Stop the tenure clock? Or make your standards compatible with people’s lives?

My understanding is that policies allowing tenure-track faculty to “stop the tenure clock” when they have children are relatively recent but also very widespread for tenure-track faculty in US higher ed.1 (Stopping the tenure clock means that the probationary period after which faculty will be evaluated and either accepted or rejected for tenure is extended, normally by one year, sometimes more than once during a person’s career. So a person who would normally be evaluated during their sixth year in a job would instead be evaluated in their seventh year, with the expectation being that this would allow them to make up for any “unproductive” time after childbirth or during the early years of a child’s life. Clock-stopping policies can also apply to adoption, medical leaves, family leaves other than childbirth, and leaves for professional enhancement. I’ll call these “STC” policies since that’s what other people seem to do. “Extended probation” would more precise and clearer about the stakes.)

(Disclaimer: these policies are basically all about tenure-track jobs at research institutions, which makes them mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of academic workers, large majorities of whom don’t have access to paid parental leaves or paths to promotion altogether, so questions about how parental leaves impact future evaluations are reasonably low on the list of concerns about academic labor policies. To the extent that higher ed is intensely hierarchical and largely governed by #dads for whom childbearing and child raising have only been sources of career advancement it is probably reasonable to be concerned about how we get many more people who are not #dads into high-rank positions even as we work on the primary goal of dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Also I guess that even though we/they may be a privileged minority I’m not quite willing yet to entirely discount the I think real hardship faced by, especially, women on the tenure track, and, last, I guess, is that I have this thought I haven’t seen expressed previously which I think does have implications for a wider struggle for equity in higher ed, and I feel like getting it down. Nothing here is urgent.)

(Disclaimer 2: None of this affects me. I am a purely conventional academic #dad whose reproductivity has only ever helped my career and I am probably wrong.)

On their surface these policies seem to be reasonable efforts to accommodate junior faculty who have children during a period when they are expected to be extremely productive at work but also may be relatively young and at a stage in life when they might be having children.2 (That word “productive”…) Having children requires significant time and attention, and may entail significant physical and medical challenges to birth mothers, that might reasonably be seen to interfere with a person’s ability to do as much at work as their peers who are not giving birth and caring for infants. Asking people who have just given birth and are caring for infants to compete directly against people who are not doing those things is unfair, and since women are the people who give birth and husbands are terrible this unfairness applies almost all of its force to women, and is therefore a problem for gender equity. (STC policies are normally written in gender-neutral ways and allow men as well as women to stop their tenure clocks when they become parents.) (This post is going to be all parentheticals, sorry.)

Criticisms of stopped-tenure-clock policies take a few common forms. Early on in their implementation people worried that pausing their tenure clocks would “earmark” faculty who made use of such policies for criticism or penalty. Like if you take time off to have kids it reveals your lack of commitment to the job, and your “colleagues” (supervisors) would then evaluate you negatively. Others worry that some faculty might end up getting professional work done while their clock is stopped in addition to bearing and raising children (being doubly “productive”!), which would negatively impact their peers who are not professionally productive while their clock is stopped while they bear and raise infants, and would therefore have fewer accomplishments than their peers when they are evaluated for tenure/promotion, leading to negative evaluations. Also (utterly predictably!) it appears to be the case that men who are the beneficiaries of stopped-tenure-clocks use the time to bolster their cvs (husbands are terrible is a really good rule of thumb), improving their chances at tenure while, again, setting unreasonable expectations for people with real family and other obligations outside of work (that is, mothers).

These are all important criticisms, and they reveal how blinkered our business is, how obsessed gatekeepers are with shallow notions of accomplishment and excellence, and how efforts to make the job somehow more equitable are totally impotent (this whole post is about having babies and the separation of production from reproduction, so I think that word is maybe appropriate here) and more or less designed to fail. The focus of all of these criticisms is, in effect, on the idea that as well-intentioned as these policies may be it is all too possible that for many women who give birth the clock is still “ticking”—that there are tacit expectations that mothers who give birth continue to be productive, that mothers who give birth and are not “productive” (lol) will be evaluated negatively, and that many may or do use the policies as a sort of trick to squeeze in more production. They all come down to the idea that evaluators don’t care about equity or the challenges faced by their colleagues who bear and raise children and instead are obsessed with gatekeeping and maintaining against all else their hollow standards and precious obsession with shallow notions of excellence and professional accomplishment that have no material value.

So, all of this is preliminary to the point I want to make: What nobody ever seems to mention is that increasing the time it takes people to get promoted is bad.3 If you have a group of people that you are trying to help, and your solution is to increase the time it takes for them to get promoted, to get raises and job security, and to achieve basic professional status, then you are not helping those people, you are harming them. If the alternative is to fire them, well, sure, okay maybe it is better just to delay their promotion than to fire them. But that is a blinkered choice. If you design your policies so that women who have children take longer to get promoted than men, then you are systematically decreasing their wages and rank relative to men.4 If men are being promoted in six years and women who have children are being promoted in seven or eight or nine years, then those women are literally being made “junior” to their male peers in their cohort. This is bad. STC policies don’t “level the playing field” between women and their male counterparts, because the women to whom they apply are being held back and not evaluated in parallel with their entering cohort of men. Instead they are being evaluated next to men who are junior to them. How is it not obvious to everyone that STC policies are designed to systematically deny women timely career advancement? Certainly that is better than just firing them outright (or I guess tacitly encouraging them to quit before they come up for tenure?), but it is not good.5

Everybody seems to agree that the standards for tenure are incompatible with bearing and raising children (or we wouldn’t have widespread STC policies), and everybody seems to agree that we want people who bear and raise children to be among the ranks of tenured faculty. If your goal is to help a group of people get promoted and you have determined that a major impediment to that goal is that your standards are incompatible with their lives, there is a really easy solution that doesn’t present all these predictable and bad effects. You just make the standards compatible with their lives. But somehow this is unthinkable. The very existence of all these STC policies is an explicit admission by universities everywhere that their jobs are designed to be incompatible with having families. The solution to this problem is to redesign the jobs so that they are compatible with having families. The way you would do that, in this case, would be to adjust your standards for tenure so that that are achievable by people who are also bearing and raising children.

