Were tenure-clock stops a gift for all faculty?

Tenure clock-stop extensions during COVID-19 were meant to be a “gift” of time and space for pre-tenure faculty. But not all faculty were able to leverage the time as effectively, shows a new study by senior leaders within the CU System. Photo credit: Aron Visuals via Unsplash

The early days of COVID-19 hit faculty research as hard as they hit every other facet of university life. Access to laboratories, libraries, field sites and conferences screeched to a halt — and research output became secondary to meeting students’ needs. In response, pre-tenure faculty in the CU System were offered tenure-clock stops, giving them an optional extra year (or two) before they were evaluated for tenure. These extensions can affect a faculty member’s entire career: research output and creative productivity are at the heart of faculty members’ ability to earn promotions and pass tenure reviews.

So who chose to accept tenure-clock stops? Who opted out? What roles did race, gender, field of study and institutional expectations play in faculty decisions? And will the decisions have long-term ramifications for faculty members’ careers?

These questions are at the heart of a new research study conducted by Jessi Smith, Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at UCCS; Lynn Vidler, Dean of the UCCS College of Letters, Arts & Sciences; and Michele Moses, Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs at CU Boulder.

Titled “The ‘Gift’ of Time,” the study documents UCCS and CU Boulder faculty members’ decisions to opt in, and out, of two separate tenure-clock stops during COVID-19.

According to the study, race, gender, field of study and the nature of the faculty member’s research institution all played a role in the decision to accept a tenure-clock stop. Smith, Vidler and Moses found:

  • Researchers at CU Boulder, an R1 institution — categorized with a very high research output — were much more likely to accept a tenure-clock stop than those at UCCS, an R2 institution with a high research output.
  • Ethnic minoritized faculty at both institutions were more likely to accept a clock-stop than white faculty.
  • Women-identifying faculty were 1.5 times more likely than men-identifying faculty to accept a first extension. Very few faculty accepted a second extension.
  • Women-identifying faculty at both universities were more likely than men-identifying to accept the clock stop if they were in a social science field, but to decline the clock stop if they were in the humanities. Within STEM fields and professional fields, the opt-out and acceptance decisions depended more on the university for which the faculty worked.

The findings, Smith, Vidler and Moses write, illustrate the varied and intersecting pressures faced by faculty members. Those pressures can include the expectations of working at high-research output institutions; responsibilities for childcare and domestic activities; the amount of time faculty have before their tenure evaluations; and other challenges based on identity and field of study.

But not all of those pressures have the same implications. Citing the well-documented social role theory, Smith, Vidler and Moses stress that women-identifying faculty members — and especially women of color — report higher levels of family demands and obligations on their time. Therefore, although many men-identifying faculty also opted in to a tenure-clock stop, they may have been able to use the extension more productively or strategically than their female peers.

It is imperative, then, the researchers conclude, to make equity a focus of future conversations about tenure-clock stops and faculty evaluations.

“Stopping the tenure clock is a complicated decision with long-term ramifications,” the researchers write. “It delays accompanying pay raises and promotions which, over time, may compound gender and racial pay disparities and limit the leadership and influence opportunities that come with promotion. Stopping the tenure clock could hurt the very faculty members the policy is meant to help. So, what options does this leave for university leadership who want to be responsive?”

Smith, Vidler and Moses suggest multiple strategies to support faculty moving forward: providing letters to tenure-review evaluators reminding them not to penalize faculty members who accepted a tenure-clock stop, or who show a gap in their research record; encouraging universities to accept “COVID-19 Impact Statements” that faculty can submit with their annual review and promotion materials; and taking a hard look at seemingly gender-neutral policies, which can unintentionally widen disparities. Universities, they write, can also prioritize teaching and research support for women and minoritized faculty, which could help offset time lost to research productivity.

It is this kind of support, they write, that can turn the double-edged sword of tenure delay into what it was meant to be all along: a gift of time.

The full research study was published to Innovative Higher Education in 2022. Read the study online.

About the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) 

The University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) offers 55 bachelor’s, 24 master’s and eight doctoral degree programs and enrolls about 12,000 students annually. Located in the heart of Colorado Springs, UCCS has a strong student focus and access mission, with a goal of transforming lives for the better. Learn more about UCCS at uccs.edu.