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Most institutions stopped junior faculty members’ tenure clocks for a semester or two when COVID-19 first hit the U.S., to account for research delays and increased caregiving demands at home. Far fewer institutions have adopted additional policies aimed at alleviating the continued burden on faculty members since then. That’s despite the personal and professional disruptions posed by new virus variants, the fact that professors with children under 5 still can’t get them vaccinated, ongoing uncertainty about international research travel and more.

Stanford University is among the few institutions to have offered formal support for professors beyond the initial tenure-clock stoppage: last winter, it made pretenure faculty members automatically eligible for a “post-pandemic” quarter devoted to research only (no teaching or service).

One year later, Stanford is offering junior faculty members an additional pretenure research leave quarter or an additional year on the tenure clock (for a total of two extra years). These professors are also eligible for financial help for childcare or other personal expenses, in the form of a taxable salary grant of up to $30,000, and small research grants of up to $10,000 or large research grants of up to $100,000.

“I very much hope that we can alleviate some of the burden and stress for those of you who have been significantly affected by the pandemic, so that you can focus on your research and your inspiring teaching, and at the same time feel supported as valued members of a vibrant Stanford community,” Persis Drell, Stanford’s provost, said in an announcement of these options.

Optional, Varied Supports for Those Who Need It Most

Drell said in an interview this week that there is no financial cap for the initiative and that anyone who demonstrates need for relief will get it. She said she also worked with junior colleagues on the framing of the initiative to “make sure that our faculty really understood that this was to help them and would be accessible to them, and they wouldn’t have any hesitation, if you will, for reaching out for these resources.”

Stanford resumed full campus operations in the fall (although instruction briefly went remote against this month due to an Omicron variant–driven surge in COVID-19 case numbers). Drell and the Faculty Senate hosted weekly free lunches for faculty members throughout the fall quarter, to welcome everyone back to campus and talk to professors about their concerns. What Drell heard, she said, is that faculty members “were super excited to be back in the classroom. They were delighted to have all the students back on campus, but it was really clear from those conversations that there were also—some of our untenured faculty, in particular—those who were still struggling.”

One professor shared concerns about mental health, after social isolation and major research delays, for instance. Another professor said it had been tough guiding Stanford students through online instruction while simultaneously taking care of small children at home. All these informal conversations led to Stanford’s new junior faculty support package.

Junior faculty members must apply for any or all of these supports; they are not automatic. This is in line with some expert advice against automatic tenure-clock stoppages, based on the argument that they can actually hurt those they’re meant to help in the form of delayed career progression and pay bumps. More broadly, the opt-in dynamic recognizes how the pandemic has affected different academics in different ways. Numerous studies have shown that women and caregivers—and women caregivers in particular—have had a particularly rough two years balancing work and home, and even different duties at work. The upshot of these data is that research takes a back seat when women faculty members go into personal and professional survival mode—and that’s not great for one’s tenure chances, or any other kind of career advancement.

Meanwhile, some professors—likely those without added caregiving responsibilities or other disruptions to their research—actually increased their scholarly productivity during the pandemic.

Drell’s announcement explicitly acknowledges this, saying, “Many faculty found the pandemic months very productive and may even feel that some of their research was accelerated by restricted travel and fewer distractions. This dichotomy brings up concerns of inequity at tenure/promotion evaluation time, which our appointments and promotions committees are working to address, along with the programs being announced here.”

Stanford’s new policy has been well received, including by tenured faculty members who aren’t eligible for this help.

‘Stanford’s Leadership in This Area’

Anne Joseph O’Connell, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and member of the Faculty Women’s Forum steering committee at Stanford, said she was “very pleased to see Stanford’s leadership in this area. Many, but not all, faculty members have suffered setbacks in their research during the pandemic, in large part because of increased childcare and student needs.”

Stanford’s Faculty Women’s Forum fielded a faculty satisfaction survey earlier in the pandemic, finding that 57 percent of all respondents (especially women, tenure-track professors, those caring for children and those at the lower end of the faculty pay scale) were “a lot more stressed.” Forty-five percent of respondents reported spending at least four more hours a day as a primary caregiver, and some 27 percent of respondents making between $100,000 and $150,000 annually said they were now more likely to leave Stanford post-COVID.

O’Connell said the forum is planning another survey for this spring about the pandemic’s continued effects, “to see what relief has been used and what still needs to be addressed.”

