Evaluating Impact

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The COVID-19 pandemic left no aspect of university life untouched, and faculty felt that impact across all of their realms of responsibility. From teaching and research, to service and innovation, faculty life changed in ways both positive and negative, and these stories deserve to be heard.

That’s why NC State, through the Office for Faculty Excellence and the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, and with the consultation of the Faculty Senate Personnel Policy Committee, generated a way for faculty to make known how COVID-19 changed their personal and professional paths. Beginning with this academic year (2021-22) and for the foreseeable future, faculty undergoing the reappointment, promotion and tenure process will have the option to develop and include COVID Impact Statements in their dossiers. Additionally, faculty undergoing post-tenure review (PTR) and annual review (beginning with AY 2020-21 cycles) will also have the opportunity to include these statements, although they are not required in any case.

The COVID Impact Statement is an opportunity for faculty to describe both positive and detrimental effects of the pandemic on the mix or balance of their work activities and the types of work outcomes that they were able to achieve. Evaluators are asked to consider these impacts as they apply departmental and college standards in faculty evaluation processes. Evaluators are also asked to recognize the individualized impacts of COVID and avoid universalizing these statements; for example, the same factor that presented an opportunity for one candidate may have presented a hardship for another.

Faculty under review in the current (2020-2021) reappointment, promotion and tenure cycle did not have an opportunity to include such statements in their dossiers. Therefore, evaluators during this RPT cycle were asked to remain conscientious of the variable effects the pandemic may have had on each candidate and the evidence provided regarding standards met and work conducted in their realms of responsibility. 

“I was hearing from department heads that they were very concerned about the effects of the pandemic on faculty work, and that the disruptive effects of the pandemic would negatively affect faculty going up for promotion and tenure review,” said Katharine Stewart, senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs. “I imagine a faculty member who started their job in January 2020, and in less than three months everything changed — they’re not going to recover from the effects of the pandemic and recreate their work in a year. We want faculty to be able to provide context for their work, and give them the time to recreate what they want their impact to be.”

In any given academic year, between 140-180 faculty undergo the RPT review process. About half of all the faculty that did a reappointment, tenure, or post-tenure review in the 2021-22 academic year included an impact statement in their dossier.

COVID Impact Statements will play a formidable role in leveling the playing field for faculty undergoing review, many of whom had to take on additional caregiving and other duties throughout the pandemic, or who experienced significant disruptions to their work. This is a mechanism faculty can use to share unique circumstances fairly and effectively. 

“I am so impressed with what so many have achieved when I learn their back stories,” said Barb Sherry, head of the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences. “In some ways I wish we could share these stories more widely because it is so heartening to see what our faculty do in the face of such hurdles. COVID happened (and is happening) and we cannot change that. But we can acknowledge to our peers that we see them, we care, and we understand that context is everything.”

In November 2020, the faculty in Sherry’s department discussed whether to use COVID Impact Statements in each of their assessment processes, and if so, how they could use them fairly. Faculty decided they were highly useful, but that the format and interpretation would likely depend on individual circumstances, as a uniform process could offer equality but not equity. Since then, departmental faculty have been highly encouraged to include COVID Impact Statements in all evaluative processes, although it remains optional. Most faculty have chosen to include them, with variations in content and depth.

“They [the COVID Impact Statements] were hard to read in terms of the impacts, sometimes very stressful ones, that were experienced by faculty, but they were also very inspiring in terms of how faculty are responding to the pandemic’s effects,” said Stewart. “This shines a light on what was one of the most disruptive things to happen to many of our faculty, barring a personal tragedy, in their careers. I hope it gives people a way to think and talk about how the pandemic affected faculty work.”

COVID-19 impacted all faculty, both directly and through its downstream consequences. It has hampered research operations and required a major investment of time in developing effective remote teaching approaches. It has also taken a tremendous emotional toll for those who have struggled with increased family needs and loss of loved ones.

“It is incredibly important to acknowledge this impact in a process that uses research productivity and instructional success as key metrics for evaluation. This is not only true for faculty seeking reappointment or tenure according to university-mandated timelines, but also for faculty seeking optional promotions where delays result in lost income and potentially lost opportunities,” said Sherry. “Faculty have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to tell their individual stories; to explain how they have progressed in the face of COVID challenges. That lens is the way we can assess success not in absolute terms but instead as a measure of perseverance and achievement in this unique context. Our goal is to reappoint, promote, and tenure individuals based on their potential for continued and future success, and we need all of the data for an accurate evaluation.”

For faculty considering including a COVID Impact Statement in their dossier, Sherry recommends describing those COVID-related events that had the greatest impact on university activities, choosing the detail that is truly necessary to convey those impacts. Personal circumstances may be the most difficult to share, but depending on a faculty member’s situation, may be the most important. This provides reviewers with the lens to assess successes not in absolute terms but in the context of challenges. 

“This is information, not excuses, evaluators will know the difference,” said Sherry. “Having read so many of these by now, I know it can be done effectively in many different ways.”

Stewart anticipates that COVID Impact Statements will be needed for at least the next several years. The university community will be given ample notice — no less than two full academic years — before COVID Impact Statements are phased out.

“The Office for Faculty Excellence and Provost’s Office truly does want to hear from all of those involved in the faculty evaluation process about how these impact statements are working and how they could be improved,” said Stewart. “We want to give faculty a voice in explaining how the pandemic affected them, and we value their feedback.”

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