Achieving Racial Equity in Promotion and Tenure

What will it take to address the persistent underrepresentation of faculty members of color?
By Chavella T. Pittman

Sheet of wood with holes cut out and a square peg that does not fit in one of the holes

Tenure-track and tenured faculty members at degree-granting institutions in the United States are disproportionately white. White faculty members are especially overrepresented at the higher ranks, making up 79 percent of full professors and 74 percent of associate professors, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And while racial minorities are underrepresented at all faculty ranks, they are particularly underrepresented among full professors: only 4 percent of full professors are Black, 4 percent are Hispanic, and less than 1 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native (assistant professors, by comparison, are 8 percent Black, 6 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native).

Despite some recent improvements, this racial inequity has been a long-standing pattern. And because this systemic issue has been clearly identified for some time, ways to rectify it have also been much discussed.

So why does the underrepresentation of tenured faculty members of color remain a problem? Both the problem and possible solutions have been clear for some time. What is lacking seems to be the institutional will to take necessary actions. If we ignore institutions’ stated diversity values and priorities and pay attention only to their behaviors, the message is clear: institutions aren’t interested in doing the work necessary to retain and promote tenured faculty members of color.

Nevertheless, scholars are still asked to discuss, teach about, research, and write about increasing the number of tenured faculty members of color. What can be said that will add something new to this decades-old discussion? This article will attempt to offer a fresh perspective on the actions that can be taken, without dwelling too long on issues that have already been widely discussed, while also shedding light on the objections to those necessary actions that are commonly put forward. It seeks to answer the question “what’s in the way of people doing what needs to be done to increase the number of tenured faculty members of color?”

A Different Lens

The data on underrepresentation of tenured faculty members of color are stark. Few would deny that there is a problem, but many believe that no workable solutions exist. Over the last twenty years, I have worked as a researcher, consultant, and trainer with faculty members and administrators who recognize the statistics about the racial makeup of tenure-track and tenured faculty on their campuses, and I have been thrilled by those campuses that have followed through with changes to their tenure policies, procedures, and processes. Yet much work is still left to be done by other higher education institutions. The challenges have been plainly documented, and one solution can be boiled down to a single sentence: adjust promotion and tenure criteria to address areas that exclude or disadvantage faculty members of color.

To help faculty members and administrators overcome the resistance—both cognitive and behavioral—to taking such action, I offer a new lens for viewing this inequity, using the “square peg, round hole” analogy.

Pause for a moment and visualize a square peg and a round hole. As the saying goes, you can’t put the one into the other. But let’s say you want to try, and in our case, the square peg is the faculty member of color, while the round hole represents the criteria for promotion and tenure. What needs to be done for the peg to fit in the hole?

Much of the research on faculty members of color lists best practices to answer this question. Some researchers have suggested actions such as conducting bias training for members of tenure and promotion review committees and providing mentoring and professional development to faculty members of color. While there is merit in those and other related approaches, they emphasize getting individual faculty members and faculty members of color “ready” for the existing tenure criteria. Similarly, solutions focused on student evaluations, high service demands, and lower research productivity for faculty members of color are often about individual-level efforts. These individual-level solutions are the equivalent of trying to change the shape of the peg.

What is rarely talked about explicitly is changing the criteria for promotion and tenure, or the shape of the hole. We talk about the problems that faculty members of color face when reviewers “think” they haven’t met the tenure criteria. But what happens when we consider the shape of the peg, and the value of that shape? Then we can entertain the possibility that the hole is the problem and look at how the shape of the hole can be modified.

It is time to stop looking at faculty members of color as deficient or in need of molding and requiring them to bear the burden of changing. We must instead think about how to change the shape of promotion and tenure criteria.

With this new lens in mind, let’s now be explicit about how the promotion and tenure criteria—the shape of the hole—could be changed to eliminate the inequities confronting faculty members of color and increase their representation within the ranks of tenured faculty. The sections below are intended to address a common question: “Our institution is not sure how to increase our number of tenured faculty members of color—what should we do?”

Answering Common Objections

If you aren’t concerned about the underrepresentation of tenured faculty members of color, then say so. But if you are, addressing the problem will require real changes to written (and unwritten) promotion and tenure standards. Let’s start by dispensing with the commonly heard rationalizations of the status quo.

Changes to tenure standards don’t take anything away from others.

Unfortunately, the mention of changes to promotion and tenure standards often produces a knee-jerk reaction, particularly among faculty members in the racial majority. They perhaps fear that modifications to standards will take something away from them— things like institutional rewards—or invalidate what they do as academics. But that isn’t the case. Modifying promotion and tenure standards merely allows faculty members of color to be rewarded for the particular contributions in labor and value they make to their institutions. Others will continue to have their labor and value rewarded by promotion and tenure standards. Modifying promotion and tenure criteria is additive, not a zero-sum game. No scarcity mindset required.

Loyalty to “tradition” and “the way we’ve always done it” reinforces inequity in tenure outcomes.

Some cry out, “But this is how we’ve always evaluated and awarded tenure!” If that is indeed the case, then I invite you to consider why your institution continues to get the same results. Loyalty to the “tradition” of institutional policies, tenure criteria, and organizational routine maintains and exacerbates inequality. If these “traditions” are harming certain people, would you be for or against changing them? If there is true interest in the tenure and promotion of faculty members of color on your campus, then you must make a break with “tradition.”

Changing tenure standards won’t water them down or reduce their quality.

