At my workplace the current question is how much the Koch Foundation is like Jeffrey Epstein. Everybody agrees they’re in the same category, the provost brings up Epstein without prompting in discussion of Kochs, it’s really a sight to see. (We’re still taking their money.)
(Thinking about posting things I would otherwise tweet here. Gonna bring the mid-2000s back by sheer for￼ce of will.)
I think the case against ten-year tenure clocks is the same as the case against extending tenure clocks for parental leave (ie it’s far better than firing someone but far worse than just having standards that can be met by reasonable people in a reasonable period of time). Anyways my employer recently lengthened the tenure clock for all medical faculty to ten years, and now apparently they are considering expanding that further:
Already, Kirsch said, the School of Medicine has requested and received an extension of the tenure acquisition process from seven to 10 years for its entire faculty, where all but clinical faculty had previously had the shorter deadline. The provost’s office is considering letting other schools opt in to this extended “clock,” she said.
As I’ve said before, if the only way you can think of not to fire good people is to keep them precarious and subordinate for several more years, that is bad. Please don’t do this.
tl;dr: Not well. The best information we have puts non-tenure-track faculty salaries significantly below those of all our peer institutions.
(Updated with Fall 2019 data here.)
I teach at Pitt, where as of this year I have tenure. I have also been active since 2014 in the campaign to organize all the faculty at Pitt—across ranks, schools, and campuses—into a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers. Since 2015 I have been a member of Pitt’s Senate Budget Committee (BPC), which receives reports about faculty salaries and other budget-related issues. For the last two years I’ve been the secretary of that committee.
This post is an effort to lay out what I know about my non-tenure-stream colleagues’ salaries as accurately and honestly and comprehensively as I can. I’ll try to link directly to reports, policies, and other data everywhere I can, and to flag if I make any claims without linking directly to supporting information.
A few notes to start: Pitt uses “tenure-stream” and “non-tenure-stream” (T/TS, NTS) rather than the more common “tenure-track”/”non-tenure-track” (T/TT, NTS), and I’ll follow Pitt’s usage here. This post will only discuss full-time NTS faculty, since that is what we have access to decent salary information about. Part-time NTS faculty (colloquially, “adjuncts”) also have urgent salary concerns, and I’m sorry I can’t speak more directly to those. This post will also focus only on full-time NTS faculty at the Pittsburgh campus, and not at Pitt’s regional campuses in Johnstown, Greensburg, Bradford, and Titusville. I think the numbers we have access to for the regional campuses are less reliable, given the smaller total number of faculty at the four regional campuses, the significantly larger and more diverse benchmarking group Pitt uses to evaluate those salaries, and the significant differences in the regional labor markets where the four regional campuses are located. For those reasons I don’t feel as confident making strong and accurate claims about those salaries, and my goal in this post is to try to be a clear and accurate as possible.
The question “How well does the University of Pittsburgh pay non-tenure-track faculty?” takes on a specific institutional form within the university. Of course we can accept or reject the validity of the university’s framing, but it is a place to start. Pitt’s longstanding official policy for evaluating faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus reads:
To assure competitiveness in attracting and retaining qualified and productive faculty, the University has set a goal of ensuring that average faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus are at or above the median (for each rank) of AAU universities
The Association of American Universities (AAU) is an organization of 62 universities in the United States and Canada whose members define themselves as “leading research-intensive universities.” Although Pitt’s written policy identifies all 62 AAU members as the comparison group, in practice there is an informal agreement among all participants (to my knowledge) that the more appropriate benchmarking group is the 34 AAU institutions who are also public universities in the United States. Public universities generally pay less than privates, so excluding privates from the comparison group improves the relative standing of Pitt’s salaries. Private research universities compete for faculty with public research universities like Pitt, and given that the policy is written to prioritize market considerations (“attracting and retaining” faculty), it would be equally reasonable to use the full AAU comparison group. But I agree that the AAU publics are an appropriate comparison group, and that’s what I’ll refer to here. Pitt provides reports using both comparison groups, but in practice everyone involved treats the AAU publics as the relevant benchmark. So the salary target that Pitt officially holds itself to in practice is that average faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus should be at or above the median (for each rank) of AAU public universities.
