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Tick tock. Should we stop the tenure clock?

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the need for more flexibility and support for junior faculty

by Fernando Gomollón-Bel, special to C&EN , Linda Wang
June 1, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 21


Illustration of a cuckoo clock.
Credit: Molly Ferguson

For many pretenure faculty, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are akin to moving in slow motion in a race against time. While their research productivity has ground to a halt, early-career faculty say their tenure clocks continue to tick louder and louder.

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Tick tock. Should we stop the clock?

“It’s a huge and prolonged lull in everybody’s research programs,” says Alison Narayan, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, who is up for tenure this year. “The momentum is killed while you are just trying to keep everything running. The whole situation is really stressful because there are a lot of unknowns.”

Those uncertainties are magnified for faculty who have just started their tenure-track positions. “This is a massive disruption for my lab,” says Mark Levin, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago who just finished setting up his lab in December 2019. “Research is, ultimately, the largest part of our tenure evaluation, and this is definitely going to have an impact on our career.”

In brief

The coronavirus pandemic is putting intense pressures on pretenure faculty to remain productive during a time when they can’t even access their research labs. Many worry about what these productivity setbacks and other disruptions will do to their tenure timelines. Universities across the US are now offering tenure-clock extensions to help relieve some of these pressures. While some universities are making these extensions automatic for their early-career faculty, others require faculty to submit a request. Experts say these extensions make the tenure system more equitable for today’s early-career faculty, but real change will need to involve greater flexibility and support for all early-career faculty to come.


To relieve some of the productivity pressures on pretenure faculty, many colleges and universities across the US are offering 1-year tenure-clock extensions in response to COVID-19. While some universities are asking faculty to request an extension, others are making extensions automatic for their pretenure faculty, with the option to decline.

“I think it’s fantastic that universities are being responsive to the crisis and the really pronounced need that faculty have to have a little bit of breathing room,” says Jessica Lee, a staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. “Hopefully that’s a sign that folks are listening and really paying attention to the well-being of the faculty right now.” The pandemic, experts say, is exposing the need for more flexibility and support for early-career faculty.

Pausing the clock

The tenure clock, a probationary period for early-career faculty that typically lasts 7 years, was first proposed in 1940 in a joint statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“There’s nothing magical about the 7 years, but the goal was to come up with a timeline that would give an institution enough time to decide whether to grant somebody tenure but not make it so long that the faculty member would be teaching without the protections of academic freedom for an undue period of time,” says Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer at AAUP.

The practice of extending the tenure clock gained acceptance in the late 1990s as part of a wave of policies designed to increase the number of women in academia, says Lee. “If you do not have stop-the-clock policies, you are going to severely penalize women,” says Joan C. Williams, director of WorkLife Law.

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Nancy Levinger, now a full professor at Colorado State University, was among the first people at her university to receive a tenure-clock extension after becoming pregnant in 1996. “Back then, they had just started talking about the possibilities of pausing the tenure clock,” she says. “Getting an extension was such a relief. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about my outcomes that year,” she explains. “It made my life way easier.” She is convinced she wouldn’t have earned tenure without the extension.

Photo of Mark Levin doing a Zoom call with his research group.
Credit: Courtesy of Mark Levin
Mark Levin (top right) of the University of Chicago does a Zoom call with his research group.

Now, most colleges and universities in the US have stop-the-clock policies to allow for breaks in research productivity, typically because of childbirth, childcare, medical illness, family care, or other extenuating circumstances.

The disruptions caused by COVID-19 are now part of this list. “You can’t expect people to be productive in their research if they can’t even get into their laboratory, and to somehow hold that against them would be not humane, and not smart either,” says Janet Kistner, vice president for faculty development and advancement at Florida State University. “This is a difficult time for everyone. We’re trying to communicate to faculty that we have their backs and that we want them to be successful.”

