figure out the issue as they saw fit.

The study was released Monday at the American Economic Association by Saranna R. Thornton, a professor of economics at Hampden-Sydney College who is also chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession.

When tenure review committee members expect "an extra year's worth of research" for each year the tenure clock is stopped, "this is not stopping the tenure clock -- it is lengthening the clock -- a different kind of policy," writes Thornton.

In the paper, Thornton calls this data "the most important negative" in her review of stop the clock policies in economic departments. Further, she warns that unless tenure review committee members are given correct information about these policies, they are unlikely to have the desired impact of making it more realistic for those on the tenure track to balance their family and academic obligations.

The importance of stopping the clock, Thornton notes, is related to the way tenure reviews take place on set schedules -- typically six years after someone has been hired as an assistant professor. The idea behind stopping the clock is to free new parents from fear that they must be publishing or applying for grants at a time of profound change and pressure in their families. While the policies are open to men and women, female academics are more likely to use them. And Thornton notes that some academics who might benefit from stopping the clock already are reluctant to do so -- or do so with fear -- because they are afraid of a stigma around their records.

She calls for department heads and academic associations to take more steps to educate tenure review committees about how stopping the clock is supposed to work, so that professors can use the benefit without fear. "If tenure review committees are not given correct instructions regarding how to evaluate the record of a probationary professor, it doesn't matter if the tenure clock policies are formal or informal, if there are limits to the number of times that the policies can be used, or even what the utilization rates are," she writes. "Improper implementation of the policy subverts its likely effectiveness and consequently the likely utilization of the policies."

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