External Review Letters in Promotion and Tenure Decision Making: Validity and Fairness
Effective Years: 2021-2024
Promotion and tenure decisions at universities are of critical significance to the integrity of the research enterprise because they determine the career progression of scholars and scientists. Despite significant investments in pipeline interventions to diversify academia, faculty of color and women are underrepresented in tenured and tenure track positions. Underrepresentation has important implications for the nation's prospects of developing a diverse STEM workforce. For undergraduate and graduate students of color, having access to faculty members who share and understand their lived experiences and backgrounds has profound benefits. These include developing science identities and persisting in science careers. Therefore, novel ways to examine gatekeeping mechanisms such as the promotion and tenure (P&T) processes are needed. Despite the widely recognized importance of P&T processes, minimal research has examined whether and how P&T processes' most critical elements contribute to outcomes for women and faculty of color. This project examines the validity and fairness of external review letters (ERL) provided by arm's length reviewers as part of promotion and tenure decision making. Academic administrators often view ERLs as the most impartial and critical components of tenure and promotion portfolios, providing qualitative, independent evaluations of candidates' past accomplishments, reputation, potential, and the prospect of continued, sustainable contribution levels. Despite their sensitive nature, given the criticality of ERLs in academic promotion and tenure decisions, the limited research on validity and bias in ERLs is stunning. This project closes this gap by analyzing the linguistic characteristics of ERLs and examining the relationship between ERL linguistic characteristics, promotion candidate characteristics, letter writer characteristics, and promotion and tenure voting outcomes at the department, college, and university-level committees. The project examines ERLs through theoretical work on the social psychology of language use, social comparison processes, and social role theory. This project is funded by the EHR Core Research (ECR) program, which supports work that advances fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.
The project's goals are to investigate the validity of ERLs, determine possible bias in ERLs based on candidate and letter writer characteristics, and identify possible ways to remediate limited validity and bias. Leveraging a partnership between nine universities (University of Houston, Hampton University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Lehigh University, University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, Rice University, Texas A&M University, and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), and by examining more than 9000 ERLs, this project aims to contribute to the validity of P&T processes, understand barriers to P&T for women and faculty of color and ultimately increase the P&T rates for women and faculty of color.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.