FSU is among the institutions offering an automatic 1-year extension due to COVID-19. Pretenure faculty at FSU who do not want the extension can opt out. Kistner says this approach helps them make their policy more equitable and inclusive. “We’re really mindful of the fact that having to make a request is sometimes particularly difficult for somebody in an underrepresented group,” she says. “We didn’t want to put them in that situation.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also providing its pretenure faculty an automatic 1-year extension of their tenure clock. “We benefit from the contributions of faculty in many ways, and it would be shortsighted of us not to support the whole experience of the individual,” says Timothy F. Jamison, associate provost at MIT and Robert R. Taylor Professor of Chemistry.

By contrast, the University of Arizona is among the institutions where faculty who want an extension need to actively request it. Elizabeth Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation, says university officials believed this would give faculty the greatest amount of flexibility. “We had people who did not want to extend their tenure,” she says. “You do have the choice, and it’s no harm, no foul.”

Photo of Alison Narayan with her two kids.
Credit: Courtesy of Alison Narayan
Alison Narayan of the University of Michigan has had to adjust to working from home while taking care of her two kids.

In other countries, such as Canada and Singapore, institutions are also offering tenure-clock extensions. And some countries that have different approaches to probationary periods are nonetheless trying to alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 disruptions to the progress of early-career researchers. Recently, the UK announced an extension in funding and delayed certain project deadlines. The European Research Council, which funds early-career faculty through its ERC Starting Grants, is considering extensions on a case-by-case basis and allowing grantees to refocus their research to tackle the current pandemic.

In countries where research has not been shuttered, early-career faculty still face challenges. In Australia, for example, Melanie MacGregor, a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia, says that despite still being allowed in the labs, customs restrictions have led to shortages in some supplies, which may delay results and jeopardize their potential promotions.

Feeling the impact

For first-year faculty, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 can hinder efforts to establish themselves in the research community. “I had to cancel my first talk at an ACS national meeting and an invitation to lead a session during a Gordon conference this summer,” says Denise Okafor, who just started a position as an assistant professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. “Both would have been a great opportunity for people to know who I am.”

Photo of Denise Okafor.
Credit: Courtesy of Denise Okafor
Denise Okafor of Pennsylvania State University at the work space she created in her home.

Okafor is also learning how to juggle home life and work life. Her husband is an essential worker, so she has been the primary caretaker for their young daughter. “What happens if campus reopens but my daughter’s school is closed?” she wonders of her university’s plans to reopen. Similarly, it is likely that summer camps will be canceled. “If there is no childcare during the summer, researchers will need to figure out what to do with their kids,” Okafor adds.

Ellen Matson, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, who is submitting her tenure package this summer, warns that all these productivity setbacks can cause ripple effects down the line. “The impact on assistant professors is going to be more substantial than just the time we won’t be in the lab,” she says. “The US government just invested trillions of dollars into bailouts; what is going to happen to federal funding?”

Financial concerns are only getting worse, Levin thinks. “Start-up grants are designed to give new groups the time to get preliminary results to submit grant applications. However, now we continue to pay salaries but research operations are suspended.” Levin says he plans to take the tenure-clock extension that his university is offering, not only because of the pandemic’s disruptions, but also because he’s about to become a father.

Okafor is also concerned about losing funds from her start-up package. “I have hired a postdoc and a PhD student, but they cannot get into the lab,” she says. The lack of results now might hinder her possibilities of getting funding further down the line, affecting her tenure. Penn State has offered faculty a 1-year extension because of COVID-19. However, because Okafor is just starting her position, she is reluctant to ask for an extension.

Both Lee and Matson are worried that recent hiring freezes, salary cuts, and furloughs in academia may make some faculty fearful of stopping the clock. “All the tone-setting in the world and encouragement to use resources is not going to mean anything if junior faculty fear their livelihood is at risk,” Lee says.

In fact, stopping the clock has been shown to have consequences. In a 2013 paper in ILR Review, Amit Kramer, associate dean for online graduate education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues found that tenure-track faculty members employed at a single research-intensive university who stopped their clock for family reasons incurred a salary penalty compared with their tenure-track colleagues who did not stop the clock. “When somebody stops their clock, it can impact perceptions of how much they’re committed to the profession,” Kramer says.

