Labor inequities for faculty and GE caregivers during COVID-19: A call to action

Editor’s note: See comments below for responses to this open letter. Click here for information and updates on the Caregiver Campaign.

Dear Colleagues:

We are writing with an urgent request to university leadership, the United Academics, and the UO Senate, deans, and department heads. COVID-19 has uncovered many aspects of our institutional practice that have historically rendered certain labor invisible and left others more vulnerable. Historically, the ivory tower was designed for monastic, solitary contemplation wherein great thoughts were debated and passed down to a few selected students who were fortunate to be admitted. As such, higher education’s research expectations have favored men who have wives or domestic partners to perform childcare. Of course, there have been changes, but the structure and expectations of research productivity overwhelmingly privilege those who can defer child and elder care.

We were encouraged by the administration’s response to pause the tenure clock as we scrambled to move our classes online. We need to build on such institutional flexibility with regard to student needs to account for the needs of instructional faculty and graduate students who are caring for children and elders. There is a first step in this direction through a recent statement by the Provost and the VP for Equity and Inclusion and their survey and call for a working group to understand what challenges faculty are facing. We write to you with some concrete ideas and urge you to ask questions about these ideas, discuss them, add to them, and bring them to light wherever you think it makes sense, but particularly to those who have the responsibility to plan and make policy at multiple levels.

Come fall, there is no expectation that children will be returning to a normal school schedule in our districts (4J, Bethel, and Springfield). Many parents may feel uncomfortable with their children’s vulnerabilities to send them to school. Following public health guidelines, day care centers are already warning parents that if children cough or exhibit signs of flu, they must stay home for the two-week incubation period to rule out COVID-19. Any parent knows that though this is sound public health advice, it strains credulity in the child-care context. If parents are paying for child-care, they are still responsible for those costs and need to make other arrangements in order to meet their teaching obligations. This alone demands reorienting and shifting our burdens and expectations until the pandemic is under control with a vaccine. In sum, we need different approaches and strategies for the foreseeable 12-24 months. Fortunately, we have time to make plans for the future. We suggest the following steps: 

1. Repurpose resources allotted for faculty research accounts (ASAs) and other funds to support caretakers. This includes revising the intended use of pools of money already available to faculty, such as start-up packages, or other funds for research and travel to pay for childcare. 

2. Waive all non-essential service until there is a COVID-19 vaccine (such as curriculum reform, peer teaching reviews, attendance at non-essential faculty meetings, reviewing core curriculum). 

3. Suspend “on track” standards for research productivity until a vaccine is available. This includes reevaluating metric indicators and timely progress standards for tenure and other merit reviews. 

4. Develop a research accommodation opt-in policy like the tenure clock extension granted to all those with caretaking responsibilities affected by COVID-19.

5. Instruct department heads and deans to evaluate teaching loads and student enrollments. Those with heavier caretaking needs should be granted teaching relief and GE assistance. Analyzing student credit hour metrics allows deans and department heads to see how the workload of educating our students is distributed across faculty.

6. Collectively identify essential strategies of caring. This includes support systems within departments but also across the university for parents, children, and volunteer or paid childcare workers. It could include a sick-day bank for faculty to donate sick days to other faculty who need them to stay home and care for children and elders.

The costs of continued expectations for service and research added to teaching demands on junior faculty and others who have to keep on doing child and elder care and schooling will be cumulative and have differential impact. This will be evident not just during the period before there is a vaccine but going forward in their academic careers. More funding for COVID-related research will not alleviate the compounding disadvantage experienced by caretakers. How can that be addressed in flexible standards and evaluation metrics into the future?

Many thanks for your creative vision and flexibility in these uncertain times,

Michelle McKinley
Director, Center for the Study of Women in Society
Bernard B. Kliks Professor of Law

Lynn Stephen
Phillip H. Knight Chair
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology
Graduate Faculty, Indigenous Race, and Ethnic Studies

The Campaign for Caregivers:

  • Sign this petition asking UO leadership to create caregiver labor equity.
  • Take this short survey on how your child, elder, or other caregiving responsibilities during the COVID-19 crisis have impacted your teaching, research, and/or work duties at UO.
  • See current research on labor inequities during the coronavirus pandemic, and add your own links.
  • Read testimonials from faculty who are caregivers.
  • Contribute a written testimonial about the impacts of caregiving on your work productivity during the pandemic. For a written testimonial, please upload your signed or anonymous .docx or .pdf file to For anonymous submissions, some indication of rank and school would be helpful to contextualize impact.

2 comments for “Labor inequities for faculty and GE caregivers during COVID-19: A call to action

  1. Alai
    June 15, 2020 at 4:48 am

    Ethics of care
    Community Care
    Non-nuclear, non-heteronormative notions of family
    Women, queer, migrant, faculty of color experiences

    Key words to consider to foster healthy possibilities for faculty.

