Earth sciences professor Samantha Hopkins has conducted her research from home for the past year. Instead of mining fossils from streams, she catches up on data analysis and other projects that don’t require fieldwork. She takes an hour out of her work day to make lunch for her family, and helps her two kids with problems that arise from online school several times a day.
Hopkins said her paleontology fieldwork can’t be put on hold much longer. Fossils are weathering into the stream each day, which is research she will never get back. If she doesn’t get grant funding, her graduate students, undergraduate students and collaborators will also miss out on funding.
“So the total outcome is not good,” Hopkins said. “I've been trying to get a grant proposal done, and it's taken me five to seven times as much time as I had expected.”
Women in academia, specifically women of color, have been disproportionately affected by working from home during COVID-19 because of increased caregiving responsibilities and the tendency of daily household chores to fall on women.
“I'll have conversations with male colleagues who don't necessarily have working spouses, and they'll be like, ‘Ah, you know, being at home. I've been so productive. There aren't people distracting me in my meetings,’” Hopkins said. “That must be lovely to just close that door and ignore everything.”
Executive Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Janet Woodruff-Borden said it was clear at the beginning of the pandemic that the transition to remote instruction was going to be difficult. A survey of UO faculty on the pandemic’s impact on research and creativity found that respondents were struggling with working from home, and the university responded with support strategies meant to provide relief.
“The goal was really to document what the impact was, how people were experiencing this and then what resources the institution could provide to be helpful in those spaces,” Woodruff-Borden said.
The survey was consistent with research findings nationwide, as faculty reported being impacted by heightened stress, caretaking pressures, inadequate work environments and racial trauma. Respondents identified a need for support in childcare assistance, ease of academic time pressures and access to campus labs and offices. One of the main findings was a desire to delay the tenure and promotion clock.
Faculty are brought on as an assistant professor for seven years, but undergo a review in their third and sixth year to see whether they merit promotion to Associate Professor and tenure. Education professor Gina Biancarosa said if the promotion decision does not go in the faculty member’s favor, then they basically have to find a new job.
“It's sort of an up or out moment,” Biancarosa said. “It's really high stakes.”
To combat the issue, the university extended the tenure timeline one year. In this opt-in program, third and sixth year faculty reviews will be postponed until the 2021-22 school year. Faculty members who already have tenure may postpone completion of their development plan by one year.
“It became very clear that allowing people more time on their so-called tenure clock made some sense. The literature shows us that women were disproportionately impacted, faculty of color are disproportionately impacted by the caregiving and other responsibilities associated with pandemic. Not all men were,” Woodruff-Borden said. “And so in some ways, slowing down the tenure clock has to be balanced with recognizing that there's still equity that you have to pay attention to in that space.”
She stressed the importance of making sure external reviewers know not to treat the one-year extension as extra time to increase productivity, but as a way to account for potential delays resulting from pandemic-related obstacles to research productivity. Some faculty, including Hopkins, are worried about others taking advantage of the extension, using the extra time to get ahead when their research has not been as heavily impacted.
“The idea that the rising tide lifts all boats is not actually accurate,” Hopkins said. “It's like, yeah, it makes it possible for those people to survive, but they look crappier relative to all the people who aren't having as hard a time.”
Cassandra Moseley, interim vice president of the Office for Research and Innovation, touched on this inequity. By the nature of some people’s research, she said, they were either not disrupted at all, or they had their productivity ground to a halt by disciplinary or methodological differences.
Moseley said some faculty research was not affected by working from home if they only had to conduct computation research or write philosophy articles, for example. But faculty members who have to conduct their research in a laboratory setting or use human subjects do not have the luxury of being productive from home.
“The impacts are going to continue beyond when we're all reopened. How people bounce back is going to be really uneven,” Moseley said. “Our response is going to be ongoing. Because the impacts are going to be ongoing.”
Biancarosa said her women academic circles have been discussing whether a one-year extension is enough to make up for lost research. As a professor in the special education and clinical services department, most of her research is conducted on children in school settings. Kids have not been in school for over a year now, and they will not be going back full time for even longer.
“These disruptions are continuing to affect people,” Biancarosa said. “Until those things really resume normal, it seems to me that it would only be fair to further extend that potential, you know, give them another year.”
The Office of the Provost implemented other policies and recommendations to help the situation, including a $200,000 fund to spur the research of assistant and associate professors impacted by COVID-19. It also recommended postponing non-essential services this academic year, and that department heads limit the number and duration of meetings.
The caveat to this recommendation is that most, if not all, work is essential, and anything that does not get done this year will result in more work next year. Additionally, the sociopolitical events that transpired this year resulted in faculty members spending more time mentoring and caring for their students.
Biancarosa said the College of Education is taking issues of racism and discrimination seriously, working on anti-racist teaching practices and preparing teachers to implement these practices as well. She said this is not simple work.
“I'm on multiple diversity, equity and inclusion committees that didn't exist before last spring, which is perhaps its own problem,” Biancarosa said. “But I think most faculty have stepped up and stepped into this work, because they recognize the importance of it. If anything, it's more work rather than less.”
Cinema studies professor Sangita Gopal said her mentoring load is quite heavy, and invisible. She said she has students who are not even in her class coming to her for advice on issues of access because they don’t feel comfortable talking to their White professor.
“It's very difficult to tell your supervisor, ‘Look, I spent 10 hours talking to students who were upset about this.’ That is not something that's quantifiable as your labor,” Gopal said. “It's emotional labor that takes a toll from your ability to get your work done. I think that's always been somewhat true, but it got highly foregrounded, highly underlined, during the pandemic.”
Gopal directs the Women of Color Project in the UO Center for the Study of Women in Society. She said many of her colleagues of color have found themselves in similar mediating situations during the pandemic. The best thing the administration can do, Gopal said, would be to survey faculty for their needs, one year into the pandemic.
“We were in a fight and flight response in the spring,” Gopal said. “So now that it’s routinely normalized, then another set of considerations come into view. How are you doing one year out? The picture has become a lot clearer as to what the challenges that lie ahead are.”