Stopping the clock on academic promotions will worsen inequalities

Pausing the assessment timetable for tenure and promotion may seem helpful, but it will actually deepen disparities on campus, says Jennifer Greenfield

February 22, 2021
Source: istock

As the pandemic stretches on, university leaders face urgent questions about how to adjust hiring, tenure and promotion processes to account for the disruptions caused by Covid-19.

Often, the most immediate remedy for those preparing for tenure and promotion applications is to “stop the clock”, allowing faculty an extra year to assemble the record of scholarship needed to meet the institution’s standards. This is already standard practice at many institutions for faculty who take medical or parental leave.

The uncomfortable truth is that stopping the clock may seem like a fair accommodation for those with health challenges or family care responsibilities, but it actually perpetuates income and wealth disparities in academia, particularly when the most significant salary increases enjoyed by academics are those tied to promotion and tenure. Those who are most likely to need clock stoppage are also those who are most likely to experience disparities in income and promotion already; while stopping the clock may help some to stay in academia and advance in rank, delaying the pay rise imposes a permanent and compounding penalty on these faculty.

This has always been true, but the Covid-19 pandemic is shining a new spotlight on these dynamics.

In academia, the gender and racial disparities in rank and income are well documented. In the US, men outnumber women in full professor positions two to one, and there are notable pay gaps, with women earning significantly lower salaries than men in comparable positions. In the UK, just over a third of senior university administrative positions are held by women. These numbers are unlikely to change soon because only one-quarter of professorships are held by women in the UK, and less than half of tenure-line faculty in the US are women.

The situation is even more concerning among scholars who are black, indigenous or from ethnic minorities. Only 12 per cent of full-time faculty positions in the US are held by people from historically excluded, minoritised groups. A recent analysis in the UK found that black faculty are likewise significantly under-represented in higher-earning academic positions.

Covid-19 is poised to exacerbate these disparities. As the pandemic hit, women have disproportionately been tasked with helping institutions respond to the pandemic, including shifting courses online and providing additional support to students. Simultaneously, women’s publication rates have declined, a devastating outcome in fields where publications are necessary for tenure and promotion.

Women – and particularly women of colour – have been disproportionately affected by increased caregiving responsibilities as well, including juggling children’s remote schooling and caring for ageing parents while also trying to keep up at work, often in the context of relentless worry give the higher risks of catching Covid-19 faced by minority communities.

It is no surprise, then, that women and minority faculty have struggled to produce peer-reviewed manuscripts, which are the path to promotion. Offering faculty an additional year (or more) to meet publication goals may make sense, especially as the pandemic stretches on, but the extended job precarity and delayed pay increases add additional stress to faculty who are already stretched too thin.

Countless women have reported a strong temptation to leave academia in the face of these seemingly insurmountable and conflicting pressures. But it is their labour that has held institutions and students together during this year of seemingly impossible challenges. We have long known that minority faculty engage in significant invisible work supporting fellow colleagues and students who hold identities that have been historically excluded from the ivory tower. But these contributions go largely unrewarded and can lead to promotion delays instead as they crowd out time needed to publish.

Waiting a year for a pay increase, especially when accompanied by an extra year of job precarity, is not only harmful but also unjust: a one-year delay in promotion may result in an $18,000 (£12,900) decrease in earnings over a 30-year career in the US.

Universities must implement new strategies to ensure that they recognise the invisible work of women and minority staff and should start by redressing income and promotion disparities. At a minimum, tenure-clock extensions should be accompanied with retroactive pay rises and retirement fund contributions to ensure that the delay in achieving these milestones does not come with a lifelong financial penalty. My own institution, the University of Denver, has recently implemented this policy in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I believe this should remain even after the pandemic has passed.

Moreover, rather than viewing the informal work of supporting marginalised students and faculty as unrelated to criteria for tenure and promotion – as distractions from productivity – academic institutions should fund and acknowledge this important work and include it in assessments of faculty who have applied for promotions.

With this shift, a delay in applying for tenure and promotion might not be needed. If the actual work of keeping the institution and courses afloat during a pandemic were adequately valued, this work would count towards tenure, and additional supports would be offered post-pandemic to help faculty resume their research programmes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only underscored a long-standing uncomfortable truth: traditional approaches to “accommodating” those who invest time in caring for families, students and colleagues impose lifelong financial penalties on those faculty members. It is time for institutions to address the disparities by compensating faculty for this essential work.

Jennifer C. Greenfield is an associate professor and associate dean for doctoral education at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.

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