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Credit: Chase Sutton

Penn will allow faculty members to explain how COVID-19 has impacted their work in their annual performance and activity reports and in applications for tenure and promotion. 

Provost Wendell Pritchett and Vice Provost for Faculty Laura Perna announced the move in a message published in the Penn Almanac, writing that faculty members should use the option to describe how the pandemic has impacted their work and career trajectories. While faculty members welcomed the option to submit a pandemic impact statement, some expressed concern over how answers would be interpreted.

Though Pritchett and Perna wrote that faculty members are not required to disclose personal health circumstances, they urged faculty to discuss changes they made to teaching and advising to adapt to the pandemic, as well as "other implications of the pandemic for faculty work and life."

The message also recognized that the pandemic may have had a more negative impact on women faculty members and faculty members of color, citing the disproportionate health and economic impacts of the pandemic on communities of color, as well as gender differences in caregiving and household responsibilities. Pritchett and Perna wrote that a primary purpose of the impact statement is to “normalize recognition of these factors.”

David Lydon-Staley, an assistant professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, said though he is glad to have the option to include a pandemic impact statement, he has not yet decided whether he will. He said it may be important to include one in solidarity with other faculty members since he is unsure how faculty who submit statements will be viewed compared to those who do not.

Lydon-Staley said that although he has faced challenges obtaining funding for research, as many grant-funding sources have disappeared, his team has largely been able to navigate through pandemic-related obstacles, such as by delaying neuroimaging work.

"We've been a pretty privileged lab — by not putting in a pandemic statement, [would] that mean that it's going to affect the way people who put in pandemic statements will be viewed?" Lydon-Staley said.

In agreement with Pritchett and Perna's message, Lydon-Staley shared that the effects of the pandemic disproportionately affect women faculty and faculty of color, adding that he worries about the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on these faculty members. Often, he said, publications such as books and articles for academic journals come out years after much of the work and research is done, so an inability to lay the groundwork as a result of the pandemic can have repercussions for years to come.

“The already-existing inequalities are going to be compounded,” he said. “A year is not just about getting a paper out — it's also about having the time to develop ideas, to collect data, so that when it comes time for grant-writing season, for example, you have an existing pool of achievements that you can prop up to support your proposals.”

Melike Lakadamyali, associate professor of Physiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, also reported similar research-related challenges, as well as difficulties juggling caring for her four-year-old son and managing her job remotely. She said that giving the option to include a pandemic impact statement is a step in the right direction, and she plans to submit one in order to share her experiences. 

After her son’s preschool shut down in March 2020, Lakadamyali said she and her husband initially tried to coordinate schedules to manage childcare — but the situation was disruptive to her work schedule and her ability to focus. In July, she said, they decided to take the risk of hiring an external babysitter. On three separate occasions, her family had to quarantine following “false alarms” where they feared the babysitter had contracted COVID-19 after experiencing possible symptoms.

“While we found some strategies to help alleviate the situation of having zero childcare, nonetheless, it has constantly been a struggle, and constant uncertainty and inconsistency that keep adding pressure and stress,” Lakadamyali said. 

She added that though she was privileged enough to hire a babysitter, and fortunate that her husband is an “equal partner” who works with her to manage childcare, she believes that gender equality, in academics and the workforce, has “been rolled back decades” as a result of the pandemic. 

Though she plans to submit a pandemic impact statement, Lakadamyali said she is not clear on how exactly they will be evaluated, since not every faculty member will include one, and the impact of the pandemic on scholarship and research is difficult to quantify.

“Hopefully, [the statements will] be taken into account when evaluations are made for promotions and things like that, [and] the promotion committees are going to actually pay attention and understand that particular groups of people have been disproportionately affected, and take that into account,” Lakadamyali said. “Whether that will happen in reality? I don't know.”

Associate professor of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine Sunny Shin views the pandemic impact statements as a step forward that she hopes will result in promotion committees considering extenuating circumstances when evaluating productivity.

She said that in addition to facing greater expectations of childcare and household responsibilities, women faculty and faculty of color also are asked to do more “invisible work” relating to institutional service and student mentorship.

In the past year, she said, amid the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and the police killings of Black people, she has been asked to serve on many antiracism committees and help with initiatives at Penn, such as the Combating Racial Inequities Committee for the Biomedical Graduate Studies program. She added that she has also spent a lot of time as a graduate student mentor, advising students on personal and academic issues throughout the pandemic.

“People like me, and other female faculty or faculty of color, are the faculty who get asked to be on those committees, and do that type of service, more so than male faculty or white faculty," Shin said. “So even though it's an important opportunity, it is a responsibility on top of everything else we do.” 

Shin said that while she has tenure, she believes that pandemic-related issues are much more stressful for junior, pre-tenure faculty. Beyond the pandemic impact statements, Shin said that the University needs to do more to alleviate the financial burden that she says is often placed on junior faculty members, many of whom pay the salaries of their researchers.

Echoing Shin, Jessa Lingel, professor of Communication at Annenberg, expressed hope that the Penn department chairs would clarify how to interpret the statements to promotion committees. She said that the way external reviewers would view the statements during tenure evaluation was not communicated to faculty, and called the statement a subjective factor in a subjective process. 

“The letter is great,” she said. “But ultimately, it comes down to clear and consistent leadership from department chairs, who are the ‘gatekeepers’ of the tenure process.” 

Lingel added that she would also like to see more awareness and discussion of the gendered nature of the faculty productivity imbalances, citing the work of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program at Penn, which pushed throughout the pandemic for more faculty childcare support.

“This isn't just a flattening issue that affects everyone equally — we actually have language to talk about the imbalances here. And that is a feminist language,” Lingel said. 

Karen Redrobe, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe professor of Cinema and Modern Media and director of the Wolf Humanities Center, reiterated Lingel's sentiments, adding that she hopes the University will rethink its relationship with those who have caretaking responsibilities for children, elders, and sick people, pointing to the ongoing stigmas surrounding childcare and pregnancy in academia.

Even in the language of the impact statement, which was meant to be supportive, she said faculty parents aren’t asked, “What has being in a caretaking role contributed to your life and work?” 

“I learned from having caretaking responsibilities about how to teach,” she said. “I think there are ways that we ask questions in the spirit of support institutionally, that don't necessarily help us to change the narrative.”

Redrobe also expressed concerns that asking faculty members to quantify the emotional impact of the events of the last year, specifically the heightened awareness of racialized and gendered violence, might be “exhausting and upsetting.”

“I do think that there are some things that have had an impact that are much harder to quantify, and asking people to narrate it is itself probably traumatic,” Redrobe said. “We need a different kind of imagination, rather than a questionnaire, although I think information is good if people want to share it. But I think there also needs to be institutionally generated responses of support, without people having to explain why this year has been difficult.”