Equity beyond COVID-19

Revising tenure and promotion standards.
By Simon Feldman and Afshan Jafar

Woman looking out of ahole at a man striding away.

This past year brought unprecedented changes to academia. By early spring many colleges and universities had switched abruptly to remote education amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the immediate aftermath of this transition, faculty members scrambled to figure out how to teach remotely, how to use breakout rooms, when to mute and unmute ourselves (and turn off our video), and which chair was best suited for hours on end of teaching from home. In the midst of this upheaval, some of us understandably neglected to think about the long-term effects of the pandemic on other aspects of our work—research and service.

After a couple of months, as the reality settled in that we were facing a crisis that would last well beyond the spring, some institutions discussed and implemented tenure-clock stoppages for faculty on the tenure track. The AAUP, along with the American Federation of Teachers, issued “AFT and AAUP Principles for Higher Education Response to COVID-19,” which states, “Tenure-track faculty members whose work is disrupted by the institutional or governmental response to COVID-19 should have the option to stop their tenure clock for the duration of the disruption.”

While this recommendation was appropriate under the circumstances, now, many months deeper into the pandemic, emerging data suggest that it was entirely insufficient. For example, a recent study of manuscript submissions to Elsevier journals, “No Tickets for Women in the COVID-19 Race?,” reveals that COVID-19 has had a largely negative effect on women’s journal submissions. Not only has there been a documented decline in women’s productivity compared with pre-pandemic times; there is now also a decline in women’s productivity compared with that of men.

Beyond recommending the option to stop the tenure clock, the Association has suggested, in “AAUP Principles and Standards for the COVID-19 Crisis,” that institutions may wish to consider “adjusting standards for tenure to reflect the impact of the pandemic on teaching, scholarship, and service.” Mary Hermann and Cheryl Neale-McFall, writing in the fall 2020 issue of Academe about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women and caregivers, state, “The reward system needs to be recalibrated to account for teaching loads, mentoring activities, and service responsibilities, especially as faculty work activities shift during this crisis.”

While these are admirable suggestions, it is important to recognize the need for a more comprehensive approach to the structural issues related to tenure and promotion that the COVID-19 crisis has crystallized. The upheaval of the last year has cast a glaring light on the inequities that exist for women, caregivers, and faculty of color in academia. These inequities will persist even after the crisis has passed, since the pandemic has only heightened them.

Baseline Inequities

Here is what we already knew before the pandemic: in terms of research and scholarship, there is a persistent underrepresentation of women and faculty members of color on journal editorial boards; a disproportionate citation and recognition of white male authors; lower acceptance, publication, and citation rates for women and faculty members of color; and a racial gap in funding from major organizations. When it comes to teaching, bias against women and faculty of color in student evaluations has been extensively and meticulously documented. This bias results in lower student evaluation scores and also exacts a real psychic cost to instructors who have to field negative comments about themselves and spend additional time and effort trying to “fix” their teaching in response to the lower evaluations. Women faculty members of color spend a disproportionate amount of their time and energy addressing rude, disruptive, and challenging behavior in the classroom. At many institutions, women teach more introductory or remedial courses and advise or mentor more students (often more intensively). Finally, a great deal of research documents the disproportionate visible and invisible labor in which women and faculty members of color engage—often to their own detriment, because this work can detract from time available for scholarship and research and affect promotion. Unsurprisingly, a recent AAUP data snapshot drawing on information collected by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System confirms the persistent underrepresentation of women and people of color, particularly among the higher ranks of full-time tenure-line faculty.

Inequity has been deeply and systemically embedded in the evaluation standards for academics in all the ways described above. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these inequities within academia just as it has outside academia. But these inequities will remain even when COVID-19 is no longer on our campuses and in our lives. Institutions and faculty members should consider long-term changes to their tenure and promotion standards with equity in mind, and not just for the duration of the pandemic.

Indeed, the large-scale study of manuscript submissions mentioned earlier states that “it is important that funding agencies and hiring and promotion committees at national and international levels reconsider their policies. . . . One of the most important lessons from the pandemic could be to follow multidimensional criteria in any academic assessment, which truly reflect a variety of factors describing the potential of an applicant either for an academic job or a grant.” Instead of relying on checklists, quantitative measures, and impact factors, institutions across the country should reform their tenure and promotion standards to ensure a more holistic assessment of candidates. Such a revision is not just a necessity in these times; it is long overdue.

Connecticut College Case Study

At Connecticut College, where we both teach, the faculty undertook such changes several years ago. The values underlying those revisions to our tenure and promotion standards have equipped us well in this time of crisis. The process we went through might provide a possible framework for others interested in similar revisions on their campus.