Indeed, Narayan, who already paused her clock after having a baby, worries about how a second extension will look on her CV. “What are people going to think if they see my tenure-track lasted longer than expected?” she says. Levinger says she saw a significant impact after her extension. “You could literally see a dip in my CV, my productivity decreased,” she says. After that, she had to work even harder to recover from that period.

We need a culture that says it’s OK to have a life outside of work
Lisa Wolf-Wendel, associate dean for research and graduate studies, University of Kansas

It’s unclear how tenure reviewers will perceive COVID-19 extensions when they compare achievements. Some people may take the opportunity to submit more papers and proposals, while others may have reduced their pace, especially if they had caretaking responsibilities during the lockdown. In fact, anecdotal evidence from the observations of journal editors across many disciplines suggests that men are submitting more papers than women during the pandemic. “Going forward we need to make sure extensions don’t strengthen the invisible escalator for men,” says Williams of WorkLife Law.

Tiede says AAUP supports stop-the-clock policies but cautions that “extending the probationary period for too long means that faculty teach for too long without the protections of tenure.” Instead, institutions could consider lowering the expectations for tenure, he says. “We need a culture shift that recognizes tenure is designed to protect academic freedom and not to be a caste system within the university.”

Support for faculty

Jamison of MIT thinks this pandemic is creating more empathy and understanding among colleagues, which will hopefully be reflected in tenure decisions later on. “People are getting to know each other differently, and it’s more personal,” he says, noting how many virtual meetings have kids running around in the background. “It’s a good reminder that we all have responsibilities, and we’re all learning to do things differently. That’s going to change our interactions in a positive way.”

Both Kistner and Jamison say their universities are supporting faculty in other ways beyond tenure-clock extensions. For example, at FSU, papers accepted at canceled conferences will still count in tenure applications. “The fact that they didn’t get to actually do the presentation is not their fault,” Kistner says. “It’s the circumstances, and we want to recognize the effort that went into that work.” At MIT, Jamison says that professional development programs for faculty are being adapted to Zoom video conferencing. In addition, he chairs a community continuity group at MIT that is creating new ways for faculty to connect. MIT is also conducting regular surveys to find out how its faculty are faring during this work-from-home period and what their needs are.

Tenure-clock policies that are equitable and inclusive have proven successful in raising the visibility of an institution. “When a younger colleague joined Colorado State, she told me she had chosen the university because she found my story inspirational,” says Levinger, who was given additional support beyond the extension. “When I came back in the fall, [the department] released me from teaching for the whole semester.” She says early-career faculty value this type of support from their university. Levinger wrote a chapter about her tenure-clock experiences in the ACS Women Chemists Committee book, Mom the Chemistry Professor.

Narayan is also grateful that the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan is supportive of young faculty. “Recently, our director [Roger Cone] announced that he will give us priority access into the labs when the lockdown lifts,” she explains. And Levin notes the University of Chicago recently announced a virtual babysitting service for young faculty who are teaching.

Faculty say the COVID-19 pandemic is catalyzing positive change by exposing the weaknesses of the tenure system. “We need a culture that says it’s OK to have a life outside of work,” says Lisa Wolf-Wendel, associate dean for research and graduate studies at the University of Kansas, who studies equity issues in higher education. “We need to be encouraging people to take advantage of these policies,” and to value work-life balance.

“Because of the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, we are going to have to be more creative,” Matson says, adding that it is time for the chemistry community to reexamine its standards. “This is our opportunity to adapt and to learn how to be better and more supportive of one another.”

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Tick tock. Should we stop the clock?

Jamison agrees. “I think this is a good time for us to update our system a little bit and provide more support. We’ll continue to evolve and strengthen our policies, but it’ll be a combination of activities that will make the experience better for everybody.”

With additional reporting by Andrea Widener.


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