Pandemic Tenure Conditions

Dear ATC,
I’m the chair of a smaller, teaching-focused institution that has luckily been able to hire a few assistant professors over the past several years. I’m trying to be thoughtful about how to support these colleagues as they move toward tenure, but most of what I see about balancing tenure expectations during the pandemic has to do with research. Things like how much (and which) people are publishing, additional support for labs and scholarship, and reduced service expectations don’t really play a big role here. Apart from extending the tenure clock, which our institution has done, what can I do either institutionally or informally to support my new faculty? On its face, reducing teaching or service loads would be extremely difficult—we’re worried about enrollments, and there’s an ethos of being an “engaged faculty member” that is ingrained in how my institution works. Any concrete ideas?—Professor Tenure Protector

Dear Prof. Protector,

In a teaching-intensive institution, you’re not doing your faculty any favors by reducing teaching load. At the same time, you’re right that it’s more challenging to help your faculty where there isn’t a more obvious fix for those coming up for tenure. The first thing I would do is have your administration agree that student evaluations of teaching for last semester and possibly the coming Fall as well will not be factored into a faculty member’s tenure packet (in fact, this might be a good time to think about the efficacy of student evaluations altogether, given the research on how they disadvantage more marginalized faculty). Last Spring everyone was struggling to adapt to online learning, and those who had young children to care for (which might well include some of your untenured faculty) were especially hard hit.  Even with more preparation for the coming semester, many faculty have minimal experience with the ups and downs of teaching online, and it would not be surprising if students were less satisfied with their online classes than they would be with those in person.

Some institutions are allowing “COVID statements” to be included in tenure dossiers — texts that outline the specific obstacles a faculty member faced on their tenure path. This tends to be more appropriate for research-focused colleges and universities, since access to labs, archives, and field work have been so sharply curtailed. But if this is something your college is doing, that could certainly help a candidate.

At the same time, it might be useful for your junior faculty to put together a document that details the work they put in to move classes from in-person to online, and talks about the kinds of technology they used. If teaching really is as central as you say, I’d imagine showing command of the various online teaching platforms and tools would help faculty in their tenure cases.

As a department, I’d recommend that if you haven’t already, you craft a document that makes your tenure requirements clear. Too often in smaller institutions, departments don’t have written documents, and there’s a tendency towards “I know it when I see it.” This is especially damaging to female and BIPOC faculty, who tend to be judged more stringently on subjective criteria like “engagement” or “being a good citizen of the college.”

There’s a lot more I’d like to know about your specific circumstances, as well: are schools going online this semester, which will put a lot more pressure on faculty with children? Will your institution be mostly or fully online? And have you asked specific faculty what they think they need? Might there be some funds to help offset childcare costs if kids are home from school?

You might also look into the services provided by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. They tend to be more focused on helping faculty be more productive in scholarship, but they might have programs for teaching-intensive institutions as well.

—The Chair

1 Comment

  • Brent Menchinger says:

    One Item that has come up is the level of acceptance of virtual creative and scholarly activities. Such as, virtual conferences (presenting and virtual performances. Will these be accepted, or accepted at the same level?

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