UPenn Turns Sensible COVID Policy Into Showcase for Woke Junk Science

UPenn Turns Sensible COVID Policy Into Showcase for Woke Junk Science
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COVID-19 has been a trying time for pretty much everyone — even cosseted tenure-track professors. Reasonably enough, university leaders are working to accommodate faculty upended by the pandemic, providing professors more flexibility in their pursuit of tenure (and the lifelong sinecure it provides) by asking faculty to submit “pandemic impact statements” that detail how professors’ work and output has been affected by the pandemic. This is all sensible enough; we could all use a little bit of grace right now. 

The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, has issued guidance promising an extra pre-tenure year to pretty much all assistant and associate professors while observing that the pandemic’s “specific” effects “will be different for different faculty members.” UPenn could’ve stopped there, and just said that the pandemic disrupted a lot of teaching, convening, and research, and that’s why it’s giving faculty some leeway.

Instead, the university went on to endorse a series of rather specific race- and gender-based assertions about how the pandemic affected college faculty, backed only by the sloppy, misleading application of junk science. It’s a study in how a sensible impulse can go awry in the hands of today’s woke campus bureaucrats.

UPenn officials asserted that “the negative implications [of the pandemic] for traditional measures of faculty productivity may be greater, on average, for women faculty and faculty of color, given gender differences in caregiving responsibilities, disproportionate negative health- and economic-related effects of the pandemic on Black and Brown people and communities, and greater expectations for women faculty and faculty of color to engage in mentoring and institutional service. Early data show that journal submissions during the early months of the pandemic were lower for women than for men.”

We couldn’t help but be curious about the research cited to justify these sweeping assertions.

Turns out, the pickings are pretty slim. The guidance is supported by only six references. Two of the citations explain how to write a pandemic impact statement and outline general pandemic effects on faculty well-being. That leaves four to address the pandemic’s disparate impact on women faculty of color and women faculty more broadly.

The citation used to justify the assertion that the pandemic had a disproportionate negative impact on the research and publication of women and on black and Latino faculty turns out not to be a study at all — but a June 2020 opinion column, published by the National Academy of Sciences and penned by Jessica Malisch, a biology professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which advises universities on how to promote gender equity.

Malisch’s piece is, itself, a revealing exercise. Malisch offers a handful of references to support her call for changing campus hiring and tenure. But only two of these are studies which purport to study the pandemic’s impact on faculty research (the others are op-eds or actions guides). And neither of the two studies actually support Malisch’s point. To back her claim that COVID-19 has driven “a wedge between women and men in academia in terms of research opportunities,” Malisch cites an Inside Higher Ed story discussing a study which used data from the first few weeks of the pandemic—and which found that women faculty, overall, submitted more work than they typically did in that time period! The other study, focused solely on women economists, found that women were submitting working-papers at their normal rate. In other words, neither study actually made Malisch’s point.

UPenn’s other citation regarding the pandemic’s effect on women faculty of color was an Inside Higher Education guide titled, “Keeping COVID-19 from sidelining equity.” The guide simply posited that higher education “will most likely become less diverse and inclusive, given the pressure the pandemic is placing on women and faculty of color.” In other words, it was a think piece predicting inequitable impacts which was then used as evidence of inequitable impacts. This would be considered shady practice by used car dealers — research institutions should be held to a higher standard.

The guidance also claimed that evidence showed “journal submissions during the early months of the pandemic were lower for women than for men,” though the data in question relied entirely upon a study of submissions to Elsevier academic journals in the first eight or ten weeks of the pandemic. The researchers found that women submitted about as many submissions as normal, while men submitted more than they normally would (hardly evidence of the pandemic’s devastating impact on scholarly productivity). However, given that the study only examined submissions between February and May 2020 relative to that same period in 2018 and 2019, and given that the pandemic didn’t actually cause disruptions until mid-March 2020, it’s hard to gauge how representative this limited snapshot might be.

The final citation was a study which found that “female academics, particularly those who have children, report a disproportionate reduction in time dedicated to research” compared to all male scholars and female scholars without kids. The research, unfortunately, was plagued by profound data collection problems. Researchers collected the data between May and July 2020 by asking respondents to self-report how they spent their day. That yielded a laughably low response rate of 3 percent (which then got slashed by a third when the researchers had to dump all those responses in which daily time tallies didn’t add up to 24 hours).

Look, college officials can just say that they want to cut everyone some slack. They can recognize that parents faced particular challenges during the pandemic. They can acknowledge that circumstances differ and just ask faculty to talk about the impact on their work. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance — hardly an avatar of ideological moderation — still managed to simply invite faculty to submit a statement documenting “the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has directly had on faculty workload and professional opportunities” so as to enable “a fair, contextualized evaluation of the faculty member’s professional performance.” That’s not so hard.

UPenn took what could have been a sensible, compassionate attempt to ensure faculty are treated fairly, and turned it into a showcase of junk science and identity politics. The corrosive effects of woke campus governance in action.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hayley Sanon is a research assistant at AEI.

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