At the core of the college tenure and promotion system—a process critical to the integrity of America’s research enterprise—is the notion that those who are the most deserving are promoted. But, is that truly the case?

A new study aims to examine the process in academic STEM careers and challenge some basic assumptions regarding merit as the sole driving force. A $2 million award from the National Science Foundation will support the project, helmed by researchers at the University of Houston and Hampton University. Lehigh is among eight partnership organizations working to shed new light on the role of research productivity and extraneous factors in determining who gets to stay in coveted tenured positions and who has to retool or restart their career.

“There are many factors affecting why women faculty and faculty of color are underrepresented in the rank of full, tenured professor,” says Kristen Jellison (pictured), a professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Lehigh ADVANCE Center for Women STEM Faculty. Jellison is one of three Lehigh site collaborators on the project.

Over a three-year period, the team will investigate what drives outcomes, with a particular focus on external review letters and tenure clock extensions (often granted to new parents, and more recently used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Very little scholarly research has been done to examine critical questions around external review letters, which are provided by arm’s length reviewers and are a vital factor in determining tenure and promotion decisions. The team will extend social psychological theories of language use to diversity research. They posit that candidate and letter writer characteristics unrelated to scholarly productivity shape the linguistic content and length of external review letters, thus introducing a source of bias into tenure and promotion processes.

Jellison also points to “the disproportionate service burden that is placed on underrepresented faculty who spend more time than their majority colleagues on service. This work can include formal service, like committee work or directing campus programs, and informal service, like helping underrepresented students who see them as role models and call on them in times of need.”

Such service, she says, is often invisible in tenure portfolios. Both external and internal reviews may not see the excellence, leadership, and application and implementation of scholarship by those invested in their institutions or disciplinary transformations.

The long-term goal of the project is to provide an evidence base for evaluating the validity of external review letters and mechanisms for minimizing bias against faculty members from underrepresented groups to broaden participation in STEM and beyond.