The goals of higher education—engaging the hearts and minds of our next generation, advancing novel and pragmatic solutions to the most pressing local and global problems—call for great passion and skill. That’s not the whole formula, though. Diversity performs its own powerful role.
College faculties that represent a diversity of expertise, ideas and perspectives help create the kind of environment where learning, innovation and excellence thrive.
While much good work is being done to recruit female and minority faculty members and retain them through their first promotion to tenure, their advancement to the highest faculty ranks and to institutional leadership positions has remained elusive due to various systemic barriers.
Nationally, women account for only about 30% of college presidents and about 30% of the highest-rank full professors, a dynamic that has ripple effects on decisions made throughout institutions of higher education. The picture is even bleaker for female minority members in these upper echelons.
Further, while more women and minorities are being recruited, they are more likely to be hired for non-tenure-track (NTT) positions that typically have less advancement opportunity. These NTT faculty, the teaching workhorses, are often not supported with professional development opportunities or pathways to promotion.
So, how do universities diversify the ranks of those holding their field’s highest positions?
In 2014, our institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), undertook an overhaul of our associate-to-full professor promotion system after participating in a nationwide faculty satisfaction survey that many institutions conduct. Findings revealed high levels of satisfaction with the tenure process—but deep dissatisfaction among associate professors, women and NTT faculty about their promotion systems. Three years of hard work and messy internal politics later, our faculty governance body approved an associate-to-full promotion policy that draws on the work of the late educator Ernest L. Boyer and others to define and welcome multiple forms of scholarship.
Such policies are not new; decades ago, dozens of institutions put in place similar ones. However, what is becoming clear is that adopting new criteria and policies is only a first step. How schools implement the new policies is vital to success.
With the support of a three-year ADVANCE Adaptation grant from the National Science Foundation, we are tackling this challenge at our institution head-on, and we plan to share our findings with others in higher ed. We found three key areas that warrant specific focus:
Advancement for non-tenure-track faculty
Nationwide, a disproportionately large number of women and minorities hold non-tenure-track positions. At many universities, these faculty do not have a promotion pathway. While at WPI, non-tenure-track professors do have a path to promotion, both the criteria and process are perceived as unclear, and the criteria do not seem to recognize scholarly contributions. Moving forward, it is important for WPI and other institutions to provide clear promotion pathways and criteria to recognize the important and valuable work non-tenure-track faculty conduct.
A wider view of what’s valuable
Traditionally, promotion criteria are often interpreted too narrowly—emphasizing traditional peer-reviewed and externally-funded research, for example, rather than the broad array of interdisciplinary, teaching and community-engaged contributions that often distinguish scholarship portfolios and undergird universities’ missions. Broadening promotion criteria can help remediate the systemic biases that exist in traditional scholarship metrics—as women and minorities receive less funding, are cited less frequently and have more issues in the publication process. However, a wide range of faculty and academic leadership need to work together to ensure that new policies are interpreted and applied as intended and to make expectations and standards transparent. Moreover, it is also essential to engage colleagues in efforts to increase awareness of explicit and implicit biases about who’s a leader, who does what type of work and what high-quality scholarship looks like.
Tailored focus on mid-career faculty
A common misconception is that once faculty members reach tenure, they are well-positioned to take the next leap to full professor. Continued professional development and mentoring would benefit all mid-career faculty. Typical “fix-the-faculty” ideas that focus on enabling individuals (especially women) to say “no” to service and engagement requests, spend more time on their research and succeed in the traditional system fall short. Instead, a model for mentoring and professional development that prioritizes the creativity and passions of each individual in order to use their strengths in ways that advance themselves and the institution is needed. At WPI, we are introducing personally tailored professional development plans designed to become the centerpiece for conversations with mentors. We are also helping to activate department heads as catalysts for mid-career faculty innovation rather than as managers and arbiters of performance.
Throughout any examination of its promotion processes, a university must make choices that align with and bolster its core strengths and purpose. It is vital that the most distinctive elements of an institution are woven into the promotion pathways from associate-to-full for non-tenure-track and tenured faculty. It is just as vital to ensure that all faculty, regardless of their backgrounds, have the opportunity for advancement.
By aiming for systemic change rather than tinkering at the edges, reformed promotion policies can value and recognize more diverse faculty at all ranks. A flourishing diverse faculty body dedicated to the shared goal of excellence promises an innovative and stronger educational and scholarly environment for all.
Chrysanthe Demetry is an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of WPI’s Morgan Teaching and Learning Center. Elizabeth Long Lingo is an assistant professor at WPI’s Foisie Business School. Jeanine Skorinko is a professor of psychological science and director of WPI’s Psychological Science Undergraduate Program.