Jeff Leek

March 8, 2021

An investment policy for promotion letters

It has been a terrible year for everyone. Some people have been without jobs, or lost their lives, but even people lucky enough to have job security and their health have been dealing with being isolated, losing childcare at random times due to Covid scares, dealing with additional requirements as part of a transition to online work, and expectations that are somehow often set assuming normal levels of productivity.

 It is completely insane that faculty expectations haven't been dramatically scaled back in the midst of a global crisis that has completely devastated people's lives the world over. 

I am in about the luckiest position possible and about every other week I want to melt down from some kind of unexpected issue with our kids, our childcare, our family, my friends, work, the whole thing. And that is in basically the best case scenario. I have read and seen some absolutely heartbreaking posts from junior faculty who are struggling to deal with the reality of the situation and academic expectations that are completely out of sync. 

Some universities have added a year extension to tenure clocks and some are using "hold harmless" policies where promotions aren't delayed or extended, rather faculty can go up on the usual schedule, but with specific accommodations made for the pandemic. I strongly prefer the latter policies.  

I'm not in a position to influence the promotion timelines of faculty. But as a senior faculty one thing I can do is state unequivocally that I support faculty going up on the standard timeline and will be happy to write letters of promotion taking into account the pandemic. 

If a junior faculty member goes up for a promotion on the same schedule but with part of their time covered by the pandemic, I will consider their pre-pandemic productivity and project it forward assuming that it would have gone just as well. I think of this as an "investment model" in junior faculty. I don't really care if you didn't publish a single paper this year, or write a single grant, or do anything beyond just keeping your head above water and do the minimum tasks you need to do for compliance, teaching, etc.. If you had to take care of yourself and your family, you made the right choice. I'll assume you would have been just as productive as you were pre-pandemic and give you credit for the lost time in every letter I write.

So here is how I plan to evaluate junior faculty up for promotions

An investment policy for promotion letter writing 

As an external letter writer I will evaluate faculty contributions during the Covid19 pandemic via a minimum threshold universally applied across the evaluations I engage in. The minimum threshold requires a basic level of productivity: delivering required courses, submitting required research reporting, and performing mission critical service duties of a faculty member in a reasonably timely and professional manner. I commit to considering this minimum threshold as exceptional productivity during the Covid19 pandemic in the evaluations I produce. To reduce known disparities1,2 between groups due to differing responsibilities from the pandemic in evaluations of candidates, I will apply this threshold to all candidates so that all candidates are evaluated in the same way. Recognizing that some groups may be under increased service loads or reduced research productivity, I commit to applying this productivity threshold to the combination of activities required of each individual. I view this as an investment in excellent junior faculty, who have clearly been incredibly productive and certainly will again after appropriate recovery from Covid 19. 

In particular, the implication of this commitment is that for candidates in tracks requiring a clock, I will treat the minimum threshold as not requiring additional time to go up for promotions in my evaluations and will project forward pre-Covid productivity. My goal is to prevent delay of deserved promotions for faculty with significant challenges in their lives during the Covid pandemic. Of note, faculty who had particularly good years during the pandemic will not be penalized, since they will continue to be rated as having been highly productive for those years.

Specifically I'm stating:
  1. My commitment to an understanding of the complex life circumstances, stress and strain on mental health that this time period has had on faculty;
  2. My belief that extenuating life circumstances brought on by a pandemic should not be interpreted as a lack of faculty excellence and that it is possible to maintain high academic standards while showing empathy for realistic constraints brought on by global events; 
  3. My commitment to applying the minimum threshold to all candidates I evaluate whose academic record covers the period of the Covid19 pandemic and beyond;
  4. My commitment to equitable application of promotion criteria, acknowledging known disparities in obligations, requirements, and assignments; 
  5. My continued commitment to fair evaluations of faculty potential and performance.