Report addresses COVID pandemic’s effects on JHU junior faculty

Aug. 13, 2020

Dear Faculty Colleagues:

It is hard to overstate the importance of our junior faculty to the future of our university. They are without question some of the best young scholars, teachers, and clinicians anywhere in the world, and they bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to our quest for knowledge and discovery. The university’s continued eminence is tied to our success in supporting the growth and achievement of our junior faculty.

We know that in the best of times, the path to a successful academic career is neither straightforward nor easy. Junior colleagues face significant challenges as they seek to establish research teams, secure funding pipelines, and build publication track records. We also know that the past several months have been anything but normal. The COVID pandemic has greatly exacerbated concerns that junior faculty normally face in relation to research support, teaching responsibilities, and clinical contributions; and family responsibilities have created additional stress for many members of our community, as schools and other essential caregiving resources are disrupted.

The university and our divisions continually invest in supporting our junior faculty—through startup funding and mentorship programs, as well as universitywide research initiatives such as the Catalyst and Discovery Awards—but it is clear that in this extraordinary moment we must do even more.

This summer, we joined with representatives of the University Pandemic Academic Advisory Committee (UPAAC), a cross-divisional group that is lending critical faculty perspectives to our academic response to the pandemic, in convening a series of listening sessions with more than 80 junior faculty from each of Johns Hopkins’ academic divisions. Those junior faculty conversations helped form the basis of a comprehensive report authored by members of UPAAC and Lainie Rutkow, a professor of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and senior adviser to the president.

As analyzed in detail in that report, which is posted on the UPAAC website, four main themes of concern emerged in our listening sessions: caregiving, career advancement, teaching and training, and lack of agency. Some of the specific issues raised are under the purview of the divisions; others benefit from universitywide programs and policies; but all are of critical importance to the university. We and the deans are committed to addressing the concerns raised by our junior faculty colleagues, and we have already begun working with the faculty governance bodies to that end.

We offer here some preliminary responses in what promises to be an ongoing conversation about how best to support those launching their academic careers at Johns Hopkins so that they may succeed here in the years ahead.

Junior faculty are experiencing a significant increase in the challenges of child care and caregiving as a result of the pandemic. Many have young children at home, and they may at the same time have caregiving responsibilities for others, such as older relatives. The UPAAC report details several family-related challenges junior faculty identified as a result of the pandemic: the difficulty of working at home alongside young children; concern for the potential risks posed by day care, camps, and in-home care; the uncertain availability of care resources; the likelihood of continued online schooling in the fall; the unexpected financial burden related to new care needs; and the lack of quiet, secluded spaces for work.

Faculty members provided a wealth of suggestions for how the university could reduce these burdens, and in response we are pursuing several new programs and enhancements to existing benefits not only for junior faculty but holistically for all faculty and staff. 

Starting this week, the university is offering new resources to facilitate peer-to-peer caregiving within the Hopkins community and a new individualized support service to help with the process of finding caregivers. The university’s Human Resources leadership team will provide more details later today about these new offerings as well as the expanded child care services put in place over the past year. In addition, our conversations with junior faculty revealed a need for bolder steps, even if they involve substantial investments and operational complexity, and we are working intensively to develop more robust solutions.

Career advancement
In many divisions, junior faculty work against a clock in the pursuit of tenure, and the COVID pandemic has placed significant barriers in the way of their research, scholarship, teaching, and service.

Faculty members expressed concern about how pandemic-related tenure clock extensions will be documented and factored into promotion decisions. Those who conduct field work, particularly internationally, as well as those whose research relies on laboratory resources, worry that they may lose a full year or more of progress. Many junior faculty who rely on external funding expressed concern that the effects of delayed grant submissions may not be apparent until well after the pandemic has subsided. Networking opportunities have evaporated as travel restrictions prevent in-person interactions with collaborators at conferences and through invited presentations, and the significant additional administrative, clinical, or other work many junior faculty have taken on during the pandemic takes them away from career-advancing scholarship.

Because the nature of these challenges varies across the university, many of the solutions to support career advancement will need to be developed and implemented on the divisional or departmental level. That said, the university will assist the divisions in providing bridge funding to junior faculty who need it as a result of the pandemic. We recognize that the need for these funds is not necessarily in the current fiscal year, and we are dedicated to helping manage the continuing financial burdens of this obligation.

Johns Hopkins faculty are hired and promoted based on their potential as leaders in their fields. We have demanding expectations, and those standards remain. But we also recognize that the current circumstances require additional support and encouragement so that all of our faculty can achieve their potential. Early in the pandemic, the university worked with the divisions to extend tenure deadlines, where they exist, by one year, and the university will play a strong role in encouraging divisions and their faculty governance bodies to enact a policy and implementation plan for review of promotion dossiers to account for pandemic-related impacts.

Teaching and training
Junior faculty find that their teaching schedules have become much more difficult to maintain given new caregiving responsibilities, particularly for those with young children, and the task of training the next generation of researchers is much more challenging in a world where we must maintain physical distance. Junior faculty expressed concern that the in-person collaboration with students and trainees that is so often the source of innovation will be impossible during the pandemic. Worry about international students, given the slowdown in visa processing and shifting national policies, falls heavily on junior faculty, as does the desire to provide emotional support to their trainees.

Suggestions from our junior faculty conversations to address these concerns include increased assistance and training in the delivery of online education, flexible or asynchronous teaching options when possible, and alignment of undergraduate instruction with the work of the Second Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE2). Much of this work is underway at the divisional level, and the university has co-invested with the schools in enhanced technologies to support best-in-class remote teaching. We also will look for additional opportunities to lend support to school-led efforts in this regard. 

Lack of agency
Underpinning many of the concerns junior faculty expressed during this summer’s listening sessions was a general feeling that they lack agency. The pursuit of tenure requires careful planning over many years, and the pandemic has created the perception—and in many respects the reality—that even short-term planning is difficult and unreliable.

Many junior faculty spoke of anxiety that the grace and kindness colleagues have afforded them as they try to balance work and life obligations will be exhausted, and that their health and that of their families may be put at risk whenever they return to campus. Female junior faculty may be particularly impacted by the pandemic, with recent national studies showing that research and publication productivity have suffered disproportionately for women, threatening to set back gains in gender parity in the professoriate.

Many of these concerns are particularly acute for people of color on the faculty, who are experiencing these stresses at the same time that they must endure painful daily reminders of the terrible effects of structural racism. As we communicated last month, we are seeking to address that anxiety and lack of agency through a renewal and expansion of our university’s commitment to equity and inclusion, a refresh of our Roadmap for Diversity and Inclusion and an examination of Johns Hopkins University’s own history and legacy with regard to racial equity.

We are also committed to tracking and addressing the long-term impacts of the pandemic on our junior faculty by reporting on key metrics, such as papers published and grants applied for and received. In particular, we must remain focused on the differential impacts of the pandemic based on gender, race, and other factors.

In closing, we are extremely grateful to the junior faculty members who shared their experiences with us, and to the UPAAC and to Professor Rutkow for synthesizing their concerns and developing ideas for addressing them in this important report.

The leadership and impact of our junior faculty are essential for our university as we navigate these difficult times and plan for the future. We look forward to ongoing dialogue as we continue to seek solutions to the challenges we face together.

Ron and Sunil