Stopping the Tenure Clock

May 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

As part of the series of posts, here and elsewhere, on work/life balance, I've stopped to think about the tenure clock. I don't have answers. But the more I talk to people and think about it, the more convinced I become that (1) I'm not seeing all of it and (2) there are not simple, easy answers.

I have been part of discussions at my current and my past universities about stopping the tenure clock. What seemed like a simple thing, a thing that would permit women to return without losing ground, a thing that would not cost anyone anything, is not. Note: stopping the clock is not the same thing as maternity/parental leave, family leave, which is FLMA and an HR legal thing. In this context "stopping the clock"  meant delaying tenure decision for a year. Because tenure is an annual consideration, clock stops need to come in units of years, whether or not that is realistic, in anyone's best interest, or functionally feasible.

Wise, caring, right-thinking people brought up issues in these discussions. First, in today's climate, if you stop the clocks for mothers, you must stop the clock for fathers. For my gay friends, that is right. The rationale is that a first year of a child's life is very difficult, even with no attendant issues (and as someone who teaches and has taught embryology, at least the basis of those issues are very clear to me).

But what about the father with the stay-at-home wife/mother? We all may "know" that fathers do not do what mothers do, but not necessarily. Next, what about the person who decides to have 4 or 5 or 6 children? Do they get to stop the clock that many times? Do they get 12 years till a tenure decision (aside from the madness of waiting that long...)? For how many children is the clock stopped is a real question. Please don't say stuff about how many children someone should have, and population explosion, and how many can be supported on an academic salary. If this is going to be in the rules, it needs to be a rule, and it needs to be complete.

What does stopping mean? Does it mean that achievements for that year are not included in the package (because the clock was stopped because the person was not working as hard)? Does it mean that they just have an extra year? If tenure decision is made at the end of 7 years,  is  the denominator (years) is kept at 7, while the numerator (number  of pubs or whatever) permitted to be 8? Does one get to count the work one does in that stopped year? And of course, that's just the numerical assessments. And, of course, there are lots of non-quantifiable things that go on to produce the quantifiable ones: the thinking, that maturation of ideas, the looking at data that make a difference for what science finally gets published.

I agree the first step is making something possible, but the implementation is going to be harder, as so many tenure decisions that are on the margin. Someone who has published a lot (20 pubs?) but not been successful in funding? Someone with funding but who has published nothing? Someone who has totally blown off their teaching (multiple complaints to the chair and dean), but is successful in research? The unpleasant person who is just this side of ethical violations, but otherwise doing ok? Will the tenure committee, the letter writers be able to honestly give that extra year, assessing the accomplishments as if they occurred within the 7 year window and not in an 8 year one?

One of my assoc prof, tenured colleagues, an involved parent, whose partner is not stay-at-home, and quite honestly overwhelmed with child care at this career point said, bluntly: everyone would like another year. Why don't we just do that? Or at least stop the up and out 7 year madness.

14 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    I support fathers taking an extra year, but not if their wife (or husband!) is primary caregiver, either as a stay-at-home or part-time worker. Because in the end, that just gives an extra year to people who aren't shouldering the burdens of dr's appointments, maternity leave, etc. But I have seen lots of men with stay-at-home wives take the tenure clock extension as though it was even remotely applicable...making the "bar" for tenure just that much higher. It's very frustrating.

    It's silly to suggest that accomplishments "during" the stopped year don't count; the point is that the cumulative effect of having a kid is losing a year of productivity, but that year is lost over the course of several years.

    • potnia theron says:

      thanks for the perspective. Its very difficult to make specific arguments about who is or is not or has or has not a caretaker for child. Uni's, being largely risk adverse wrt legal issues, will give it to everyone, which of course, defeats the purpose.

      • DJMH says:

        I know of some places that require the PI to sign an affidavit that they are primary caregiver. I know of several PIs who sign that affidavit despite the fact that it is well known to be false; therefore, it is clear that in these cases the chair is complicit in the deceit....presumably because they want their asst profs to get tenure. The motivations are therefore aligned to lie.

    • B says:

      I've seen a lot of men not take leave when available. I don't know what the stats are but I suspect they tend to not use it.

      I'm not sure what level of burden is required to make it ok for a man to take parental leave. In my experience (2 kids) the biggest issue is nursing and recovery from having the baby. Men cannot do either of those. So you could either give men parental leave and they could offer some amount of extra support or not and they cannot offer any. Seems to me a liberal policy leave is best for everyone.

  • pyrope says:

    At my U, stop the clock is the default choice for women and men. There has been grumbling, and will always be, about the relative amount of child care work for men vs. women and fairness around this issue. But, supporting non-birthing partners in the child care business ultimately supports women because it recognizes that partners must play an equal or near-equal role in what has historically been considered 'women's work'. I think that creating caveats etc. about who is eligible and deserving assumes that faculty are likely to abuse the system. I'm sure we can all come up with an anecdote, but I don't think that abuse of stop the clock is something worthy of enough concern to make a bunch of special rules for it.
    If a tenure case is borderline enough that a 7 vs 8 denominator makes a difference then I'm sure various committees will be arguing over it throughout regardless of what rules are in place.

    • DJMH says:

      I don't think that abuse of stop the clock is something worthy of enough concern to make a bunch of special rules for it.

      Even when that abuse perpetuates the advantage of stereotypically advantaged groups, ie men with stay-at-home wives?

      Also I'm curious what your evidence is that my anecdata are not representative.

      • pyrope says:

        I guess my default assumption is that anecdata by definition are not representative, as they are viewed through the biased lenses of our own limited experiences. The counter to your question, of course, is why do you think your anecdata would be representative?

