A 'Stop the Clock' Penalty

Study finds faculty members who use the benefit are more likely than others to earn tenure -- but may end up earning less than comparable colleagues who don't. The biggest salary impact is on men.

June 14, 2012

As colleges and universities have moved to make themselves more "family friendly" to parents, "stop the clock" policies have proliferated. As a benefit, a new parent -- female or male, although generally more women use the benefit -- can have an extra year before the tenure review. The idea is that the additional time demands of becoming a new parent are bound to make it more difficult for a scholar to finish the next book, land the next grant or do whatever is expected before promotion.

As more colleges have adopted these policies, many of those who would be eligible for the extra year have debated whether to take it. Some have feared that their reputations would be diminished in the eyes of their departments, particularly at research universities with high expectations about publication and grants. Research being presented today at the inaugural meeting of the Work and Family Researchers Network suggests that these new parents have reason to worry. In a large study of multiple cohorts of tenure-track faculty members at an unnamed research university, scholars found that while stopping the clock appears to help junior professors win tenure, it also appears to result in a salary penalty -- in which those who have stopped the clock end up earning less than those who did not, one year out and several years out. The salary penalty is most evident for men.

While considerable qualitative research exists about stop-the-clock policies and their popularity, there have been few longitudinal studies on their impact. The researchers who conducted the study -- Colleen Manchester and Lisa M. Leslie of the University of Minnesota, and Amit Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- believe that their study points to a potential weakness in stop-the-clock policies that departments and colleges need to confront for their efforts to be successful. And two experts on family-friendly policies in academe who were not involved in the research said that they thought the findings were significant and worrisome, deserving widespread attention.

While the new research is from one university, it is based on five separate cohorts of tenure-track faculty members hired between 1998 and 2002. The researchers also wanted to be sure that any apparent disparities could not be attributed to research productivity (outside the issue of the year of the stopped clock). So the new study included analysis of how many books (in book disciplines) and articles (in journal disciplines) the professors and comparison groups had published. So when discussing salary gaps, the researchers are comparing people who have roughly comparable publishing records (in volume). The focus was on 334 faculty members, of whom 51 stopped the clock once and 13 did so more than once.

The study found that a year following a stopped tenure clock (which, in theory, is not supposed to have an impact on how faculty members are evaluated) those who stopped the clock were paying an apparent salary penalty of 3.1 percent compared to colleagues similar in other ways who did not stop the clock. The gap persists for several years, with men suffering a greater salary gap than women.

At the same time, the study found a positive relationship between stopping the clock and earning tenure. And the study found that those who stopped the clock used the additional year to bring their publications in line with their colleagues who did not stop the clock. So the policy could be a success in that it apparently helps people build up their tenure dossiers, and they then are more likely to win that ultimate academic promotion.

The researchers worry that the apparent salary penalty could discourage people from stopping the clock, and write that it is important to understand why those who stop the clock have this experience.

In an interview, Minnesota's Manchester said that the researchers see two factors likely at play. They believe some departments view stopping the clock as "a signal of competing commitments," and that research universities may prefer to think of their junior professors committed only to doing more and better research. This may explain the harsher impact on male professors who stop the clock, she said, in that departments may be even less tolerant of new fathers' split commitments than they are of new mothers'. These attitudes are unfair, she stressed, but they could explain the salary gap.

So why wouldn't these biases show up in tenure decisions? "Evaluators know that the promotion decision is highly scrutinized," Manchester said. At the university studied (as at most research universities) tenure reviews start at the departmental level, but then go up for review by other committees and senior administrators, with detailed reports accompanying each review. Decisions on the relative raises to individual faculty members don't get nearly that much scrutiny, she said.

As a result, she suggested, colleges should make sure that "there is more objectivity in the salary-setting process" so that candidates who have stopped the clock and those who haven't (and who demonstrate similar research productivity) receive similar raises. "It's important to look for implicit bias," she said, and scrutiny of the justifications of raise decisions can either identify or discourage bias.

Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about work-life balance issues and diversity issues in academe, called the findings "horrible," but said she was talking about the implications for faculty members, not the quality of the research. "I think this is very significant. I hear all the time about people who fear stopping the tenure clock and I'm afraid this will result in people not stopping the tenure clock."

Fixing this problem could be very difficult, she said. Wolf-Wendel said that she fears professors are being punished for the year when they have stopped the clock -- a year in which they are supposed to be entitled to "some reduced productivity" -- even when they catch up in terms of publications and other research measures. She suggested that departments base raises on three-year rolling periods of research productivity, which might result in less emphasis on what one did during the year the clock was stopped.

Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, at Harvard University, said she too was concerned about the findings. "It sounds like stopping the clock is being used against people, even though their record is the same" as those who do not stop the clock. Trower said it was important to publicize such findings and to "raise awareness" about the potential that well intentioned policies like stopping the clock do not have negative impacts on people's careers (such as through salary penalties).

Trower, who at COACHE has done extensive research on the factors that make colleges and universities more or less supportive of young faculty members, said that stopping the clock should be an outstanding benefit. So she said she hoped the research would inspire more study on factors that might make the benefit more effective. "This needs to be a valued option," she said.




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