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Tenure during a time of crisis

What we can learn now to make the tenure system more equitable in the future

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
June 1, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 21


An illustration of professors around a clock.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

Research activities are starting to come back to life at many universities, while others remain in indefinite shutdown. Questions abound as to what our fall semester will look like, and faculty nationwide are scrambling to prepare for the possibility of once again being fully online. Virtual seminars are replacing in-person events, allowing us to connect with people we might not otherwise get to meet, but also bringing “Zoom fatigue” as part of a new lexicon of quarantine-induced mental health challenges.

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Tenure during a time of crisisTenure during a time of crisis

This pandemic has impacted everyone in academia, but as with many situations, early-career researchers have arguably been the most acutely affected. This is especially true of assistant professors, for whom the tenure system creates a fixed time frame for accomplishing a quantified amount of scholarship and teaching excellence. And, the cost extends far beyond that of lost research time due to lab shutdowns. The mandate for physical distancing has also led to canceled conference and seminar invitations, lost networking opportunities, and challenges in recruiting graduate students. Even as research activities resume, the new normal of reduced occupancy labs and limited access to core facilities will likely continue to impact research progress for months to come.

It is encouraging that many universities (including my own, Emory University) have already announced that they will be offering all assistant professors a 1-year extension of their tenure clock. This is exactly the right thing to do—a quick and effective solution in a sudden and severe crisis. However, to consider the tenure-clock challenge solved with the stroke of a pen would be to miss a bigger opportunity to reconsider what is undoubtedly one of the most powerful systems that we have in academia.

The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is unique in that all of us have concurrently experienced struggles that directly impact our teaching and research capabilities. But this isn’t the only struggle that many assistant professors will encounter during their pretenure years. Some will be forced to confront a medical emergency, the loss of a parent or close friend, or another unexpected life situation that makes work difficult for a period of time. Early-career faculty may also encounter institutional circumstances such as extended lab renovations or a small incoming class of graduate students, which can hamper research progress.

Perhaps now, more than ever, we should be discussing the question: “How do we create systems and policies that allow us to evaluate each faculty member’s accomplishments in light of the context in which they accomplished them?” Encouragingly, there are already examples of this in our community. When writing external tenure letters, I always appreciate reading a statement in the instructions to the effect of, “We are not interested in hearing whether this candidate would be considered successful in the context of your institution, but rather how you think they have succeeded in the context of our institution.” I love these instructions because they actively work to recognize and correct for systemic biases and, in turn, increase equity. As we all strive to increase diversity and inclusion in academia, this is a step in the right direction.

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What if we expanded this practice to also account for factors beyond that of the institution, such as access to lab space, opportunities to recruit students, and teaching and service load? Perhaps this could be achieved by allowing each faculty member to provide a context statement as part of their tenure package. A fair concern is that such a practice could devolve into a list of grievances, or that those reviewing the file might not take it seriously. This could be remedied in part by tenure candidates partnering with a colleague to craft the context statement, and by focusing that statement on positive factors, such as the accomplishments that were realized despite limited resources or the gains that were made by overcoming adversity along the path to tenure.

Increasing equity in our tenure system by accounting for individual circumstances is a complex problem that will likely require thoughtful debate to arrive at effective and actionable solutions. However, our current situation does create an apropos time for our community to start having this discussion. The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused significant destruction and casualty, and it will be impossible to replace what has been lost. But we can leverage our shared experience to grow our compassion and take a step toward instituting policies that make our academic systems healthier and more equitable, in turn creating a better future.

Jen Heemstrais an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS..



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