Promotion and tenure processes in higher education are critical to the integrity of America's science enterprise. They determine which faculty members continue their careers and whose career aspirations come to a screeching halt by a tenure denial. At the core of the system is the notion that the most talented and deserving candidates get promoted, but a research team led by the University of Houston will challenge that basic assumption through a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
In partnership with eight other institutions (Hampton University, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, Lehigh University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Rice University), the team will shed new light on what drives promotion and tenure outcomes in academic environments. The ultimate goal is to uncover ways to minimize bias and increase representation of faculty from diverse backgrounds by creating training programs. Women and underrepresented minorities are disproportionately less likely to be tenured and promoted.
"We are hoping this work will continue to contribute to increased representation of faculty of color and women in mid-career and senior faculty positions by showing how transparent and fair promotion and tenure processes can be achieved,” said Christiane Spitzmueller, principal investigator on the project and professor of psychology at UH.
Specifically, the team will examine external review letters (ERLs) – considered by many administrators to be the most important element of promotion and tenure decision making – and tenure clock extensions. Common for parents in academic settings, tenure clock extensions allow new parents an extra year before submitting their promotion portfolios. More recently, many universities have allowed for COVID-19 tenure clock extensions, providing faculty the opportunity to extend their mandatory tenure review years by one or two.
"Little to nothing is known about how, when and why these tenure clock extensions work in favor of the candidates in the promotion and tenure process," said Juan Madera, co-PI and professor at UH’s Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.
Through data sharing agreements between the nine universities and reliance on an automated linguistic analysis software tool, the team will examine thousands of external review letters, while maintaining confidentiality. The project also entails utilizing cutting edge computational social science work, a component headed by Peggy Lindner, assistant professor in the UH College of Technology.
“This work is critical for not only the evolution of academia, but also the future of the country’s STEM workforce. Students of color benefit greatly and are more likely to pursue science careers if they have access to diverse faculty members who share and understand their lived experiences,” said co-PI Erika Henderson, associate provost for faculty recruitment, retention, equity and diversity at UH.
The other co-PI on the project is Michelle Penn-Marshall, vice president for research, associate provost and dean of the Graduate College at Hampton University.