After two years of living through a pandemic, thoughts of returning to normal have shifted to focus on establishing a “new normal.”
The COVID-19 pandemic yielded profound changes to research activities and operations at universities. These have had impacts on the career progression, productivity, health and well-being of faculty members.
With colleagues, I conducted a national Canadian survey of tenured and tenure-track faculty members at Canadian public universities. Our data showed how the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering career progress for women and racialized faculty. In a second phase of our research, gathered one year after our earlier survey, we identified insights faculty have about creating a new normal to support their research and career progression.
Seven-hundred and fifty faculty completed the survey. Ninety percent of respondents were assistant (24 percent), associate (36 percent), or full professors (33 percent) while 7 percent comprised senior leadership positions. The mean age of participants was 48 years and 68 percent were married.
We compared results among women, men, as well as individuals identifying as racialized and/or Indigenous. Fifty-two percent of participants were women, 44 percent were men and 1 percent were transgender. Two people self-identified as “gender-diverse” and 12 people “preferred not to say.” Eleven percent identified as racialized and 3 percent as Indigenous in response to questions: “Do you identify as racialized?” or “Do you identify as Indigenous?”
Impacts on career progression and productivity
Respondents associated negative impacts of the pandemic on their research, with factors like lack of energy, reduced ability to collect data, increased administrative workload and teaching online and increased caregiving and health challenges.
One racialized woman said she was having 80-hour work weeks, so was finding “less time for research and writing.” She added: “It is hard on my body sitting in front of a screen 12-14 hours a day in my makeshift office.”
Emergent impacts unique to faculty members identifying as racialized and/or Indigenous included lack of research support, opportunities for collaboration and sense of collegiality. One Indigenous respondent said that “academic leadership for research here has been invisible during the pandemic.”
Another racialized woman reported experiencing “reduced collaboration” because colleagues “perceive me to be less productive,” and that she also “missed opportunities for field work due to travel restrictions and safety risks.”
Faculty with Indigenous or racialized identities also highlighted recommendations for improved communications with their universities. Some comments shared were:
“They tried to appear proactive for students’ welfare, but not for us.”
“Most of the communication were from the university administration. Faculty association could work closely with a wider group of members to support struggled faculty and staff.”
We captured key recommendations by coding participant responses according to the three stages of qualitative analysis and then generated a final list of higher-level themes and associated categories that captured the main ideas provided by participants’ responses.
Key recommendations for administrators of higher education institutions included: changing the tenure and promotion evaluation criteria, increasing research support and modifying metrics used to gauge productivity to account for the differential impacts of pandemic measure on women and racialized faculty.
A recurrent answer that came up was early career researchers desire not to delay tenure, but rather revise how promotion and tenure are evaluated.
Faculty members recommended that tenure requirements, as well as other performance evaluations, be adapted alongside the changing research landscape. They stressed that non-traditional metrics beyond publication and how many grants a person has should be integrated into these evaluations.
For example, they felt that those responsible for evaluating their work should also consider a verbal or written account of how they adapted during the pandemic.
Respondents also recommended that evaluations be based on peers at the same career stage and similarly-resourced institutions.
Faculty identifying as racialized emphasized the importance of infusing equity, inclusion and diversity (EDI) into tenure expectations. One racialized woman said:
“Include EDI initiatives in your tenure expectations because COVID-19 was much harder for under-represented minorities, provide more admin/grant support by creating new grants and give us help in completing the mountains of paperwork we have to do for every single grant.”
Respondents highlighted several factors to better support faculty with research progression. Early career researchers suggested that their universities make available weekly information and help sessions about grants, similarly to how teaching supports are available. The importance of having a mentor was also stressed — as was the amount of time that mentoring students takes.
Some other faculty also mentioned they were doing less mentoring because of fewer opportunities to collaborate and interact with other students and colleagues.
In conclusion, this research provides tangible recommendations based on the impact of COVID-19 experienced by faculty. We observed a profound ripple effect where reduced productivity from increased workload impacted researchers’ progress. There are concerns that unless this is taken into account, faculty will experience delayed career progression, tenure and job security.