Maintaining Tenure Goals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 21, 2020

COVID-19 is affecting many parts of the academic process, including shifting entire courses to online environments, adjusting research programs and the process of tenure. Tenure track faculty must engage in research, teaching and service, and the amount of time spent in each activity varies by institution type. Committees of senior faculty at department, college and university levels evaluate junior faculty members’ portfolios to determine whether they will be promoted and offered tenure, meaning they have a long-term contract with their institution. Typically, assistant professors become associate professors within 5 to 6 years. Post-tenure faculty can become full professors as early as 2 years or may remain associate professors for their entire career.

ASM interviewed Dr. Monica Cox, Professor and Chair of the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University. She shares with us her insights regarding how COVID-19 is affecting faculty in advancing their research and gaining tenure. 

What kinds of changes and impacts are you seeing in academic research since the emergence of COVID-19?  

Across institutions, research efforts have been disrupted, revised or stopped. Fiscally, there are concerns that research funding may be exhausted before work is completed since principal investigators are expected to fund researchers who can no longer conduct their research in physical spaces. Pausing funding for researchers is not an ethical option since researchers must continue to pay their expenses. 

Although faculty who conduct research remotely may not experience the inconveniences of faculty working in on-campus laboratory environments, COVID-19 is affecting everyone. Researchers working with human subjects may find that their participants are no longer available to engage in research studies because of COVID-19-related challenges in their own lives. 

Also, work-life balance no longer exists for researchers as professional and personal lives merge via mandatory teleworking arrangements and loss of child-care services. Such pressures are resulting in increased anxiety about the future and personal safety in a world where it is not as easy to compartmentalize responsibilities. 

What changes and impacts are you seeing in the requirements for faculty to reach tenure? 

Several universities are stopping the tenure clock for faculty, meaning that faculty are granted an extra year to conduct research before tenure review. There may be concerns, however, by these faculty that they will be scrutinized for not doing even more work than was expected of them before their clocks stopped. Years from now, senior faculty and external reviewers must remain sensitive to the concerns of these faculty. I recommend that policies be put in place to ensure that junior faculty are not penalized for lack of productivity during a time in which productivity is defined differently.     

What can faculty members do to ensure they are staying on track to reaching the goal of tenure? 

Regardless of COVID-19, first, become familiar with the promotion and tenure criteria at your institution. Second,  find supervisors, colleagues and mentors who can advise you formatively and summatively about your progress in areas of evaluation at your institution. Also, because being promoted and earning tenure involves demonstrating potential in an area of expertise and being recognized as an expert by others in the field, external reviewers will be invited to offer letters of critique for your tenure.  For this reason, it is vital for you to network and to connect to people who may serve as credible references. 

Three ways that you can stay on track for tenure during this time of research/teaching disruption because of COVID-19 are as follows: 
  • Communicate your professional needs to your department chair or head. If you face challenges that are hindering you in any area of your professional life, communicate this and document it as needed. This includes identifying resources that are unavailable to conduct work that is expected of you in your faculty role. 
  • Connect to your community. Relying on mentors, peers, coaches and colleagues is more difficult because of social distancing and teleworking. Join groups that teach you new skills or help you to decompress after work. Spend time with those who bring you joy and energize you. 
  • Redefine productivity. If you aren’t working as effectively as you did in the past, don’t condemn yourself. These are once-in-a-lifetime challenges that are slowing everyone down. Recenter. Revise your definition of success as you explore ways to take care of yourself. 

What can universities, government agencies or professional societies do to help faculty during this time of COVID-19 disruption?

Many organizations are engaging in novel activities to support faculty during this time. Among them:
  • University and national requests for proposals exploring COVID-19 research innovations. 
  • Professional societies’ creation of social media communities in which faculty can learn about online technologies and connect with others across different universities. 
  • Universities extending tenure clocks for faculty. 
  • Organizations distributing reports that offer practical support for underrepresented populations
Informally, faculty are connecting on social media and via Zoom communities. Regardless of the innovation, there remains a focus on communicating current and future organizational developments to faculty who are unsure about what a post-COVID-19 university will look like and how it will impact them and their work. 

What do you think the long-term effects of this pandemic will be on academic research and funding? 

The immediate future of academic research is unknown. What is known is that without a COVID-19 vaccine, the way that research is conducted in university spaces will differ from what we knew a couple of months ago. Research needs remain the same regardless of the vaccine, although priorities may differ given the likelihood of government and university budget cuts. Such cuts will impact the hiring of research personnel and may slow down, if not halt, certain projects. I predict that applied research will be a priority for revenue generation. Innovation is required at all levels given shifts in healthcare and education needs. There also are opportunities for researchers and organizations to identify “pivot” projects and budget models that align with new work requirements and changes in thinking. 

You’ve been very committed to diversity and inclusion - do you think this will change after COVID-19?   

I think that diversity and inclusion efforts are often overlooked during times of crisis. While marginalized groups were oppressed before COVID-19, majority groups may feel that they too are oppressed in some way via “stay at home” orders or policies that restrict their freedom. This unintended expansion and misuse of the definition of oppression may distract from prior diversity and inclusion efforts. 

I predict that increased attention will be given to diversity and inclusion in healthcare and education post-COVID-19. Inequities and limitations in access have been highlighted in public ways, and it is no longer optional for underserved communities to have access to quality medical resources, technology and educational opportunities.

#InThisTogether is a hashtag used frequently in the pandemic and it should be extended to diversity and inclusion. Educators, medical professionals, business owners and the broader society should leverage this time to pinpoint gaps in systems that prevent everyone from gaining access to resources that will help them thrive post-COVID-19. Advocacy from diversity and inclusion professionals and accountability from policymakers will be required to ensure that no one and no community is left behind post-COVID-19. 

Author: Monica F. Cox, Ph.D.

Monica F. Cox, Ph.D.
Monica F. Cox, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University.