To evaluate whether salaries are meeting this goal, every year the university produces a report comparing salaries of Pitt faculty by rank with the salaries of the benchmarking group. To produce this report Pitt’s Office of Institutional Research uses data about faculty salaries at the AAU member institutions published in the AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. (Inside Higher Ed makes the AAUP data available as a user-friendly searchable database here.) The most recent report is available as a PDF from the University Times here and is based on 2017–18 faculty salaries. In general we get information about salaries from the previous year.
The primary function of these reports is to assess whether the university is meeting its official salary target. The university produces other salary reports for other purposes. For example as part of their reporting requirements to the state they produce a report of mean and median salaries for faculty and staff by rank and unit. They also produce reports analyzing salary increases for staff and faculty cohorts over 15 years. There is also a report on faculty salaries adjusted for cost-of-living. The point of the peer group salary report is to determine if our salaries are meeting our goals according to the standards that are set out in written policies and widely agreed upon through a longstanding iterative shared governance process. Which is to say, in the context of shared governance at Pitt, if you are asking “how well are faculty paid?” this is the report that answers that question using agreed upon standards and data.
The peer analysis report organizes its results by rank: full professor, associate professor, assistant professor, lecturer, and instructor. For 2017-18 the report found that full professors’ salaries at Pitt were 16th of 34, or just above the median of the comparison group of public AAU institutions, which meets the policy target. (I’m posting screen grab images of the tables, but these are all taken from a machine readable PDF here.)
Associate professors’ salaries were 23rd of 34, below the median:
Assistant professors’ salaries were 27th of 34, well below the median:
Instructor salaries are 17th of only 20 institutions that report data for this category:
And lecturer salaries are at the bottom of the comparison group (28th of 29 AAU publics who report information for this rank):
If we’re reading this report to learn about NTS salaries, I think our best bet is to focus on lecturers. Like the other categories lecturer is not a perfectly defined title, but at most of these institutions it is a teaching-oriented position that is not eligible for tenure, which is what it is in almost all cases at Pitt as well. The report defines lecturer as:
the unduplicated combined total of “Primarily Instructional” and “Instructional/Research/Public Service,” excluding clinical or basic science faculty, medical faculty in schools of medicine, and military faculty, regardless of whether they are formally designated as“faculty” who have titles such as “lecturer” or “visiting lecturer.”
All of the other categories include both tenured/tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream faculty at Pitt, though we don’t have a breakdown of how many T/TS and NTS faculty are in each. I would expect that of the “professor” ranks, assistant professor would include the largest proportion of NTS faculty, because Pitt employs many people as research assistant professors, clinical assistant professors, and in similar untenurable assistant professor positions. Pitt has only recently begun to implement promotion tracks for NTS faculty, but until very recently many or most NTS assistant professors had no path to promotion, so people would remain in that title for a long time. NTS full and associate professor positions are less common, though they are not wholly uncommon especially in the health sciences schools, and their numbers may increase in the future as NTS assistant professors move through new promotion tracks. (From the 2018 Fact Book, I think it is possible to determine that about 45 percent of “professor” ranks outside the School of Medicine are NTS. Subtracting non-SoM instructors and lecturers on p84 from the total number of non-SoM NTS on 87 leaves you with 795 NTS professors, associate professors, and assistant professors, of 1778 total. I don’t think we can tell how those are distributed among the professor ranks.) Whether the presence of large numbers of NTS assistant professors increases average assistant professor salaries because the group includes many people with several years in rank, or decreases the average number because NTS salaries are usually lower than T/TS salaries is something we don’t have any data to evaluate.
Instructor is a complicated and unreliable category. My understanding is that at Pitt it is a title primarily used for faculty without terminal degrees in teaching-oriented positions (though faculty with other titles may also not have terminal degrees). It is also sometimes considered a tenure-stream rank, and according to a comment in the minutes of this Budget Policies Committee meeting, “most of the time, instructors at Pitt are tenure stream hires who have not yet finished their dissertation.” (I think this is unlikely—in 2016-17 humanities instructors averaged $38,138, which doesn’t look like a starting TS salary.) My understanding is that in general instructor is a poorly defined title across US higher ed. Adding to these challenges, last year the AAUP changed how it defines the instructor category and now asks institutions to report all faculty with “visiting” titles as part of this group (except visiting lecturers, who remain in the lecturer category). That includes visiting professor, visiting associate professor, and visiting assistant professor. The average salaries for instructors increased by 23% from 2016-2017, which is clearly the outcome of packing in all of these visiting positions. (This is reflected in table 8 of the peer analysis report, which shows that the average individual increase for people in the instructor category was only 3.9 percent, nowhere near 23 percent.) Lumping visiting professors in with instructors does seem to make this category a pretty useless catchall, and it is too bad that the AAUP decided to change their survey instructions this year.
