How Do We Mitigate the Impact of Systemic Bias on Faculty from Underrepresented Groups?

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Malika Jeffries-EL, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for the Graduate School in Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Engineering
Boston University

Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that as of Fall 2019, only 2.1 percent of tenured professors at non-profit four-year colleges in the U.S. were Black women. This prompted me to look at the statistics for other groups. Sadly, my own investigations revealed that all non-white groups are underrepresented in the academy, accounting for a collective total of only 25.1 percent of all faculty positions, despite representing nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, Figure 1.1

The term “underrepresented minority” is widely used to collectively describe persons who are African American or Black, Latinx or Hispanic, and Indigenous—as their numbers in specific spaces is lower than their representation in the U.S. population. However, I prefer the term “systematically marginalized groups,” (SMGs) because the underrepresentation of certain people in certain places is not coincidental, it is intentional. Last year, I wrote an opinion piece summarizing the many ways that the academy undermines the ability of SMGs to succeed. Here, I would like to take this a step further, examining the root causes of such inequity and proposing steps to address it.

Percentage of US Faculty within the Ranks of Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor by Race

A bar graph shows that white males and white females have higher representation than underrepresented groups.

Figure 1. Percentage of faculty positions within the ranks of professor, associate professor and assistant professor by race and gender. (Credit: National Center for Education Statistics2)

“A well-designed system will always function as intended.” – Karl Reid, Engineer and Senior Vice Provost and Chief Inclusion Officer at Northeastern University

Dr. Reid, a trained engineer, made this analog between systems and the academy while speaking at a conference for women of color in the academy. If we apply Professor Reid’s logic to the outcomes of the tenure and promotion process, then we must accept that the biases of the current system reflect who it was made by and for—white men. Tenure is the cornerstone of the modern academic institution, with the current version dating back to 1940. The original intention was to provide academic researchers—initially Christian white men—with the freedom to pursue controversial topics and scholarship without the fear of losing their jobs. These days, the academy is becoming increasingly more diverse as more SMG faculty are hired. Accordingly, there has been an increased level of scholarship on topics that challenge the status quo set by cis-gendered Christian white male academics. Ironically, while tenure should offer protection to such scholars, the current system seems to actively work to exclude them.

Last year, for instance, the existing biases of the tenure process gained national attention when Hannah Nicole Jones, an accomplished journalist, was offered a prestigious Knight Chair in journalism by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but, unlike other Knight chairs, was not offered tenure. The decision to deny her tenure, was not based on her scholarship, but rather the concerns with her controversial scholarship on race in America. More recently, Michael Kraus, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management who describes himself as a social psychologist who specializes in the study of inequality, was denied tenure despite a stellar publication record. The incident received a lot of attention and support from those who felt the topics of his work were one of the reasons he was denied tenure. Many other less visible scholars have seen their scholarship devalued and their tenure cases denied for dubious reasons.3,4,5,6 One would think that scientists would be immune to racial and gender bias in the tenure and promotion process due to the technical nature of their work. However, the data suggests otherwise as many institutions lack a single tenured SMG faculty member in a STEM discipline.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

Perhaps one of the reasons that SMGs are not receiving tenure at the same rate is that their dedication to teaching and service is not being considered. Although academic institutions have changed a lot in the past century, the standards for promotion, namely nationally recognized scholarships, have not been updated to include proficiency in teaching and satisfactory service. Although these criteria are valid determinants of academic excellence, assessing of these core qualities is highly subjective and often diminishes the achievements of scholars from SMGs. It is time to take a critical look at the tenure and promotion process.

Teaching is an essential part of a faculty member’s job, yet most universities fall short in training junior faculty how to excel in teaching. They further fail their faculty in the assessment of their teaching quality by relying on student evaluations, despite the overwhelming amount of research on their bias.7,8,9 When I started my faculty position, I was given a teaching assignment, a textbook, and some old lecture notes from a colleague who had previously taught the course . Then I was sent into a classroom of 100+ students. My previous teaching experience was limited to being a teaching assistant in graduate school. Nonetheless, I was hired for my job based on my research potential and an assumption that I would figure out how to teach. I managed to score high enough on my evaluations to clear the tenure hurdle, but it was not without significant effort. Failure to do well would have cost me my job.