    Thanks for starting a conversation.

  2. June 11, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for this letter Michelle and Lynn.

    One of the continuously persistent failures of the university is its lack of understanding about the additional community responsibilities that faculty of color, migrant faculty, Native faculty and working-class faculty carry. I am not the first to say this. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard and many other faculty of color have made this same point many times before.

    Many of us care for extensive, non-local networks of family, framily, elders, tribes through monetary and non-monetary remittances, problem-solving, providing resources when others in our families cannot, and being the primary emotional and inter-generational support. We are generally not separate from our communities, but deeply ensconced in them. Even from a distance. I have been deeply disturbed by the ways in which the institution has framed faculty as exceptional to the circumstances affecting all of us.

    I have been reflecting on how we are dealing with an institution that defines family within a very narrow model that is heteropatriarchal and colonial. Within this model, family is nuclear, there are two parents and those parents are heterosexual and cis-gendered, and all children are biological, family is separate from community/tribe, family is private, and nuclear family is the center of social organization.

    The institution also works with narrow concepts of personhood and care. When you define personhood as an individual subject separate from their community, with complete agency around their circumstances, and exceptional to the majority of other people, you are missing the many, many people who are constantly subjected to racism, xenophobia, violence and who understand ourselves as part of intergenerational contexts. This narrow concept of personhood is accompanied by an ableist concept of care. Ableism assumes everyone to be a model of genetic, physical, emotional perfection at all times, where all bodies and minds are assumed to operate in the same way in all circumstances, and that all of us have the resources and tools necessary to ensure our continued survival. It also promotes a notion that illness, injury or difference is a marker of being less than human.

    Within this framework of personhood, the institution conceptualizes time in terms that undermine women, queer people, working class people and migrants. Not to mention the many, many of us who have physical, emotional, cognitive disabilities across the line. For example, where are the lines between “our own time” and “university time” within all of this? I have students who have to take 1 hour to get ready in the morning because putting on a shirt is hard work. I have colleagues who suffer from cognitive disabilities like dyslexia and with everything being online and remote, are having to create new modes of functioning and they are expected to do so “in a timely fashion.” And, our colleagues and students who have physical disabilities or are battling long-term illnesses are doing so in a context where their access to care is greatly threatened. Given this, we are expected to carry the same work load despite the heavier burdens our families and communities are experiencing on the same time frame and scale of time.

    Under this pandemic, we are expected to be productive while business goes on as usual. This takes place within a context in which DHs both contribute to or are asked to participate within processes that are FALSELY URGENT. For example, changing course designations is NOT urgent. IHPs are NOT urgent. Graduation – believe it or not – is NOT urgent. Addressing unequal burdens of labor IS urgent. Addressing anti-Black violence IS urgent. Addressing our students going hungry IS urgent. Operating within a mode of urgency that places menial tasks on level with social crises disperses peoples’ energies, places greater power in the hands of those who are more quickly able to respond, undermines systems of accountability, and generates confusion. It is a mode of operation that does not account for racialized and gendered differences in labor and it is also deeply ableist. The institution does not seem to grasp that women and queer people in the academy carry the burden of additional emotional labor within our families and in our departments. All while we are also trying to live our best scholarly lives…

    Within an institutional structure that operates within these frameworks and definitions, there is no accounting for the experiences of anti-Black racism that are outside of our control or the ways in which immigration policies mean that many of us are dealing with ICE, deportations and detention centers. It also doesn’t account for the additional psychic burden Asian-American faculty are experiencing with the rise of anti-Asian hatred. How many of our white colleagues are staying firmly in place NOT because of COVID, but because they fear racial violence on Eugene’s streets? This is not a hypothetical. Queer people, already at risk of housing and employment discrimination are now more at risk.Let’s not even mention how our queer concepts of family and care are not considered within the whole equation of fair labor. Queer faculty are not exempt from homo/transphobia in our everday lives. Native peoples are carrying the burden of inter-generational pandemic trauma in a context in which Native tribal sovereignty is continuously undermined. These are not intellectual issues, but rather, part of the fiber of our deeply communal experiences in which the pandemic has exacerbated our already existing circumstances.

    Time changes when your survival and the survival of your people and community are at risk.

    Lastly, I’ll say that I think that we have a lot to learn from disabilities studies that can inform an ethic of care as a mode of being within university spaces. Our common reading next year would hopefully center stories that can allow us to grapple with how ableism and eugenics (from which ableism arises) is a very real aspect of how colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia structure institutions in ways that diminish the lives of faculty, staff and students.

    We are not exceptional. And the sooner we realize that, the easier it will be to understand that an institutional ethic of care is not that radical of a concept.

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