So, how well does Pitt pay NTS faculty?
Well, the most secure answer is that last year the group that is most clearly composed of NTS faculty was paid worse than all but one of our peer institutions. Which is to say, very poorly.
And this has not changed in six years:
Those links go to University Times stories, which originally linked to the reports themselves, but those links are broken. A couple are available via archive.org. I have posted the PDFs for the others to my pitt.edu filespace. I don’t believe there is any issue there, since they were originally shared publicly through the University Times, which is how I got them.
I believe Pitt only started reporting on salaries for lecturers and instructors in that 2012-13 report. The University Times write-up of the 2011-12 salary benchmarking report does not mention lecturers or instructors.
The other two categories that include substantial numbers of NTS faculty, assistant professors and instructors, are also very poorly paid relative to the comparison group. I think we can assume that the majority of instructors are NTS and that the majority of assistant professors are probably probationary tenure-stream faculty. But the latter assumption is pretty uncertain—there really are very many people at Pitt in untenurable ranks like research assistant professor or clinical assistant professor, and to my knowledge there is no information available that would help us sort out how many of these different groups there are. It seems at least relevant to the question of NTS salaries that assistant professors’ salaries are also ranked so low. (That said, while assistant professors are low ranked, the salaries of peer institutions above them are pretty closely bunched. So Pitt assistant salaries are just under 95 percent of the median salaries of the comparison group, while lecturers are a little over 80 percent of the median in their group.)
It might be more clear just to say that Pitt pays faculty at lower ranks poorly across the board. Lecturer, instructor, and assistant professor salaries are all consistently very low in their comparison groups, while associate professor salaries are consistently moderately better, and full professor salaries are the only group to actually meet the university’s own targets. But I framed this question in terms of NTS salaries (and I’m mostly writing this out of pique at being accused of dishonesty about NTS salaries), so I’m trying to sort this specifically out as clearly as possible.
It has been suggested to me that there are other ways to interpret these data that might give a more optimistic picture, and that focusing on these numbers is wrong somehow. I think that is wrongheaded, especially since there is longstanding institutionalized agreement about what it means to ask this question, which only allows one interpretation (you either meet the goal or you don’t, and by how much). But I’ll explore some other approaches to these questions in what follows.
Cost of living
The university also produces a report analyzing faculty salaries adjusted for cost of living variations by region. Pittsburgh’s cost of living is right at the median of the cities where AAU publics are located. That means our salaries are worth more than if we lived in very high cost areas (Seattle, the Bay Area), but less than if we lived in lower cost areas (Indiana). Really the distribution is less smooth than that, and the bottom two-thirds are all very close, while the top ten regions are significantly more expensive.
Pitt faculty salaries do improve relative to other AAU publics when adjusted for cost of living.
Full professors improve from 16th to 12th.
Associate professors improve from 23rd to 15th.
Assistant professors improve from 27th to 15th.
And lecturers and instructors (treated as a single group in this report) improve from 30th to 26th.
I’m not sure why this report groups lecturers and instructors together, or how it gets lecturer and instructor salary data for all 34 AAU publics when only 29 AAU publics report lecturer salaries and only 20 report instructor salaries in the regular peer analysis report.
Somehow despite dramatic gains from cost-of-living adjustment for other ranks, lecturers and instructors remain in the bottom quarter of salaries even after these adjustments. The big improvement for assistant professors may be because their salaries are more bunched up, while lecturer salaries are significantly lower, so cost of living adjustments have more distance to overcome.
It is fair to say that Pittsburgh’s reasonable cost of living improves the value of faculty salaries relative to our peers in high cost regions. It is also clear that salaries for NTS faculty remain low even when adjusted. For Pitt shared governance purposes it is important that the official policy remains the unadjusted numbers, and this is publicly reiterated frequently by administrators (eg).
Lecturers and instructors are 58% women. Full professors are 26% women. We’ve already established that full professors are paid well, or at least adequately, while lecturers and instructors are paid poorly using the university’s own criteria. This is a significant issue for gender equity among faculty at Pitt. That linked story reports that women’s salaries are within a few percentage of the salaries of men at the same rank. What it doesn’t say, but is included in the underlying report, is that among all faculty the ratio of women’s salaries to men’s salaries is 79%. (I’m not posting the report because to my knowledge the complete reports have never been published in their entirety.)
