For Columbia’s faculty, COVID-19 comes with more barriers than remote learning; it means a lack of child care, research, and, for some, progress on their tenure track. In the midst of a global pandemic, caretakers and untenured professors are facing a disproportionate number of obstacles to professional growth compared to their peers.
Faculty members—who are represented by various committees of elected faculty members and the University Senate—have expressed their disappointment in the University’s failure to address the socioeconomic disparities among their ranks, which could prevent certain vulnerable faculty from receiving childcare, conducting research, and pursuing professional growth.
Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature, said that untenured faculty are the most susceptible to career damage due to the pandemic. According to Davidson, who also serves as the chair of the Policy and Planning Committee of Arts and Sciences, these faculty members often lack the financial support to live solely off of the University’s stipend.
Living costs in New York City, which are estimated to be more than 30 percent higher than the rest of the country, often forces junior faculty to find another source of income to stay afloat. In response to a survey conducted by the Junior Faculty Advisory Board in the 2016-17 academic year, nearly two-thirds of junior faculty reported that their salaries are insufficient to meet basic needs, while one-third reported going into debt.
Outside of living costs, an untenured faculty member’s financial means also dictates what resources they can utilize for research, which is the main qualification considered during tenure evaluations. Due to the closing of various facilities as a result of COVID-19, many do not have access to physical resources like labs or textbooks if electronic copies are not available.
“For earlier career people there’ll be more costly consequences, including things like maybe not getting tenure, or maybe not being able to get the second book done that you need for promotion to full professor,” Davidson said.
Salary disparities have particularly impacted faculty members who are parents of younger children, as Columbia is the only one of its Ivy League peers that does not offer its faculty a child care subsidy or a full-time, on-campus child care facility. Meanwhile, Barnard’s administration has given a wide range of support to its faculty who are caretakers, ranging from students offering virtual tutoring to a reimbursement program wherein families can ask their own neighbors or family members for care and be reimbursed up to $100 a day.
Currently, Columbia’s Back-Up Care Advantage Program offers Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a caretaking service that partners with the University, as the only option. Columbia has also added an additional 50 hours to the standard 150 back-up care hours of support per year, a policy that will end in June 2021.
“I think we’re all disappointed that the University hasn’t done more to help, especially as parents of younger children deal with the extraordinary disruption to their work lives,” Davidson said. “But this is a national problem, and I think we’re also aware that it’s unreasonable to expect one employer to solve a problem that has clearly been exposed and broadcasted as a national issue.”
As a father currently on parental leave, Joseph Howley, an associate professor of the classics department, said he has experienced firsthand the inability to focus on his professional pursuits for extended periods of time.
“If they are suddenly full-time childcare in their family, they may have two hours of work to themselves during the day that’s cut up in 15-minute chunks between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.,” Howley said. “That’s not the kind of sustained time and space for intellectual labor of the kind that we’re supposed to be doing to get tenure.”
Within the realm of caretaking, women faculty members—who are already underrepresented across academia and at Columbia—are more likely to take on the role of primary caretaker. In many cases, this means work is pushed to the background as family life takes precedence in the home.
“The women are really the ones that are going to be more affected because if you have a father and a mother both at home, the chances are that the mother is going to do more in the way of supervising the students as they are [teaching] the kids,” said Letty Moss-Salentijn, a professor of dental medicine and the co-chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee of the University Senate. “They still need to maintain some kind of a home for everybody; so the work, it’s very difficult.”
For female junior faculty who are unable to afford child care, this means less time for academic duties that will directly influence their tenure chances. Columbia’s reputation as a leading U.S. research institution and the resulting demand for research places significant pressure on tenure candidates to produce original work.
“There’s no mistaking that at a place like Columbia, research is what gets you tenure. I mean, [research excellence] is what the institution hires on and communicates and reviews and promotes,” Howley said. “And it’s clear that for a lot of people, research is just not happening.”
As domestic responsibilities increase, the number of journal submissions by women have declined since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The decline in research productivity among women has been tracked by Cassidy Sugimoto, a professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. Sugimoto and her team found that female researchers and professors submitted fewer articles in March and April of 2020 than they did during the same two months in 2019.
“This is kind of not totally unexpected in the context of America’s historical sexist family configurations,” Howley said.
Columbia has already struggled to address the obstacles that prevent female and other underrepresented faculty members from receiving tenure. Since 2005, the University has funneled almost $200 million toward diversifying its faculty, but the percentage of full-time Black faculty has decreased and the number of full-time Latinx faculty has stagnated to date. While faculty have expressed hope that growing Ph.D. pipeline programs for underrepresented students and increasing the amount of tenured faculty could help address the issue, universities across the nation have pursued hiring freezes in response to projected revenue loss during the pandemic, leaving job opportunities even more scarce than before.
In order to support tenure-track faculty facing extenuating circumstances, the University is allowing a one-year “stop-clock” on the tenure track. Faculty that opt into this “stop-clock” will have a one-year extension from their current place within the ten-year tenure timeline. The volume of research produced during this year-long period will also not be taken into consideration for the final decision.
According to Howley, a pause in the tenure track could create additional difficulties in other ways, including a freeze in faculty wages. Howley also serves as the chair of the JFAB, which in part is dedicated to addressing inequities in tenure promotion.
“If you’re putting off your fifth-year review, you may be putting off a raise that you would be getting after that review,” Howley said.
Columbia’s peer institutions across the Ivy League have all passed a similar one-year tenure track extension. Still, Howley believes that the year-long pause will result in a loss of access to field work, lab work, and archivals that could make tenure-track faculty more competitive candidates and expand their research funding for years to come.
“When your research is in one of these forums, it’s often the case that the fieldwork, or the lab work, or the archival work that you do this year, is the subject of write-ups you’re doing next year,” Howley said. “Which might then be the basis for grants [that] you’re applying for the following year, that help you do another project the year after that.”
Davidson said she hopes the University will create policies that specifically acknowledge the long-term effects of research delays caused by the pandemic. Among other solutions, she proposed that faculty applying for tenure should be allowed to submit a “post-COVID statement” about how the pandemic has impacted their access to resources, potentially across the span of multiple years.
Howley noted that ultimately, junior faculty would benefit from more free space in their schedules.
“What we understand from talking to our junior colleagues is that the number one thing that they need in the absence of safe childcare or safe in-person schooling is time,” Howley said. “Time to do their research. Time to prepare their teaching, time to do the research that informs the teaching.”