Academe should revise the promotion process to full professor (opinion)

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Policies and practices that shape the culture of the academy, particularly at midcareer, are rarely questioned. Take, for example, recent insights offered by Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, who noted that most discussions related to promoting academics to full professorships almost exclusively center on faculty agency and mentoring. The topic was prominently featured during the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity regarding supporting Black faculty in higher education. It has been our experience that such policies and practices are implemented in a so-called race-blind way that does not consider inherent issues of power in academe.

Recently, scholars have begun to suggest that a framework of racialized policy making in higher education would challenge the status quo that often marginalizes underrepresented faculty and would acknowledge the issues of racism and power that frequently advantage white people. Applying such a framework is important, because day-to-day institutional and departmental decisions are often not informed by theory or scholarship but rather shaped by history and culture. Such traditions have often been created and dominated by white people.

In particular, the process by which people are promoted to full professor can create problematic outcomes due to its inherent lack of clarity: there are generally no set timelines, and “going up” is often based on faculty members’ personal agency, situational factors and internal cues. Often, participating academic leaders and senior faculty do not recognize or acknowledge that institutionalized, structural and systemic racism is frequently embedded in such processes. It can play out in placing higher value on scholarship that centers whitestream/mainstream perspectives and norms and does not take into account the invisible labor faculty from underrepresented communities often carry out as well as the implicitly racist promotion criteria that frequently favor the majority.

In our observation and experiences, changes in policy and practice are often impeded by senior faculty who object to changes in norms that privilege white faculty. The academy is predominantly white and male; the current system has worked for them, and they thus perceive it to be fair for all. Further, many current policies and practices are based on traditional Western logic and assumptions. As such, there is often a lack of imagination around how they could be more inclusive. Finally, American higher educational institutions increasingly tend to avoid litigation. As the U.S. Supreme Court and other judicial bodies take ever more conservative stances, college and university legal counsels are wary of fighting for policies that could possibly land them in court.

While we agree that faculty members must work to advance their own careers, a sole focus on faculty agency neglects the inherent biases that permeate the academy, creating barriers to inclusivity. Further, such a predominant focus on faculty agency lets institutions and their leaders off the hook from their role in perpetuating policies and practices that result in disparate treatment (e.g., overtly racist systems that create barriers to advancement) and disparate impacts (e.g., well-meaning practices that unintentionally prohibit advancement of underrepresented faculty populations).

As Kimberly A. Griffin, professor and dean of the College of Education at University of Maryland, observes in the introduction to Managing Your Academic Career: A Guide to Re-Envision Mid-Career, “Real change and equitable opportunity for thriving and advancement in the academy are dependent on leaders’ ability to change policies, practices, and perhaps most importantly, culture. In so many cases, faculty face problems that are structural and systemic.” We urge institutional leaders and those tasked with faculty development and career advancement responsibilities to move beyond a focus on faculty agency as the primary determinant to faculty success and advancement. Instead, we advocate for a long-term strategy to increase faculty and student satisfaction and outcomes that includes the specific actions we outline below.

Commit and act to ensure that promotion policies are not only fair, but equitable and just—centering the needs of the marginalized and underrepresented. Action: review promotion, advancement, merit, bonus and career advancement–related policies. As part of your review, ask yourself:

  • Does advancement require nomination? If yes, who submits the nomination? Keep in mind, those with challenging department chair relationships may be in vulnerable positions if they require a department chair nomination for advancement.
  • Are evaluation criteria and related processes clear? For example, who participates and how?

You should also engage in an analysis of career advancement and faculty recognition trends. Some key metrics might include:

  • The number of women, women faculty of color and faculty of color nominated for full professorship compared to white majority males.
  • Number of women, women faculty of color and faculty of color nominated who receive promotion, merit and bonus in comparison to white majority males.
  • The time-to-advancement figures for women, women faculty of color and faculty of color across ranks compared to white majority males.

We also encourage institutional leaders to work toward eliminating bias in review processes. For example, in relation to merits, bonuses and other awards and recognition, you might create a blind review process whereby you eliminate names and other identifying factors and instead focus on performance metrics as aligned with award criteria. You could also consider employing the use of rubrics to facilitate reviews.

Learn and apply critical approaches when reviewing and enhancing policies and practices that facilitate promotion. Action: encourage key stakeholders to learn and educate themselves about the experiences of those who must navigate the policies and practices in your institution. You should also collect data from:

  • People who recently went through the process and were successful. What was their experience?
  • People who recently went through the process and were not successful. What was their experience?
  • People who may be considering entering the process of advancement to full professorship more formally. What considerations factor into their decisions?

It can also be beneficial to engage an outside consultant with expertise in this area to review policies as an outsider and to seek friendly review from peer institutions, as well as to learn from them and share best practices.

Address the culture of the institution and department to minimize bias across all levels of the process. Action: identify, where applicable, clear criteria for promotion, including the number of publications, types of journals, what constitutes service and so forth. Also work to change the culture by:

  • Making clear that commitment to inclusive promotion practices does not lead to lowering academic standards.
  • Ensuring academic administrators wisely select who participates on promotion committees.
  • Encouraging the Faculty Senate to pursue this priority issue.
  • Advocating for policies that account for and give weight to public scholarship and the invisible labor that underrepresented and female faculty often engage in.
  • Communicating from day one that new tenure-track faculty members are expected to pursue tenure and providing equitable and appropriate support in their efforts to become full professors.

Require bias training for all who engage in promotion and advancement review processes. Action: ensure such training focuses directly on the issue of bias in evaluations and other career-advancement practices, including the language used during related closed-door discussions.

Also support people’s growth and understanding in relation to biases by educating senior faculty and academic administrators about policies and practices, drawing from higher education research. You can also create a faculty diversity ambassadors program to reinforce the institution’s commitment to creating an equitable and just promotion process.

Make sure the commitment to fair, equitable and just promotion and advancement policies starts at the top. Action: evaluation criteria for academic leaders must include key performance indicators related to equity and inclusion.

Visible commitment from the top also requires an investment of resources in bias training. Colleges’ and universities’ leaders must also ensure that promotion and advancement policies and practices are strategically aligned with institutional values and priorities. That includes ensuring that the institution revises and enhances faculty promotion and advancement policies, as needed.

The academy is changing both in terms of faculty demographics and appointment types, as institutions rely more on contingent faculty who do not experience the traditional tenure and promotion processes that we’ve been describing. Traditionally, women, women faculty of color and other underrepresented populations have occupied those positions. Some institutional leaders may use the contingent nature of such appointment types as a rationale for not investing in the actions we outline here. However, we see this as an issue of equity and justice, one that while experienced by an ever-smaller portion of the professoriate nonetheless has the potential to shape the future of faculty life and the academy at large.

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