Note: This story first appeared in the 2021 CSWS Annual Review—Last year, in the early stages of pandemic lockdown, CSWS director and law professor Michelle McKinley began receiving panicked emails from faculty friends and Center affiliates who are caregivers. With 4J schools and childcare facilities shut down, as well as shortages in long-term elder care services, how were they supposed to fulfill their teaching and research commitments at the university while also meeting the labor-intensive care needs of others?
“It became a long email chain, filled with despair,” McKinley said.
“I remember those emails,” said Maria Fernanda Escallón, assistant professor of anthropology, who at the time was caring for her three-year-old daughter while also teaching and revising her first book for tenure. “I remember saying, ‘I’m done. I can’t keep doing this. This is just too intense.’”
Escallón sought advice and support from two of her mentors, McKinley and anthropology professor Lynn Stephen, who also has a long history of leadership in the center. In their conversations, the three friends realized that CSWS could house efforts to address the University of Oregon’s caregiving crisis by proposing needed changes to the administration.
“As Maria and I talked about this,” Stephen said, “It popped into my head, ‘Wow, this is something where CSWS could really make a difference.’”
“This gave me an outlet, a way to deal with the angst,” Escallón said. “We spent a lot of fiery chats brainstorming ideas. It was a moment where I could transition the worry of ‘what am I going to do’ into intellectual action that could change something.”
CSWS has a long history of supporting research on women and work in Oregon. In 1992, the Center began the Women in the Northwest Initiative, originally envisioned by lead researchers Joan Acker, co-founder of the Center, and then-director Sandra Morgen as a five-year project to promote and spotlight women’s lives in the Pacific Northwest. In 1997, a large private gift from Mazie Giustina endowed the initiative, enabling the expansion and development of ongoing research that linked theoretical, substantive, and policy concerns about women, work, families, economic structuring, social policy, politics, and the law.
“CSWS has always been around women and work and carework—that’s our legacy,” McKinley said. “If we had walked away from this [caregiver crisis], Joan would have turned over in her grave.”
“We agreed that it was huge and there was no communication about it,” Stephen said. “We didn’t know if it was on people’s radar.”
In June 2020, CSWS launched the Caregiver Campaign with an open letter to university leadership, the Senate, deans, department heads, and United Academics urgently requesting policy changes to ameliorate impacts of the pandemic for caregivers in the UO community. The letter suggested implementing six steps: waive all non-essential service, suspend “on track” standards for research productivity, develop a research accommodation opt-in policy like the tenure clock extension, instruct department heads and deans to evaluate teaching loads and grant teaching relief and GE assistance to those with heavier caretaking responsibilities, identify essential strategies of caring such as caregiver support networks and sick-day banks, and repurpose resources allotted for faculty research accounts (ASAs) and other funds to support caregiving.
In July 2020, McKinley and Stephen met with UO and UA leadership to advocate for the urgency of these policy changes. In a second, updated letter to university leadership, McKinley and Stephen added a request that UO pause the use of student teaching evaluations for the duration of the crisis and looked for assurances that caregivers—particularly women with young children or care responsibilities for seniors and others—would be represented on decision-making bodies regarding these issues. After conferring with stakeholders, the administration enacted—more or less—all of CSWS’s initial recommendations, with the exception of repurposing faculty ASAs funds for caregiving needs. However, additional policy recommendations in the second letter were met with little institutional will.
Meanwhile, CSWS staff and affiliates working on the Caregiver Campaign began networking with feminist researchers around the U.S., launched a petition in support of our suggested policy changes, surveyed UO faculty members and graduate students about their experiences, collected testimonials, and gathered new research and campaign materials from other universities that address the caregiving crisis in academia at large, which is available on the CSWS website. Responses to our Caregiver Campaign reinforce what research studies published so far have revealed—that the pandemic exposes how institutional practices have historically rendered certain labor invisible and left women and minorities more vulnerable.
“I certainly didn’t realize how profound this was going to be,” McKinley said. “This year, I don’t know how people are going to recoup the loss in research productivity. We just went from crisis mode to crisis mode. I think the real telling of how hard this is going to be on women in academic careers—we’re going to find out this data maybe three or four years from now.”
“I hope the administration realizes that anything they do now to alleviate this issue for caregivers will directly impact how the professoriate will look five to 10 years from now—how diverse it will be, and how many women will be in positions of power within academia,” Escallón told the New York Times for an October 6, 2020, article on how the pandemic has laid bare gender inequities for women in academia.
In preparing for her interview with the Times, Escallón began thinking about the broader implications of the pandemic—not just for women but also as an equity issue and its potential for “tanking” tenure track. “I was able to intellectualize it,” she said about the Times interview, “to find the words to speak about it—not just as a mom and how exhausted I am but also as an issue for diversity and inclusion. It’s really big.”