Midcareer, tenured professors, for example, “are also struggling,” O’Connell said. “My research has drastically slowed since the spring of 2020.”

And while the forum focuses on faculty members, she added, “we cannot forget graduate students, postdocs, staff and many others who are critical components of our universities.”

Asked about support for midcareer faculty members, among others, Drell recalled her fall conversations with professors, saying that the need was strongest among junior faculty members—and that these professors represent the “the future of the institution, so supporting them is supporting the long-term health of Stanford.”

Drell also referenced Stanford’s recent announcement of a 3 percent raise for all benefits-eligible faculty and staff members, effective in March, among other “affordability enhancements.”

“I believe because housing affordability is one of our greatest challenges … I really feel this will benefit midcareer faculty, as well,” she said of that change.

Stanford’s efforts have also attracted attention from outside the university. Makala Skinner, a senior analyst at Ithaka S&R who co-authored a 2021 study on faculty gender and caregiving during COVID-19, said, “What strikes me as particularly beneficial about the supports that Stanford is offering to faculty is the flexibility in their approach. Not everyone is having the same experience during the pandemic, and in fact there’s a lot of evidence illustrating the disparate effects of COVID-19. I think Stanford’s approach of offering multiple avenues for support is a good one. For some, financial support will be most crucial, while for others, extra time is more valuable.”

Skinner also praised this line of Drell’s announcement, saying it validates the “traumatic impact” of COVID-19 on many people: “For some faculty the losses and isolation of the pandemic have had an unanticipated and long-lasting emotional impact.”

Maya Sen, professor of public policy at Harvard University, highlighted Stanford’s announcement on social media, tweeting, “On how to support academic parents/caregivers, this is an incredible statement from Stanford that offers flexible research support, clock extensions, teaching relief, childcare $, inequities, etc. Kudos to Stanford. Hope other universities follow.”

Sen said in an interview, “This is probably one of the first proposals that I’ve seen from any kind of a research-oriented university that acknowledges that faculty are coming at this from very different kinds of needs.” Sen also said she appreciated Stanford’s approach of “you need to request this, because we want to make sure that people who need it are going to be the ones who get it.” Faculty interventions at this point in the pandemic, she added, are “not going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.”

Sen’s post on Twitter generated much discussion—including questions about whether Stanford will adjust its tenure standards when COVID-19–era assistant professors apply for promotion. In other words, as responsive as Stanford has been thus far, no support will fully make up for the challenges of the last two years, so how will that affect tenure decisions?

‘We Have to Sort of Reinvent Ourselves’

Asked about this, Drell said, “This is just an incredible moment on our history. And, just pulling back for a second, the way I describe the last two years of my life is that in higher ed, we know what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be teaching our students and doing our research. And the whole way in which we’ve been doing it has been totally disrupted, and we have to sort of reinvent ourselves.”

Drell continued, “We’re intending to make sure that when our current untenured faculty are evaluated for tenure, we remind ourselves and the external evaluators that they were faculty during the pandemic. I mean, it’s hard at the moment for me to think anyone would forget that, but we’ll make sure that they don’t forget.”

Conversations about Stanford’s new support package have also generated questions about why other institutions haven’t done the same. Sen said it’s clear that Stanford, as a well-off university, has much more money at its disposal than do other institutions. Yet she praised Stanford’s general efforts to survey and otherwise check in with faculty members about their pandemic experiences, and the centralized statement of support that is Drell’s announcement.

Sen also said she imagined there were less expensive ways for institutions to relieve faculty members, such as perhaps lowering enrollment caps on bigger classes by a few dozen students, or allowing midcareer faculty members to apply for post-pandemic sabbaticals; like O’Connell at Stanford, Sen said that many tenured professors have struggled to balance home and work—and especially research—during the past two years.

“Some people are really struggling with that, even though they have job security,” Sen said. “Without time for research, at a research institution, there’s really no prospect for advancement.”

Skinner, of Ithaka, said colleges and universities “should absolutely be taking creative steps to help support faculty.”

What that support looks like will need to be “tailored to the resources of the institution and the needs of their specific faculty population,” however, she added. “Particularly with enrollment down, many institutions will not have the financial resources to offer a research grant of $100,000 or a taxable salary grant of $30,000. But some institutions may be in a position to offer grants of $5,000 or $10,000. Or perhaps they may be able to offer time-based support by adding years onto their appointment or offering additional leave.”

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