When I did a Google image search for “equity,” this was the first hit. I’ve seen this sort of picture before, and you probably have too. Given the Interaction Institute for Social Change has made the image freely available for use, it probably has appeared on every university campus in America during some presentation on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
(Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire. interactioninstitute.org; madewithangus.com)
The message of the cartoon is clear: Rigidly identical standards may perpetuate inequity if we don’t account for differences across personal circumstances.
With this in mind, I’d like to consider how universities are approaching the tenure and promotion process during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common response seems to be allowing assistant professors to extend their tenure clock by a year. However, this may create inequity for those on the tenure track, particularly for those in groups already underrepresented in the professoriate.
Recently, members of the University of Massachusettes ADVANCE team, a group “focusing on offering equitable campus support for faculty members and fostering inclusion amid major shifts to higher education and deep uncertainty about the future,” proposed a series of recommendations for helping faculty navigate COVID. Regarding tenure, they recommended:
Automatically delay tenure, promotion and reviews. Institutions should immediately slow the timing of decisions on tenure and reappointment to account for the new and unexpected tasks faculty members have had to shoulder. COVID-19 has affected research productivity in many ways, resulting in reduced access to labs, travel cancellations and suspension of human-subjects research, among other issues. Tenure delays can help mitigate such negative effects of COVID-19 on women faculty, who are already navigating gender biases in evaluation processes.https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/09/04/advice-academic-administrators-how-best-support-faculty-during-pandemic-opinion
Let’s break this down. The first sentence observes that tenure-track faculty have encountered novel demands on their time and energy. In other words, assistant professors haven’t been vacationing during the pandemic. At my university, our Provost emphasized in an email to all faculty that the pandemic is “mandating our intense focus on teaching during all of 2020,” acknowledging “our planned progress on scholarship may be slowed.” In addition to whatever demands the pandemic has imposed on their personal lives, assistant professors have set aside research in order to train and transition to distance learning and hybrid classrooms.
Increased teaching workload isn’t the only challenge to research progress. The ADVANCE team notes that assistant professors often receive diminished research support from their universities, as well as more limited opportunities to collect data, present papers, and network with colleagues. For those whose scholarship requires longitudinal research, travel abroad, or field visits, the effect may be so devastating that assistant professors must reinvent their research programs.
Moreover, these burdens aren’t experienced equally across the professoriate. The pandemic appears to reduce the research productivity of women, perhaps because they are more likely to bear household and childcare responsibilities. The pandemic itself has hit ethnic/racial minority communities particularly hard, and faculty from underrepresented groups may face greater barriers to research productivity during the pandemic than their white peers.
Thus, in the classic equity image above, the tall person on the left may represent tenured faculty, who experienced plenty of financial support and opportunities for research without the calamity wrought by a global pandemic. Some fortunate assistant professors may be like the person in the middle, lacking that same support yet possessing research programs and personal privileges that enable them to weather the pandemic’s effects. And other assistant professors, perhaps especially women and members of racial/ethnic minorities, may be so burdened by the pandemic’s demands that they are like the person on the right who can’t see over the fence.
The solution offered by the ADVANCE team is to extend the tenure clock, and the University of Massachusetts isn’t alone in that recommendation. Several universities, including my own, are enacting similar policies (University of Washington, for example). The logic seems to run along these lines: Perhaps the tenure and promotion guidelines recommend ten publications in peer-reviewed journals, but due to the pandemic, an assistant professor will only have eight publications by the time the clock expires. An extra year could make up for the year lost to the pandemic, enabling them to reach that threshold of ten publications.
At first glance, this may appear like equity as depicted in the picture—faculty receive more time than usual, in the hope that after that bonus year they’ll rise to the standard. Although well intentioned, this solution may not work for all tenure-track faculty, and it may facilitate inequity rather than curbing it.
Tenure and promotion mean many things in the life of a professor. Promotion often brings a pay raise, perhaps a substantial one. Beyond finances, obtaining tenure affords status and prestige in one’s discipline. It brings greater freedom to express opinions on controversial matters, both academic and institutional. Of course, it affords job security, which is becoming ever rarer in academia and may be under particular threat during the pandemic.
Delaying tenure means delaying all of these things. Even a retroactive pay bump, which the ADVANCE team suggests, doesn’t fully ameliorate that. Moreover, an extra year on the clock may not be enough to revive research programs strongly affected by the pandemic.
An extra year fails to acknowledge the challenging work assistant professors have already given to their universities. The current cohort of tenure-track faculty, which is more racially diverse than cohorts in the past, has shifted their research to teaching and service, and done so quickly and unexpectedly. Many have done this while navigating increased demands in their personal lives. Resources and opportunities for scholarship are more limited than they were even a year ago. For some, the pandemic may make it difficult or impossible to restart their prior research programs.
And yet their tenured colleagues and administrators, a less diverse group who did not face these challenges, still wants to hold today’s assistant professors to the same standard of productivity. Perhaps that is like the person on the left wondering why the person on the right can’t see the game. Giving a year extension may be like handing that person a pair of binoculars rather than a box on which to stand.
Although a year delay in the tenure clock may serve the interests of some faculty, for others it is an incomplete solution that ‘rewards’ overworked faculty, who may feel the effects of burnout, with the ‘opportunity’ to do another year of work before they receive the fruit of their labor.
A more equitable solution might consider the faculty member’s individual circumstances, including the nature of their research program and the effect of the pandemic on it. Institutions could require faculty members to include a statement about this in their tenure and promotion application (and ask those evaluating the application to consider it). Likewise, external review letters might include that information, as well as guidance on how the pandemic has influenced the institution’s research support and work priorities.
An alternative approach has received little consideration, as far as I can tell: Rather than affording faculty an extra year to reach the standard, perhaps it is time to reconsider the standard in light of our unusual circumstances.
A recent article quoted Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University: “What difference does it make if we say, ‘Instead of having 20 publications, you need to have 15’? We have total control over what this looks like, and if we don’t want people to be burned out, why don’t we adjust our expectations a bit in light of what’s happening around us?”
One objection involves the precedent this might create. To that point, for the sake of equity, perhaps we should reconsider standards again if we ever encounter another situation as pervasive, deleterious, and demanding as the pandemic. Another objection could be that relaxing tenure standards may weaken the perceived prestige of the school, but this line of thought conflates research output with faculty quality. When circumstances improve, so will productivity of all faculty.
Some might observe that delaying tenure could help university budgets in the short term during a time of fiscal crisis. Yet balancing institutional finances on the backs of junior faculty would serve as clear evidence of inequity across professional ranks and roles.
During the pandemic, assistant professors have shouldered much of the labor that is keeping universities afloat in these turbulent waters. Considering all possible ways to adjust the tenure process equitably signals to assistant professors that universities value that work. For many, and particularly those from traditionally underrepresented groups, such adjustments could be the stack of boxes that will let them see the game. Without such equity, we risk diminishing the future contributions of an entire generation of assistant professors.