What if Institutions Focused on Training Junior Faculty to Be Good Teachers, Instead of Penalizing Them When They are Not?

The peer assessment of teaching is so important as it often reveals the disconnect between what is happening in a course and what the students are reporting. Thus, all junior faculty should have a teaching mentor to perform periodic peer evaluations and help with development. They should also be provided with training from institutional centers on teaching excellence. Student evaluations should not be distilled down to numerical averages, instead the feedback from them can be used to determine opportunities for improvement. The final evaluation of teaching for promotion could be based on these evaluations and the trajectory of the faculty member over time.[10] Collectively, this would give all junior faculty a chance for success.

Scholarship is usually evaluated in terms of the quantity of peer-reviewed published works produced; the quality of the journal/publisher; the number of citations; number of invitations for conferences, department seminars and colloquia; awards and honors; and in some disciplines the amount of external funding. Unfortunately, inequitable practices in the peer-review of proposals, and/or papers work to amplify the advantages for some and compound the disadvantages of others. The bias against SMG scholars in the peer-review of publications is well documented, thus they are less likely to publish their work in top tier journals.11,12 Further, once published, their work often receives fewer citations.13 SMG faculty are also less likely to attend the top graduate programs, or work for the big names in their fields. Hence, they are less likely to win young investigator awards as these “oft-called beauty pageant prizes” are more about applicant pedigree than scholarly output at that point in a career. They often lack the professional connections that help with invitations for seminars and conferences. Even within the federal funding system, major discrepancies are seen based on race.14 For example, the success rate for grant applications for Black investigators to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was determined to be only 55 percent of that for white ones over a decade ago,15 and much has changed since then. This singular fact undermines the ability for SMGs in fields supported by the NIH from thriving,16 as the need to write twice as many proposals just to keep pace with their majority peers take from other activities like publishing.

What if the scientific community worked together to level the playing field?

Correcting this imbalance will require a multi-faceted effort from all involved in the academic enterprise. Universities should provide implicit bias training to all faculty, especially those on hiring, promotion committees, and nominate their SMG faculty for awards. Faculty should: strive to provide constructive criticism and fair peer-reviews for papers and proposals;17 advocate for diversity in the invited speakers for department colloquia or conferences;18 invite SMG faculty to collaborate on multi-investigator research grants, and not just to do DEI work; cite publications by SMG researchers,19 and call out others who fail to do so.20,21

What if institutions gave real credit for service?

Service is an essential function with academic institutions, yet it tends to be undervalued. Today, many academic institutions have decreased the number of permanent faculty lines in favor of term and contingent instructors, increasing the pressure on a smaller number of permanent faculty for service. Unfortunately, some faculty take on high service loads at the expense of doing the other things that are valued. As a result, faculty who do more service are likely to be paid less and/or stall at the Associate Professor rank. Further, SMG faculty are more likely to have higher service loads stemming from the added burden of diversity and equity work beyond standard service and/or the misguided need to have diversity on university committees, even when the faculty demographics don’t support it.22,23

Institutions should strive to both document the time spent by faculty doing service and give proper credit for it during the review process. It is time to move away from just ranking faculty based on scholarly output and do a more comprehensive assessment of all their contributions to the institution. Recently several institutions including: IUPUI, University of Denver, the University of Oregon, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of California at San Diego have changed their promotion and tenure guidelines to give credit for faculty contributions to mentoring students or diversity and inclusion work, both of which often go unrecognized.24

Earlier this year I was promoted to full professor. While I celebrated my personal achievements, I was also humbled by the daunting statistics nationally. I also bear the emotional scars from surviving promotion in a system that at many times has actively worked against me. Despite this, I am not defeated, but rather inspired to work to eliminate racism and bias in the academy for those behind me. Will you join me on this mission?

This blog post has provided tangible strategies for universities and academic leaders to address the tenure and promotion processes on their campus. As mentioned previously, effective mentoring of junior faculty is critical for success regarding teaching, scholarship, and service. How do we change university metrics for faculty excellence to encourage equitable change? How do we align intentions with actions? What will you do to drive institutional change?