So the gender equity problem at Pitt, from a financial perspective, is less that individual women are being systematically discriminated against compared to their same-rank male peers, than that the university as a whole is employing disproportionate numbers of women in low-paid mostly untenurable positions that have significantly less job security, lower status within the university, and no path to move into ranks that might allow them to be paid better.
This seems crushingly unjust and intolerable to me and I don’t understand why people think it is enough that the handful of women full professors make close to what male full professors make.
It has been suggested to me that it is dishonest to describe this situation without also acknowledging other progress that has been made in NTS faculty salaries. This is confusing to me because, as I think I just demonstrated at length, there has not been any progress in NTS faculty salaries since 2012-13, using criteria set by the university. But are there other ways we could evaluate NTS faculty salaries that would show more progress?
One colleague on twitter says “faculty at the lower end of the pay scale have receive higher raises in recent years.” I think this is correct. In 2015-16 and 2016-17 the annual salary pools included special funds targeted at faculty and staff with the lowest salaries. Specifically, the salary pool for 2016-17 included “an additional 0.5 percent for employees with satisfactory performance who make $45,000 or less,” which repeated a program from the year before. Many non-tenure-stream faculty would be included among those making less than $45,000. (For example the 2016-17 mean and median salaries report says the median salary for humanities lecturers was $47,643, while the average salary was $46,278, which suggests quite a few people below $45,000 pulling the average down.)
The University Times interpreted this as a small increase for individual faculty and staff members:
That extra 0.5 percent provides up to an additional $225 per year for employees at the lower end of the salary scale. At the $45,000 threshold, a 1 percent increase equals $450 per year.
This would clearly be inadequate, but I think the University Times reporter is off base here, and the individual increases would have actually been higher than this. As I understand it the whole salary pool is increased by half a percent, and that increase is then used for people below the salary cutoff, which according to the CFO at the time was about 40 percent of workers. That allows much higher increases for people in the targeted group. At least that is how the percentage increases for all the other targeted pools are calculated, and it would be a significant divergence from standard practice if that’s not what they meant here. [Update August 30, 2019: I’ve since learned that my guess here is not correct. When Pitt implements programs like this, the increase applies only to the pool of salaries below $45,000. So the University Times calculation is correct.]
I can’t find the actual dollar numbers for these increases, which don’t apply to staff covered by union contracts or to faculty and staff in the School of Medicine (and possibly others). In 2016-17 Pitt budgeted $949 million for salaries and wages, but that number is for everyone, including the med school, unionized staff, and anyone else not included in the salary pool. So the .5 percent increase targeted to low-paid workers would apply to a smaller total pool than that, and I don’t know where to find the size of that pool to evaluate what the total size of the increase would be, and I don’t know where to find the total number of faculty and staff who made less than $45,000 in those years to determine what their average increases might have been.
We do get information about the size of salary increases for individual faculty and staff, so while we can’t see how much of an impact those targeted salary pools would have made, we may be able to see evidence of it in this report. (Unfortunately I can’t find a report for 2016-17 that covers the second year of targeted increases. I have the reports for 2015-16 and 2017-18. The 2017-18 report was delivered to the Budget Policies Committee in March 2018, and the 2015-16 report was delivered the year before in December 2016, which I think means that there must not have been a continuing faculty salary increases report prepared for 2016-17.)
The 2015-16 report includes the first year of targeted salary pool increases for low-paid faculty and staff. I have a paper copy of this report, which on page 28 shows the pay increases that year for full-time continuing faculty across the university, excluding the School of Medicine:
If faculty below $45,000 received a targeted pay raise this year, it really doesn’t jump out here.
I can’t find a publicly available copy of the most recent 2017-18 report, so I’m posting my copy here, because previous such reports have been made available through the University Times, and I think they just happened not to write about it last year. Page 28 again shows the pay increases from the year before for full-time continuing faculty across the university, excluding the School of Medicine:
Salary increases for the lowest paid faculty do not stand out as especially high here. The $45,001–$50,000 group is doing better than most—about the same as people making $100,001–$120,000.
So I’m not sure that these reports bear out claims of higher raises for lower-paid faculty.