        • DJMH says:

          I don't have any idea whether my anecdata are representative. I know men who take the year who genuinely share in as many aspects of child rearing as reasonably possible, and men who take the year who rely on stay at home wives (or wives who double as their "lab managers").

          I didn't say all men did this (to the contrary!) but I can think of 3 without any effort. Should we just pretend this doesn't happen? And that this doesn't raise the bar for tenure expectations for everyone else? This includes working mothers *and* anyone else who would have liked another year to get out those papers...who I would think would be just as annoyed by this behavior.

  • Anonymous says:

    @DJMH: What is your solution? Install cameras in everyone's homes so we can see who is really doing what?

    What about wealthy women with full-time nannies, housecleaners, chefs, etc. -- do they get to stop the clock, too?

    Stop the clock has to be available to all parents, full stop. If you are a woman and your partner does not do his or her fair share, that is up to *you* to fix, not society. Unless you want society to stick its nose in your private affairs and tell you how to live your life. That would be nice, eh?

    • DJMH says:

      I don't have a solution. Instill honesty? My point is just that this is yet another incentive that was designed to help working mothers that has been twisted into a free-for-all that does little or nothing to help the group in question.

      I am impressed that you think limiting clock stoppage to people who actually earn it is somehow a version of rights being taken away. There is no reason that tenure has to coincide with women's childbearing years, but it does, because tenure is a social construct developed by and for men. Clock stoppage is an effort to right this socially constructed bias. Obviously there are also plenty of people like you who prefer to see social biases stay exactly as they are, so congratulations for that.

      I have never actually met a working mother in academia who could afford an all-night nanny, but nice straw woman.

  • AAA says:

    "It's silly to suggest that accomplishments "during" the stopped year don't count; the point is that the cumulative effect of having a kid is losing a year of productivity, but that year is lost over the course of several years."

    Agreed. I was extremely unproductive in my pregnancy year (I had a difficult pregnancy, extreme morning sickness, etc), but managed to do relatively okay the year my child was born (a combination of various factors such as students growing up, child sleeping through the night within the year).

    I too agree that both parents should get the choice for stopping the tenure clock. Sure, some men with stay-at-home wives will abuse it, but (a) academic men with stay-at-home wives are rarer and rarer (academic salaries!) and (b) we *want* men to be more involved in childcare and so we want to make men taking the tenure clock stoppage the norm.

  • potnia theron says:

    DJMH & Pyrope: Getting reliable data on this would be / will be difficult. No matter what is done, someone will take advantage of it and someone else will lie about it. The question I've heard asked is: are the abuses (people who don't "deserve" a stopped year taking one) more important or significant than the benefit that accrues to those who do need it? The difficulty with this question is that if everyone takes advantage of it, then it simply pushes the clock back for everyone, and that the young women who might have an issue are not being helped.

    The radical solution is to get rid of tenure.

  • gmp says:

    I had my kid No 2 on the tenure track and had the stoppage paperwork in place but ended up not using it. From my CV you couldn't tell that I had a kid at all and I didn't really need the stoppage, so I went up in year 6.
    Also, it didn't help that a senior colleague told me I would be considered a weak link if I did use the stoppage. You gotta show you are tough!
    A man in another department who started at the same time as I did took 2 years extension, one for each kid. He has a stay-at-home wife.

    I am currently on the university tenure committee. Last year we saw three cases from the same department, two men and a woman. They all had kids on the tenure track, the woman is the only one who didn't use the extension. It's the old adage: a woman with family concerns is looked down upon, a man is lauded for being a committed family man.

    Re letters with clock stoppage. It's a nonissue. People comment on overall productivity and seek an upward trajectory. Tenure clock duration varies significantly (e.g. some schools promote to associate sans tenure, then to full with tenure) that nobody thinks a year here or there is anything.

    But in general I think these quests for equality again trample over women. Don't get me wrong, I have respect for adoptive parents and non-birthing parents of all stripes. But everyone is a little too happy to forget that there is a specific demographics that bears the brunt of bringing a child to life, and those are biological women who carry them and give birth to them. Even in academia, the common scenario is still a woman who is pregnant and gives birth. I want academic women who do that to get help with tenure clock stoppage before all other caregivers who do no t go through the ordeal. Pregnancy is fuckin' hard. People seem to think that gestating a human, delivering and recovering are a walk in the park. They are not. I lost months of productivity with kids No 2 and 3 (the latter after tenure) on account of vomiting non-stop for months. All I could do was drag myself to teach a class and that was it. To me, that was the real productivity loss, more than after the baby was born. And if you are a breastfeeding mother, that really means you are sleep-deprived and on call non-stop for months.

    I agree that dads and adoptive parents all care for their children, and after the kid is born every caregiver's life is likely upended to degree. But I wish we weren't yet again erasing women who give birth from this discussion. Pregnancy, birth, and recovery are very difficult. Breastfeeding while being an academic on the TT (i.e., not sleeping and thus not having your wits about on account of being a zombie) are also very taxing and are not replicated by any caregiver who can in fact get some sleep. I guarantee that even very involved dads get much more sleep than breastfeeding moms.

    Anyway, I am generally saddened that many progressive discussions on a number of issues are quick and seemingly very happy to dismiss/gloss over/trivialize the issues of (biological) women.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    White dude here. I requested to have my tenure clock extended for one year due to the birth of twins. There are no easy answers to the issues raised. For me the decision came down to 1) a real loss of productivity due to sharing child care responsibilities with my spouse, 2) the added loss of productivity because my spouse is a co-mentor in our lab and the productive team member, and 3) trying to promote a culture of work-life balance in my department.

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