Many Professors Stopped the Tenure Clock During the Pandemic. Who Benefited?

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Many colleges allowed faculty members to stop their tenure clocks during the pandemic, to account for the personal and professional disruptions that hampered progress toward promotion.

It was a relatively simple response, administrators reasoned, to a seismic societal event — one designed to ease scholars’ anxiety about their career development as classes moved online, archives and labs closed their doors, and fieldwork and travel became impossible.

Offering a tenure-clock stop was “something that the administration could do quickly, unilaterally,” said L. Lynn Vidler, dean of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. “It was a morale boost. There was choice involved.”

But as clock-stops — normally seen as one-time measures to ease individual faculty members’ circumstances — became an option for which wide swaths of early-career scholars were automatically eligible, questions emerged about whom the policy benefited, and to what degree. Those are questions Vidler and two colleagues explore in a new study about how faculty members’ decisions to stop their tenure clocks differed by gender, race, and institution type. Their findings, the authors write, expose inequities inherent in the clock-stop phenomenon.

Vidler worked with Jessi L. Smith, Colorado Springs’ vice provost and associate vice chancellor for research, and Michele S. Moses, vice provost and associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to examine how many faculty members on each campus took a one-year tenure-clock pause at two points during the pandemic. The study was published recently in Innovative Higher Education, a peer-reviewed journal.

Different Impacts

Some of the study’s findings align with what’s already known about Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on female scholars and academics of color. “Ethnic minoritized” faculty members, as the paper describes them, were more likely to accept a clock-stop than were white faculty members, and women were 1.5 times as likely as men to accept a first tenure clock-stop. (Nonbinary gender designations aren’t allowed in the human-resources system both campuses use.)

Previous research has shown that women report higher levels of familial demands during a clock stoppage, hindering their research productivity to a degree not typically faced by men, the authors wrote. Men, then, may have been able to “make greater hay” of their clock-stop time, Vidler said. “Women-identified faculty are using that time to actually care-give, and men-identified faculty are able to use more of that time to actually build their research and their tenure dossier,” said Vidler, who uses they/them pronouns.

At both institutions, Vidler said, more than 80 percent of eligible “ethnically minoritized” faculty members chose to stop their clocks. Faculty members who were closer to going up for tenure were more likely to opt out of the clock stoppage and stay on their original timelines, whereas younger faculty members might have been hedging their bets in taking the stop, they said.

Colleges can take steps to make clock-stops more equitable, such as making them opt-out rather than opt-in, the researchers wrote. The Boulder and Colorado Springs campuses did so with their first clock-stops, which were presented to faculty members as automatic.

The study also found that scholars at Boulder — which is in the Carnegie Classification’s highest tier of research institutions, known as R1 — were much more likely to accept a clock-stop than were those at Colorado Springs, which is in the second-highest tier, known as R2. That was surprising to Smith, another of the paper’s authors.

Smith said she’d suspected that faculty members at the R2 institution, who generally have higher teaching loads and less support for their research, would be more enthusiastic about stopping the clock. Instead, about half of Colorado Springs faculty members accepted the first clock-stop, while nearly 80 percent of scholars at Boulder did so.

The research team also found gender- and discipline-based differences. Among women at Colorado Springs, those in the social and behavioral sciences, or SBS, were most likely to stop their clocks, while a greater proportion of humanities and arts scholars chose not to do so. Among women at Boulder, SBS faculty members were most likely to stop their clocks, but the opposite was true for men, for whom the humanities and arts had the highest proportion of clock-stoppers and SBS the lowest.

The study didn’t examine why those disciplinary differences existed. Vidler suggested that future studies could ask faculty members to gauge where they feel they are in the tenure process, and explore whether impostor syndrome might be figuring into those perceptions. Some disciplines, they added, might also harbor an extra stigma about going up for tenure late.

Small proportions of faculty members at each institution decided to stop the clock twice. In the spring of 2021, Colorado Springs introduced a second opt-out clock stoppage, at which time scholars were also allowed to reverse their decision about the first stop. The vast majority — 80 faculty members — did not use that option. At Boulder the second clock stoppage was opt-in but did not have a deadline, meaning faculty members could still request a clock-stop up until their tenure review.

Necessary, but Not Enough

Clock-stop policies have obvious value, Smith said, allowing scholars to avoid feeling that they’ve lost a year’s worth of productivity on their path to tenure. But the policies aren’t a silver bullet: They might result in an underrepresentation of women and people of color in the senior faculty ranks. In stopping the clock, Smith said, “you are now one year further away from tenure and promotion and a pay raise and access to power and influence and job security” — all of which, she noted, are particularly important for women and scholars of color.

That’s why she believes clock-stops are necessary, but not sufficient, to respond to inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. “We can’t just say stop-the-clocks are good enough. We have to sort of push ourselves and say, ‘OK, now what?’” Smith said.

One additional step would be to help faculty members play catch-up, rather than simply adding a year to their tenure clocks. That’s the reasoning behind the Colorado Springs campus’s “faculty revitalization fellowships,” which will allow scholars to request money for a course offload, a summer salary, data collection, conference travel, or hiring a teaching or research assistant, among other options.

Another idea remains on Smith’s wish list: awarding retroactive raises to faculty members who wait an extra year or two to get the raise associated with tenure because they stopped the clock. (The cost of doing so, she admitted, would add up quickly.)

The study describes lower-cost strategies to support faculty members, such as allowing them to include “Covid-impact statements” in their dossiers and sending letters to external reviewers to remind them of the pandemic’s toll. (The paper includes a sample statement.) Colorado Springs is even offering faculty members the chance to stop the tenure clock for a third year, though Smith said that the option hasn’t been widely used.

Smith encouraged leaders at other institutions to examine their own demographic data on pandemic-era clock-stops, and to think creatively about what might come next: “This is that moment to really go back and say, ‘Do our stop-the-clock policies look like our core values as academics, and what are those implications?’”

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