Another approach is to ask whether faculty salaries have actually increased meaningfully over their careers. According to a cohort analysis of faculty who were employed here in both 2002-03 and 2017-18 (either continuously or having left and returned), 67 people were instructors or lecturers in both 2002-03 and 2017-18. Among those, the salaries of 97% exceeded the annual salary pool “maintenance” components. The salaries of 93% increased more than inflation (CPI). The salaries of 90% exceeded the total salary pools (maintenance plus mer it/market/equity). 82% exceeded the total salary pool plus academic initiatives funding. (I can’t find an online version of this report, and I don’t think is normally distributed publicly so I won’t post it here.) That is an improvement over the cohort analysis of faculty employed in 1999-2000 and 2014-15. I’m not totally sure what we can say about this, but it seems fair to say that more NTS faculty employed in 2003 and again in 2018 had salaries that kept up with or exceeded various indexes than those employed in 2000 and again in 2015.
You can also see how much faculty at each rank in each unit make, if you want to evaluate whether those salaries are good according to your own standards, using the Mean and Median Salaries of Full-Time Employees report.
Personally, I would feel dishonest if I were to evaluate all of this and say that NTS faculty salaries have made meaningful progress.
Pitt has made other changes in the working conditions of NTS faculty in recent years. They are now eligible to participate in the Faculty Assembly and other shared governance institutions. Most schools have begun to implement promotion tracks for NTS faculty who previously could have been stuck in positions with the same title and no possibility of promotion for decades. (Lecturers can be promoted to lecturer II and then to senior lecturer. Each of those ranks, to be clear, is grouped together within the lecturer category in salary reports.) In my department within the last decade large numbers of people who had been working as “visiting” lecturers for years, sometimes decades, were converted to regular, renewable, “permanent” lecturer positions, with (I believe) higher pay, new possibilities for promotion within the lecturer track, and added service responsibilities. There are also efforts being made to combine multiple part-time positions into regular full-time NTS positions. For example my department has been approved to hire several new lecturers this year. I think there were also resources directed toward improving part-time faculty salaries in the last few years after the Budget Policies Committee convinced the administration to begin collecting data on their pay. (This is not an exhaustive list. Some of these are the initiatives mentioned by senior administrators when asked about shortcomings in the salary targets, eg here and here. Pitt is pretty decentralized, and there is a lot of variation in policies around NTS faculty in different schools and departments, and good things are certainly being done in different ways around the university.)
I think everything in this list is basically good. I can feel a bit jaundiced sometimes, and I think the details do and will matter a lot. Regularizing NTS faculty can add more to their workload than their salaries or status. New promotion tracks with “transparent” criteria can in practice impose onerous requirements and risky oversight for little financial benefit. Participation in shared governance can be a way of amplifying normally unheard voices, but the reality of contingent contracts can mean that NTS faculty may feel at risk sharing their honest perspectives in meetings with administrators or senior colleagues, and may end up being forced to sign off on and give “NTS” credibility to decisions they privately disagree with. Replacing part-time positions with full-time positions, if not done with care and attention, can force long-term part-time professors out of their jobs, or force them to accept full-time work and service obligations just to keep working with students who depend on them. Given what we know about the pay and gender composition of NTS faculty currently, it seems valid to be concerned that efforts to address the problem of exploitation of part-time faculty are working to further entrench a a permanent second-tier of low-paid women with no job security who will be first to be laid off in a financial emergency. It also does not seem unduly cynical to worry that focusing on refining policies and procedures can be a way of shifting attention away from financial concerns. And given the lack of progress made on the financial concerns of NTS faculty, even as a lot of time and effort has gone into refining policies and procedures around NTS faculty the last several years, it seems reasonable and honest to prioritize these financial issues in our rhetoric and actions.
One more very important, unqualified success of shared governance at Pitt related to NTS faculty salaries is the simple fact that we have all of this information in the first place, as imperfect as it is. I respect and appreciate the hard work of the people involved in those committees (especially my predecessors on the BPC) for persistently requesting this data, and I respect the administrators who were willing to greenlight these reports that show persistent shortcomings in a sensitive area. It reflects a real commitment to shared governance and collegiality that is admirable.
The question now is whether having this data will motivate successful efforts to change the facts they reveal, and so far there has been no progress toward meeting the salary target for lecturers. Whatever my colleagues in the senate leadership may say, hopefully it is clear to everyone reading this that this claim is plainly true, accurate, and honest.
