Delaying the Tenure Clock May Be an Inequitable Response to COVID-19

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.

The Palantír Effect

I’m almost finished with a re-read of The Lord of the Rings. Wow, what an amazing novel! (I’ll call it a ‘novel’, singular, because Tolkien really wrote it as a single book, which his publisher later split into three.) I’ve seen so much more in the books as an adult than I did as a high schooler. One of those things I’ve gained is a name—a name for an effect of communication technology that I’ve talked about for years with my students.

To explain the effect, here’s a little quiz. Can you name:

  1. Your city’s mayor?
  2. Your representative to your state legislature?
  3. The important news stories in your local area?
  4. Your next door neighbors?

Maybe you’re one of the few that knows a lot about each of these. But that’s not most of us. Although I don’t have statistics to back this up, my guess is that the average person knows more about the president than they do their own mayor (I mean, at least they can name the president!), and more about their Facebook friends than they do about their neighbors.

This is the effect: communication technology shifts our attention from the local to the distant. I now call it the palantír effect.

What is a palantír (plural palantíri)? In The Lord of the Rings, it is a magical sphere. The person who looks into one can see things far away and communicate with someone who holds another palantír. In Middle-earth, only seven palantíri exist. In our earth, I think we each carry a little palantír in our purse or pocket.

Yes, part of the reason I like this metaphor is because I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart… I can’t deny that. I also like the moral complexity of the metaphor. In Tolkien’s work, we see both good and bad effects of the use of palantíri. Regarding good, Aragorn used a palantír to see a dangerous military attack from the sea and took action to defeat it. He also used it to distract Sauron from Frodo’s quest. Earlier in the history of Middle-earth, a kingdom used the palantirí to facilitate communication and control across a vast territory. Likewise, communication technology allows us to coordinate activities across a distance. Anyone who’s ever had to ask a significant other what they were supposed to pick up at the grocery store knows this to be true.

On the other hand, communication technology may also focus our attention away from local matters we can address toward distant but fascinating problems we can do nothing about. (Have you heard anything about Ferguson, MO recently? Can you actually *do* anything about problems in Ferguson, MO? Yeah, me neither.) In Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the steward of the kingdom of Gondor, serves as the most potent example of this. Disturbed by images of distant armies, he despairs and concedes defeat, even to the point of ignoring the simple things he can do to protect his people and save his only living son.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about time; I’m talking about attention. Some scholarship has argued that technology harms relationships because we spend time online that we could spend with local friends and family. That may happen (although research supporting that view has been weak).

However, technology may dominate our attention even when we spend a short amount of time with it. I’ve been guilty of glancing at a game of Words with Friends for a second, and then turning possible moves over and over in my mind for the next hour while I do other non-tech things. Likewise, Denethor didn’t spend much time using his palantír, but it controlled his emotions and decisions during every moment of the day.

This semester, as I teach my course on social media and personal relationships, I curious what my students will think: when does the palantír effect occur, when is it good, when is it bad, and who is most susceptible to it? Not easy questions, but perhaps important ones. In Middle-earth, the ability to harness the power of the palantíri for good helped save the day, whereas misuse of them nearly brought utter ruin.

Yes, Tolkien wrote decades before the age of Twitter and texting, But my re-read has taught me that, in the regard and others, perhaps his Middle-earth isn’t so different from our world after all.

 

Do colleges really “close” during the summer?: A critique of Fay Vincent in the WSJ

So yesterday, I read an article in the WSJ by former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent (this link may/may not allow you to see it without a WSJ subscription).

In the article, he argues that universities can become “more efficient” if they don’t “close for the summer.” Um, I wonder if he’s ever been on a college campus during the summer? Every school I’ve seen firsthand runs a slew of revenue-generating summer classes and conferences.

He also attacks faculty, arguing they are “underutilized” and could “be used more productively” during the summer. Um, has he ever observed faculty during the summer? The faculty I know produce a lot during the summer across the domains of teaching, research, and service.

Finally, he addresses time, claiming “As school administrations over the years have steadily shortened the educational year, students were the losers. It is difficult not to conclude that my generation got a better education because we got more of it.” He fails to consider that the relationship between time and learning isn’t linear. I guarantee you my students aren’t learning as much during the 14th week of the semester as they are the 3rd–the comparison between the 74th and 6th minutes of class is also apt.

I agree we need to ask serious questions about higher education practices and consider creative answers. And speaking of productivity, such brainstorming is most productive when it doesn’t betray basic ignorance about fundamental facts of academic life.