The standards for promotion and tenure that existed before we set out to revise them stated simply: “Connecticut College is committed to excellence in teaching, in scholarship, in activity in the arts, in physical education and in service. For appointment, reappointment, promotion, and the granting of tenure, evaluation of each individual is based primarily on teaching and scholarship or comparable activities in the arts and physical education. For reappointment, and the granting of tenure, service is highly valued; for promotion to the rank of professor, service is considered essential.”

In order to flesh out these standards, faculty members in the various academic departments started by articulating what they believed to be the scholarship standards for tenure in their discipline at an institution like Connecticut College. After department members reached agreement, they shared with the wider campus community what they had produced. And what we all had produced were wildly different documents. Some were thoughtful, detailed, and nuanced. But the vast majority of departments took the route of enumeration—two articles a year, a book (at least in press) published by a university press, at least one conference presentation per year, and so on. The urge to quantify research output was strong when faculty members were asked to write down what they believed their department’s standards were or should be.

But perhaps more important, it became obvious that reenvisioning tenure and promotion in this way did not produce equitable standards. All of the aforementioned equity concerns in evaluations were pushed to the forefront when we analyzed our proposed departmental standards. First, and most glaring, was the discrepancy between departments. How would we ensure a similar experience among tenure-track colleagues across departments if some had tough, quantitative aspirational standards while others were more sophisticated and nuanced? Second, there were equity concerns regarding the expectation of top-tier publications or university presses for scholars in new, cutting-edge, interdisciplinary, or marginalized fields. Third, it became painfully clear that we could not talk about research standards in isolation from the standards regarding teaching and service. Some faculty members face higher service demands than others, some perform a lot of invisible labor, and some offer new courses more frequently than others. How would we address these discrepancies? Given that Connecticut College had also been in the throes of general education curriculum reform for several years and that the expectations around teaching and service had only intensified in those areas, it seemed unreasonable to raise the bar for research without taking those other aspects of our academic lives into account. In short, looking at each area separately resulted in our raising the bar—becoming more aspirational—in each category. We had spent nearly an entire academic year discussing departmental standards for research only to come to the conclusion that we could not and should not use them for the reasons outlined above.

So, what did we do? Dissatisfied with our initial efforts and seeing clearly the equity issues that arose from the department-by-department approach, we took a step back and, in the spirit of the general education curriculum reform process we had undertaken, we asked again these most basic questions: What kind of institution are we and how can we ensure that our tenure standards align with what we expect (in terms of teaching, service, and research)? And how do these standards align with what we offer in terms of resources—how many pretenure sabbaticals are available, for example, or what kinds of research funds are available annually?

As we began thinking about these questions, we did our best to engage the faculty members with the greatest stakes in our work. We reached out to untenured faculty, women faculty, and faculty of color. We offered multiple avenues for people to contribute ideas: open faculty meetings, anonymous Google forms, and smaller informal meetings with different demographic groups led, where possible, by faculty members from those groups.

We gathered standards from institutions of similar size, resources, and mission (with similar emphases on teaching and service) to study their approaches. The array of options was dizzying, but several approaches began to stand out as particularly responsive to the equity issues we were thinking about and to the most salient faculty concerns: the idea that evaluation of candidates for tenure and promotion should recognize the various fluctuations over time that may be related to the stage of one’s career and to shifting family and departmental responsibilities as well as shifting academic interests; the idea that our academic lives integrate teaching, research, and service, so the evaluation of candidates should also be integrated, holistic; the idea that, because the work that should “count” for tenure and promotion might not look the same across disciplines (and in interdisciplinary or emerging fields) and across careers with different kinds of academic focus, the evaluation of materials should be inclusive and comprehensive.

With these ideas in mind, we began the collaborative process of drafting language, discussing ideas at open meetings, and revising standards in light of faculty feedback. We considered multiple versions of prospective legislation that articulated slightly different ways of thinking about faculty careers, paying special attention to the problematic nature of enshrining an institutional standard for a purportedly “ideal” balance of teaching, research, and service.

The standards we eventually passed took all of these concerns into account. In a preamble to the new standards, we decided to include a tenure philosophy explaining from an AAUP perspective what tenure means and what it is for. We believe it is important to challenge the perception of tenure as a “reward.” That kind of thinking often leads to tenure being seen as a privilege reserved only for the “most competitive” or the “best” faculty members rather than as a “precondition” for the academic health of the institution, as laid out by the AAUP. Overall, these revised standards move away from quantitative assessments of candidates and allow us to look at the comprehensive picture of what a person contributes to the community. If a primary purpose of tenure is to establish the conditions that enable deserving faculty members to contribute to the long-term health of the college or university, then our assessment of candidates has to be holistic.

An overwhelming majority of the faculty voted to adopt the following revised tenure and promotion standards:

Excellence in teaching and in scholarship and creative activity are the primary criteria for advancement at the college. The balance between teaching and professional achievement may tip towards one at various points in a faculty member’s career. In such cases, particularly outstanding achievement in one area can balance a somewhat lower level of achievement in the other area.