What would it take to pay NTS faculty well?
This is not really a hard question. The University of Pittsburgh defines “well” as “at or above the median of AAU publics for that rank.” In 2017-18, the median salary for lecturers at AAU publics was between $66,000 and $67,100 (the average reported salaries for lecturers at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the 15th and 14th ranked universities of 29 reporting). The average salary for lecturers at Pitt was $53,400. Last year we would have needed to be paying lecturers $12,600 more on average to catch up with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For 230 lecturers identified in this report, that would have cost about $2.9 million. In 2017-18 Pitt’s operating budget was $2.2 billion, and Pitt budgeted just over $1 billion for salaries and wages.
So last year an increase of a little more than one tenth of one percent of the overall budget, or about three tenths of one percent of total salaries and wages, would have brought lecturers salaries up to the target. I don’t want to be glib here: of course $3 million is not just laying around, even in a $2 billion budget. And we’d also need to catch up to salary targets for assistant professors and instructors. That would be about $1.5 million for lecturers and $2.5 million for assistant professors, so another $4 million total (that is, taking the difference between the Pitt salary and the median salary and multiplying it by the reported number of workers at that rank). Which means $7 million would have gotten us to the target for all three categories in 2017-18. That’s .7 percent of total salaries and wages, or .3 percent of the overall operating budget. Increasing total salaries and wages by one percent would be more than enough to have brought all instructors, lecturers, and assistant professors up to the target in 2017-18. It would cost more to do it this year, and more again next year, as peer institutions increase their salaries too, but this gives a sense of the scale. Again, $10 million isn’t just laying around, and other workers have reasonable demands as well, but this gives a pretty clear sense of what it means to say Pitt is underpaying NTS faculty, and of the scale that Pitt would have to be directing new resources if the administration were really committed to meeting their goals.
I received this email from my employer today:
From: Read Green from Office of Human Resources – Benefits Department <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Faculty Stress
Date: April 25, 2017 at 12:08:33 PM EDT
If you have ever been through a spell of submission rejections or had unpleasant course evaluations, you know that faculty work can be depressing. If you are unsure about your funding, your research, or your reputation, you know that faculty work can provoke anxiety. And if you are fed-up, you know how burnout got its name. Maybe you are experiencing one of these issues now or maybe you see a colleague going through a hard time. In either case, the University Senate’s Committee on Benefits and Welfare reminds you that Life Solutions knows all about the unique stressors of faculty life and is here to help you. Please review the flyer to find out about this free confidential service for Pitt faculty and staff.
For more information about Read Green, please visit http://technology.pitt.edu/readgreen
University Mailing Services
It’s a pretty good email.
There is a lot of writing out there about de-professionalization in many fields (teaching, nursing, medicine, higher ed, presumably accounting and law), as a phenomenon of corporate managerial control over once-autonomous professionals. This is a real and terrible phenomenon and I share in the handwringing. I’m wondering, though, about a parallel process in which de-professionalization happens because once-autonomous professionals increasingly perform managerial roles–and this is what makes it kind of feel like you still have autonomy. So in higher ed, the hiring, evaluation, and firing of teaching faculty (tenured bosses, etc), for nurses and doctors the increased (I assume?) responsibility to oversee growing ranks of less-credentialed caregiving staff, etc. Obviously this is de-professionalizing in the conventional sense for those being managed. But also for those doing the managing, you have what *feels* like professional autonomy, or at least power and control, in the form of evaluating and directing other people who are involved in the activities of your professional jurisdiction. And that can look and feel surprisingly a lot like “peer review,” the classic function of professional evaluation by other professionals. Like, evaluating a colleague for promotion to tenure can be procedurally rather similar to evaluating a non-tenure-track colleague for contract renewal, and both can feel like part of a professional obligation to steward and protect the autonomous work of the profession. It’s just that one of those really is about a group of professionals deciding who will be a member of their own ranks (a “peer”) and the other is decidedly not. There is maybe a surprisingly fine line between peer evaluation and management, and the latter can be made to at least feel like the former, and I at least have heard people describe activities that are clearly managerial as being sites of professional responsibility (and, for example, a justification for the tenure system). It seems, though, like turning professionals into managers is itself a form of literal de-professionalization too, which is not to say that those once-professionals-now-managers should be the focus of our concern but that the structure of feeling that makes managerial tasks feel like professional autonomy is an important part of the problem.
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.
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.