The idea that we can’t evaluate people and determine if they are qualified, successful, on track to contribute to their departments and institutions, good colleagues, and “productive” based on a moderately smaller dossier than they might assemble after five years desperately working toward that goal is just laughable. How do we know that we can evaluate people based on smaller dossiers? Because we’ve done it for most of our history! In the past generation tenure standards have increased almost everywhere, which tells us that the same institutions that currently can’t figure out how to offer tenure to qualified women who also bear and raise children without first penalizing them with lower wages and rank than the men in their cohorts, these same institutions have measurable histories of offering tenure to people (men) with equivalent dossiers in the past. Let’s do that again!

Returning the disclaimer at the top that this is all just handwringing about policies that tinker at the edges of an already privileged population who get way to much attention in higher ed discussions anyways. I think that’s right, but I also think that the obsession over precious standards when we talk about tenure is a big part of how the hierarchical stratification of job categories in higher ed is maintained. If it were possible to change how we think about tenure so we’re not always obsessing about the moving target of our precious standards but we can see regular employment with protections for academic freedom and professional autonomy as a pragmatic tool for supporting workers rather than a gold ring handed out for supposed merit (by which logic the relative scarcity of tenure is good because it reflects a distribution of quality or accomplishment or whatever, which is obviously bullshit), anyways if we could think about tenure that way I think we’d already be a very long way toward a more equitable situation for academic laborers generally. And probably the causality goes the other way: if militant academic labor movements ever manage to really shift power in this industry and break down the deep-seated but baseless hierarchies that seem so important now, our discourse will likely follow, and we’ll be able to address gender inequality directly rather than through these counterproductive rube goldberg policy contraptions. All the strained handwringing over things like STC policies and the underrepresentation of women at high ranks (with the focus always on high ranks) in higher ed is, I think, evidence of the fundamental contradictions in the way higher ed conceptualizes labor, which is a sort of house of cards built on divisions between workers that have no material basis in the actual work they do. (That is, people on and off the tenure track do the same work, and their different titles and salaries and perks have no substance and are entirely about producing and preserving a hierarchy that obscures their potentially shared interests and disrupts any solidarity between them before it can get going.) So the discourse about tenure (of which discourses about stopped clocks, etc are a subset) is motivated by this desperate need to make these divisions feel real when they are in fact fantasies. Which is to say, the solution to the problem of promoting women is to disavow the logic of “promotion” altogether.

1. This 2013 piece [pdf] says 90% of research institutions.

2. As Marc Bousquet has pointed out the time when people normally start tenure-track positions comes after such extended periods during and after graduate school that it would not be quite right to think of the average starting assistant professor as “young.” I started my current entry-level position at 32. But for the sake of argument.

3. Probationary periods for junior faculty are already ridiculously long. Marc Bousquet, again, likes to compare professors to firefighters or teachers, who have probationary periods of two or three years. Not six years! Or at some deranged Ivy League and other “elite” universities eight years to tenure! You don’t stop being “junior” in your job until after you have completed probably seven or more years of postgraduate education, then probably a couple years in one fellowship or postdoc or contingent position or another, then probably started as an assistant professor somewhere else, and then—twelve years into your career?—got hired by an Ivy something or other and now they have to wait eight years before they can be a full member of their institution. AAUP policies are clear that seven years should be a maximum for probationary periods. Upon googling a bit it appears that institutions around the country have been trying to increase their probationary periods beyond seven years. Which is terrible.

4. This fantastic paper on the “13+ Club” asks why women are so rarely promoted to full professor in a timely process. (13+ refers to years from the PhD—if we envision six years to tenure and another six years to promotion to full, then the number of people who are 13 years past their PhD conferral date but not full professors is a good measure of non-promotion. And predictably women are much more likely to be in that group.) The absence of women at high ranks in universities is a commonly identified problem. I think there is a real question that even if STC policies might increase the number of women who are tenured, by delaying their timelines overall it plausibly also might also increase the number of women who are well into their careers but still unpromoted. (That is, STC policies probably prevent women from being fired after six years but otherwise they would seem to increase women’s underrepresentation in high ranks.)

5. When people talk about the gender pay gap, economist/apologist types often try to explain it away by saying that women freely choose to delay their careers by focusing on bearing and rearing children. So a male and a female lawyer who are equally qualified and start entry-level positions simultaneously may still end up later in their careers at different ranks and salaries because the woman is more likely to have taken time off to bear and raise children, thus delaying her opportunities for promotion and, perhaps, disconnecting her from her professional networks and skills. (This is not my story; I’m reciting the litany.) But that is normally presented as a “free choice,” where women just have a different set of preferences than men, and they trade money and professional advancement for family pleasures, and who are we to second guess their preference rankings. STC policies, though, institutionalize that supposedly free choice that everybody including anti-feminist rightwing economists already admit is a source of gendered pay inequality. If we want to reduce gendered pay inequality, we should not create new policies that institutionalize widely acknowledged contributors to gendered pay inequality.