Big enough, it turns out, to inspire her next research project. In fall 2020, the UO’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics issued an open call for their 2021-2023 theme, “Making Work Work.” The theme explores “the social and economic organization of work and its transformation, with a focus on vulnerable workers and an eye toward policy changes that better protect individuals and families.” The timing was perfect for Escallón, who was in the final stages of her book and looking for ways to continue researching how institutions structurally deal with long-term inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. She applied for—and received—one of two 2021-22 Resident Scholar positions at the center.
Escallón’s research project, “COVID-19, Faculty Activism, and the Future of a Carework Policy in Academia,” involves “a comparative analysis of five U.S.-based universities that will examine both the caregiving policies that faculty have proposed and institutional responses to them. The goal is to analyze universities’ plans, priorities, and limitations in addressing the carework crisis in order to effectively narrow the academic equity gaps exacerbated by COVID-19.”
McKinley is very happy that the advocacy work they began in the Caregiver Campaign has inspired broader research.
“I didn’t think there was going to be an academic project in this way, at that time,” McKinley said, “but what was coming to me from all around the country were two things: every university was trying to deal with this crisis, and it wasn’t a money issue—it was a political will issue on the part of administrations. Maria’s project is institutional, and it’s something that’s germane to our industry. How we structure policies for caregivers has never been thought through in academic institutions. The only thing we’ve had is FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act].”
McKinley believes the campaign’s ongoing advocacy also has contributed to greater awareness of and support for caregivers in the UO community. In addition to highlighting caregiver resources on the Covid-19 Resources for Faculty and Staff webpage, Human Resources’ August issue of Wellness Connection focused on insights and resources for caregivers by highlighting national statistics on the issue, summarizing wellness resources available to caregivers at UO, and explaining how to access services through HR’s employee assistance program.
“I think this HR intervention is also a direct result of our meetings last year,” McKinley said. “Mark Schmelz, Chief Human Resources Officer, was on a few of our zoom calls. His consciousness was raised!”
In addition, the Provost’s Office has announced a new pandemic relief program targeting junior faculty who had primary caregiving responsibilities for a close family member during the pandemic or whose research productivity was otherwise directly impacted by Covid-19.
“National data and a recent campus survey suggest a significant negative impact on faculty research and productivity during the pandemic,” stated President Michael H. Schill and Provost Patrick Phillips in a June announcement about the relief program. “While factors such as childcare, remote teaching, and travel restrictions have impacted all scholars, a number of studies also suggest that there have been disparate impacts on research productivity among faculty, particularly caregivers and faculty of color. This is especially concerning for pre-tenure faculty because of the potential career impact of the tenure process itself.”
Made possible through a philanthropic gift, the new pandemic relief program allows eligible junior faculty to receive a course release for one term “so that they can focus solely on advancing their scholarship and creative practice that term,” Schill and Phillips stated in their announcement. “We recognize that this is not all things to all people who have been impacted over the last year. However, it is an opportunity to support the success of faculty whose career paths could be irrevocably damaged. In this way, this program is an investment in the long-term future of the university as a whole.”
In terms of the UO’s response to caregiving issues, the campaign leaders agree that, while good progress has been made, the university still has a way to go.
“In terms of satisfaction, I want to acknowledge there were some things that happened and we appreciate that,” Stephen said. “But if a culture evolves that pretends that nothing like this is going on, then it’s hard to change that in two months.”
Stephen also noted that it is difficult to create blanket policies when inequities by gender, age, race, and more are endemic in an institution’s culture.
“I think the hardest challenge is changing departmental and unit cultures around this, and it’s very hard to mandate that,” she said. “The administration put out guidance about how to communicate with and support people in departments. In some units that had traction, but in others—nothing. They were suggestions and not required, so there was no accountability.”
The Caregiver Campaign has now been designated a CSWS special project, giving it life beyond its initial emergency status during the pandemic.
“Institutionalizing it through CSWS makes sense,” says Stephen, who has led other Center projects that have evolved into larger initiatives. “It might also be a way to connect other research projects funded by CSWS or to have a symposium when we can take a breath to look at the situation. There are a lot of lessons here to consider with hindsight. These issues won’t go away with the pandemic.”
“Like the metaphor of Sisyphus rolling the bolder uphill, this is our task,” McKinley said, “and the only way to move it is through more people helping. The weight of gravity of all institutions is not to recognize or take into account the demands—outside of the classroom, lab, and walls of the university—on the community. We want permanent cultural and structural changes—that’s the boulder.”
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