Further, service and participation in shared governance at the college is also part of the expected duties of a faculty member. Service to the college is increasingly expected of faculty members as their careers progress, and is essential for promotion to the rank of professor. In addition, Connecticut College recognizes that service demands do not fall equally among all members of the faculty, and this can cause significant inequities. Thus, when a faculty member has been asked to carry an unusually heavy load of service-related duties for the college or their department, that circumstance shall be taken into account when assessing the candidate for tenure or promotion.

In sum, fluctuations in the relationships among teaching, achievement in one’s field, and service must not be overlooked in the work lives of faculty; and the three should be considered holistically when assessing a faculty member’s overall contributions to the department, to the college as a whole, and to the broader community.

The first paragraph of these new standards addresses the need for flexibility regarding the balance between teaching and research. A small liberal arts college like ours needs excellence in both research and teaching—but excellence, beyond indicating a high standard, is a vague term and admits of degrees; no two “excellent” scholars or teachers excel in exactly the same manner and dimensions, and two excellent scholars or teachers might not be equally excellent. Those of us who are committed to continuously improving our teaching, for example, are committed to the idea that there is no upper limit to excellent teaching. So, setting “excellence” as a standard makes sense only with the qualification that degrees of excellence can be assessed qualitatively and that achievement in some areas should be viewed in the context of achievement in others.

The second paragraph addresses service burdens and the inequities associated with service work. As discussed earlier, women and faculty members from historically underrepresented groups are often asked to carry extraordinary service obligations—both visible and invisible. There is no way to infuse equity into our standards if we do not account for the time these activities take up and how they can detract from other activities like research.

The last paragraph acknowledges a need to look at candidates holistically and consider the relationship among the three areas. What these standards emphasize—and what the pandemic has made obvious—is that we cannot keep looking at each of the three requirements of academic life as separate from one another. How can we speak of equity in our standards if we do not acknowledge that research, teaching, and service exist in relationship to one another? The person who prepared and taught sixteen new courses before earning tenure had a different teaching commitment from the person who taught the same four courses year after year. The person who published two books before earning tenure had less time to devote to service. Thus, the three areas must not be looked at in isolation.

Since the pandemic began, faculty members have spent much more time on teaching and service than in usual years. Because of this, institutions are struggling to figure out how and whether to adjust their tenure and promotion standards temporarily. Standards like ours, which acknowledge the relationships among the three areas and emphasize balance and holistic assessment, are much better able to accommodate the fluctuations in our work caused by the COVID-19 crisis—just as they acknowledge fluctuations as part of typical academic careers.

Work Still to Be Done

To be sure, the revision of tenure standards is not a panacea for the complex set of equity issues related to retention and promotion of a diverse faculty body. As we argued in a 2017 Academe article, “Hang Together or Hang Separately,” achieving meaningful equity requires broad and sustained faculty participation in those areas of academic governance that are the faculty’s “primary responsibilities”: “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process,” to quote from the AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. But to make that very breadth and sustainability of participation possible we must first take a careful look at the institutional standards that determine faculty status. Structural change in the form of revised policies, brought about thoughtfully and collaboratively, is a first step toward cultural change in academia.

A revision of standards goes hand in hand with revising how we document our achievements within each category—that is, what counts as evidence in teaching, service, and research. For instance, some institutions and professional associations are recommending more holistic assessment of teaching, doing away with the use of student teaching evaluations in faculty reviews (something many institutions have also done as a temporary measure, acknowledging the heightened inequities that COVID-19 has produced). Some are more open to including public scholarship as part of assessment. We have not provided recommendations in these areas specifically, as our goal here has not been to address the multiple ways that the criteria for evaluating teaching, research, and service can be revised but to look at the standards overall and in relation to one another. The kinds of standards that different institutions adopt will influence the way they think about how achievement is documented or what kinds of evidence are needed.

None of this is to suggest that interventions responding specifically to the COVID-19 crisis are not needed; rather, such measures must be taken in addition to thinking about tenure and promotion standards in the long run. Plenty of tools and recommendations have been published with short-term needs in mind, including on the AAUP’s “COVID-19 Pandemic Resources” web page and in reports like Faculty Equity and COVID-19, published by the University of Michigan’s ADVANCE program. Institutions should consider those recommendations for the duration of the pandemic.

For too long we have simply documented the biases and inequities in our evaluations without taking concrete steps to address them. COVID-19 has forced us out of complacency and into a direct confrontation with these inequities. It would be short-sighted of us to think change is needed only for this moment. Change is long overdue.

Simon Feldman is associate professor in the philosophy department at Connecticut College and past president of the Connecticut College AAUP chapter. He is author of Against Authenticity: Why You Shouldn’t Be Yourself. His email address is [email protected]. Afshan Jafar is associate professor in the sociology department at Connecticut College and president of the Connecticut College AAUP chapter. Her email address is [email protected].