Every faculty member has a story of how COVID-19 temporarily tanked a scholarly pursuit.

For Fabian Prieto-Ñañez, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, the pandemic halted plans to do archival research in Latin America and collaborate with scholars abroad. “All those things made me go at a different pace,” he said.

Meimei Liu, an assistant professor of statistics, found herself helping her kindergartner through online schooling — the antithesis of the focused time she needed for her work. “The research has been delayed, to be honest,” she said.

Robert Hildebrand’s research team lost two graduate students who deferred because of the pandemic. Progress was slowed further when the arrival of a newborn baby led to increased child care responsibilities for the assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, “since we couldn’t hire child care as we wanted to.”

Annie Ronan, an assistant professor of art history, spent hours crafting her asynchronous online courses. “I remember being up until 3 a.m. starting the same lecture video over and over again,” she said.

Productivity losses were especially acute for early career faculty, who worried that slowdowns would affect their eventual bids for tenure. The university announced additional pandemic tenure-clock extensions, but faculty groups such as the work-life liaisons were concerned it wasn’t enough. 

In the Office of Faculty Affairs, Vice Provost Ron Fricker and Associate Vice Provost Rachel Gabriele were listening. With support from the president, the provost, and college deans, they created the Pre-Tenure Pandemic Course Relief Program to offer faculty a course buyout, giving them additional time to focus on scholarly work.

Seventeen faculty members from 15 departments received a one-time course release this spring, paid for jointly by their home college or department and the provost’s office. Another 32 recipients from 20 departments in five colleges were approved for course releases in fall 2023 and spring 2024. 

The applications to the program provided a window into precisely how the pandemic hindered faculty work. Four main areas of impact emerged:

  • Loss of access to human subjects/research sites
  • Increased teaching effort from shifting to online courses and supporting students
  • Delays to reviews of articles/books
  • Increased personal caregiving responsibilities due to illness, school at home, lack of child care, etc.

While the Office of Faculty Affairs obviously can’t make up for those challenges, Fricker and Gabriele hope that the course releases allow assistant professors to claim back time and push projects closer to completion. “One course buyout doesn't buy you a whole lot of time compared to what you have to do,” acknowledged Fricker. “But doing something was important.”

“It may not be a big thing,” added Gabriele, “but it's an impactful thing.”

Indeed, Prieto-Ñañez, Liu, Hildebrand, and Ronan — all recipients of a course release for fall 2023 — eagerly anticipate what they’ll do with the time they’ll gain from the Pre-Tenure Pandemic Course Relief Program: work on manuscripts in progress, collaborate with researchers at other universities, travel to archives and conferences, finish book projects, and achieve some semblance of work-life balance.

Without the demands of prepping an additional class and supporting students, Prieto-Ñañez expects to dedicate three full days each week to work on his research this fall. “It will be a huge relief,” he said, calling the Pre-Tenure Pandemic Course Relief Program “meaningful in recognizing that this is a difficult situation for us as pre-tenure faculty.”

For Ronan, simply the acknowledgment of the particular challenges of the pandemic has been a comfort. “In a lot of places there’s this idea of ‘Well, COVID happened and it was terrible, but now it’s over and you better be moving on.’ Even just the fact that this opportunity came up made me think, 'OK, people within the administration at Virginia Tech understand that this is still something that a lot of us are dealing with.' That means a lot on a more emotional level.”

Written by Melody Warnick