To what degree are gaps in an associate professor’s record to blame for an unsuccessful promotion? Or were there other factors that affected or even biased the outcome?
We are leading a long-term research study on fairness and bias in promotion-and-tenure decisions. Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we have collected preliminary data from more than 2,000 P&T cases at 10 universities across the country. Based on our early results, we believe that some candidates are denied promotion to full professor for reasons outside of their control and even independent of their record.
We are not suggesting that’s true of every negative decision. Of course, some cases do not merit promotion, and a recent series in The Chronicle explored the myriad causes and solutions. But this particular form of rejection — while not as traumatic as being denied tenure — still comes with significant personal, financial, and professional losses. We see a need to examine systemic issues that may have halted some candidates’ careers when they should have moved up the ranks. This is particularly likely if you are a scholar of color or a female in a male-dominated field. Our study found, for example, that 81 percent of white faculty members in STEM fields earned a positive vote at the department level, compared with only 75 percent of Black counterparts.
It is essential to understand which performance criteria were considered during a promotion review. In our research, we are starting to understand which factors most contribute to a faculty member being denied promotion. And no, it’s not all about the candidate having “failed” to achieve the “right” levels of productivity, teaching contributions, service, leadership, and “fit” with their academic unit. Rather, our research suggests that bias can be a factor in each of the following seven situations, swaying people to vote against a promotion:
Your external recommendation letters weren’t positive enough. When you apply for promotion to full professor, your department will ask senior scholars from other institutions to provide letters about your work. Tepid letters can stall your bid. Numerous studies have documented bias — related to race, ethnicity, gender, and other traits — in recommendation letters for faculty job candidates or assistant professors seeking tenure. Our preliminary data shows that the same types of bias can derail full-professor applicants: The background of external letter writers may affect what they write about you and your research record.
Your research is in an emerging or interdisciplinary field. It’s possible that the traditional productivity metrics (such as h-index and total citations) will favor faculty members who work in the crowded center of a discipline rather than in the new or interdisciplinary spaces at the margins. Faculty of color often conduct research in new subfields where there typically are fewer researchers, and thus lower citation metrics, even if the underlying work is important and innovative.
Your promotion had a split vote. One or more of the campus committees who weighed in on your promotion did not view it as a “slam dunk.” The gold standard in faculty evaluations is a unanimous vote. Cases that lack a unanimous vote at the departmental or college level are often scrutinized more closely than others as they move through the promotion process. Unfortunately, our consortium’s research shows that faculty of color, especially Hispanic faculty members, are much less likely to receive unanimous promotion votes than white faculty members.
You paused the tenure clock as an assistant professor. If you took advantage of a tenure-clock extension — meaning it took you longer to seek promotion to full professor than someone who never stopped the clock — do review committees expect your record to exceed that of other candidates? Our preliminary research shows that women who stopped the tenure clock following the birth of a child are less likely to receive unanimous committee votes in favor of promotion than candidates who didn’t. One might speculate that having a child affected their productivity, but it’s also possible that the mention of a tenure-clock extension or a long time period between tenure and seeking a second promotion emphasizes a female candidate’s family status and de-emphasizes her identity as a fully committed researcher, scholar, and ideal worker.
You didn’t look like the rest of the department. Research suggests that homophily breeds trust and likability. Likewise, our study indicates that a homogenous faculty search committee is more likely to derive an applicant pool that resembles the committee’s demographics and less likely to produce a diverse one. What that means in faculty promotion is that you may not possess the traits that were required in your department to “fit in” or be perceived as likable. So for example, as a woman of color in an otherwise all-white or primarily white department, and particularly in a department that is also male dominated, you may have been at a disadvantage at the outset in terms of fit.
Your service work was undervalued. Various studies have shown that service demands for female faculty members, especially women of color, tend to be higher than what is expected of their male peers. Our preliminary analyses of external review letters show that the recommenders writing these letters are more likely to discuss the value of mentorship if they are writing about a man seeking promotion than if the letter is about a woman. In short: Women are expected to do a lot of service work but are not given appropriate credit when they do. In addition, women often serve on committees crucial to an institution’s mission (e.g., on undergraduate education), while being less likely to serve on highly visible committees with national or budget-oriented scopes.
Your leadership skills were found lacking. Being a leader in your department or institution is not a formal P&T criterion (while being a leader in your research field is). However, promotion committees may hold assumptions of what it means to be an effective full professor, and that often includes committee leadership. In our research, we’ve found that Asian faculty members — who tend to be very favorably reviewed at the transition from assistant to associate professor — are significantly less likely than other groups to receive favorable committee votes for promotion to full professor. We speculate that stereotypes about leadership — for example, that it’s an attribute more associated with white professors than with their Asian counterparts — may explain why Asian and Asian American faculty members are less likely to win promotion to the full-professor rank.
If you are someone whose bid for full professorship fell short, you might read that long list and think there was little you could have done to overcome such hurdles. Reading it as the colleague of someone who was denied promotion, you might feel equally helpless.
But there are steps that all of us can, and should, take to deal with systemic bias in our promotion policies, procedures, and practices. Funding agencies, policy makers, campus administrators, and faculty members need to hold their institutions accountable so that promotion criteria are fair, transparent, and consistently applied. In addition, institutions must account for systemic issues that have contributed to the continued underrepresentation of women and faculty of color in senior ranks.
We propose the following actions for faculty members, promotion-and-tenure committees, departments, and institutions:
- Reconsider the practice of treating unanimous votes as the “gold standard” for a successful application to full professor.
- Ensure representation from multiple and diverse perspectives on P&T committees. Our research shows that diversity in gatekeeping positions leads to improved diversity outcomes.
- Train the members of P&T committees on bias and equity issues in the promotion process. A good example is Texas A&M University’s training program for “inclusive promotion evaluation.”
- Give more weight to service and mentorship in promotion decisions. Faculty of color and women tend to contribute more in those domains yet are not necessarily rewarded for it, particularly in areas that contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ideally, promotion-and-tenure criteria should be revised to eliminate bias. A more equitable review would acknowledge that scholars who have made meaningful service contributions (such as mentoring students of color) may not have as many publications and grants as a faculty member who did minimal service. And that should be OK so long as the candidate meets the institution’s and department’s standard research expectations. Alternatively, institutions can strive to level the playing field by reducing the service burden on professors from marginalized backgrounds.
- Build a clear, structured promotion process for all candidates. Standardize the promotion materials required, such as external letters, and the process of obtaining them. For example, when external reviewers are sought to evaluate the promotion candidate, both the candidate and the department should be allowed to nominate the same number of names.
There are also steps that individuals can take, whether you were the one denied the top faculty rank or you believe a colleague was unfairly denied promotion:
- One option is for the candidate to try again in a year or two. But you may want to file a grievance if you have evidence to show that the institution’s processes and procedures were not followed in your case, or if there was clear disparate treatment. Approach the department chair to request (or demand) a detailed explanation of the process and next steps.
- Ask for written explanations of where the application fell short. You want documentation to avoid experiencing shifting standards the next time you seek promotion.
- As a candidate, build research and other collaborative partnerships with faculty members in your department so they are likely to speak up on your behalf when your promotion file is next discussed.
- Be your own best advocate. Explain what you do and the impact of your research. When your research is featured in a mainstream publication, when you secure a federal grant, or when your work is published in important journals, make sure everyone knows. And consider collecting and using alternative metrics to document your contribution and the impact of your work.