Allowing tenure standards to evolve is not the same as reducing the stringency of those standards. Adjustments can make those standards more comprehensive without lowering the bar or lessening quality. Changing tenure criteria to recognize the academic endeavors of faculty members of color can honor the original goals of the joint 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure by protecting the freedom of scholarly inquiry and the dissemination of ideas that might run contrary to the interests of the powerful and the status quo. Additionally, because research has shown that diversity expands and enriches scholarship, it follows that increased numbers of tenured faculty of color will in fact increase the quality and excellence of the institution.

It's not true that promotion and tenure standards must remain unchanged to be “fair.”

To head off claims that changing promotion and tenure standards would be unfair, note first that they have never been static. These standards have evolved over the decades, and they continue to change for myriad reasons. Most younger faculty members today have likely heard more senior colleagues comment about the time when faculty members could earn tenure without having any publications, for example. Added evidence of the evolving nature of tenure criteria can be found in The 2022 AAUP Survey of Tenure Practices, which discusses, among other changes, the shortening of the probationary period, the reduction of tenure quotas, and the dramatic increase over the past two decades in policies that allow for stopping the clock for family reasons. (The spread of such family-friendly policies is an example of the kind of radical change in tenure policies that is necessary.)

Times and situations change, and so should promotion and tenure criteria, policies, and practices. The call for changes to make space for faculty members of color simply reflects the evolving needs of a changing professoriate; higher education should not cling to outmoded tenure standards and practices.

It is time to refocus the conversation about diversity and tenure, to sound the alarm that real change isn’t being made where it counts. Solutions that focus on diversity, climate, recruitment, training, professional development, and awareness are needed and welcome, but these alone cannot bring about changes in real-life tenure outcomes. What’s needed are changes to the promotion and tenure criteria themselves.

Jump-Starting Institutional Efforts

The following recommendations for expanding promotion and tenure criteria are intended to remove inequitable barriers facing faculty members of color. While the changes below are likely to have significant impact, they are not an exhaustive list. Instead, they are the lowest-hanging fruit—the items that are easiest to address in order to set change in motion.

Appropriately count and weight the scholarly work of faculty members of color.

The promotion and tenure standards of many colleges and universities reward faculty scholarship only when it is positioned in the “top” or “most highly ranked” category. For example, anything other than refereed articles published in the top-ranked journals, books from the most prestigious presses, exhibitions at widely known venues, or grants from the most prominent funding agencies is routinely discounted, dismissed as ineligible for consideration, or even treated as nonexistent.

What’s wrong with this typical practice? Answer that question with another question: what criteria are being used to deem some journals, presses, venues, and granting agencies the best and others unworthy? The scholarship of faculty members of color engages with particular topics, epistemologies, methodologies, and communities of study that are rarely supported with funding or recognized in high-profile venues. That doesn’t mean the scholarship is not excellent; a seafood restaurant would rarely rank on a list of the best steakhouses. If the top three journals in a discipline rarely publish anything about race, of course a scholar who focuses on race is more likely to publish in a niche or specialty journal that shares that focus. Why should publication in a high-quality, peer-reviewed specialty journal not count toward meeting the institution’s tenure criteria?

When universities give greater weight to or count only scholarship that appears in venues currently perceived as “top ranked,” they effectively erase much of the scholarship of faculty members of color, discounting, and even destroying, their record of productivity in their bids for tenure.

Promotion and tenure standards must be updated to recognize excellent journals, presses, funding agencies, and other venues that focus on the innovation and diversity found in the work of scholars of color. That is the fix.

Tenure must protect the exploration of the full range of ideas. Excluding or devaluing the many excellent venues that are more likely to house innovative scholarship from faculty members of color runs counter to the academic freedom that tenure aims to protect. Devaluing these faculty achievements in the tenure process is simply unnecessary. Jump-start institutional efforts to expand the ranks of tenured faculty members of color by making these changes to the criteria and practices for assessing scholarship.

Appropriately count and weight the service of faculty members of color.

The promotion and tenure standards for service on most campuses primarily reward “traditional” roles like serving as chair of a committee or department. And these same standards recognize only service provided to “traditional” organizations, such as campuses or major professional disciplinary associations. We know that faculty members of color are less likely than their white colleagues to serve in traditional leadership roles on campus and also are less likely to provide recognized service to major disciplinary organizations.

When universities use such a tenure standard, they make the service of faculty members of color seem insignificant and deficient, thereby damaging their tenure reviews. The fix for this problem is simple: Recalibrate how service is measured. Count and significantly weight the service activities to which faculty members of color contribute.

Research shows that faculty of members color are contributing more than their share in service activities at both the departmental and the university levels. The diversity and other forms of service labor campuses regularly require of faculty members of color must be included in the tenure standard. Additionally, the tenure standard should also count—with appropriate weight—the service that faculty members of color willingly provide to diverse students, local communities, nontraditional organizations, and so forth. Incorporate this service in the tenure standards so that it can be explicitly recognized and counted.

Evaluate teaching using evidence-based practices.

Tenure standards for teaching cannot and should not rely primarily upon student ratings. Most higher education institutions give most (if not all) weight to student ratings as the standard for teaching effectiveness. Research is clear about the racial bias in student ratings, which is expressed in low scores and negative comments about the teaching performance of faculty members of color in reviews. In other words, both outright racism and unconscious bias in student evaluations are damaging the tenure bids of faculty members of color.

When universities use student ratings as the standard for teaching effectiveness, they can mistake negatively biased student ratings as evidence of teaching incompetence. The fix here is again simple: adopt the evidence-based standard of reviewing teaching effectiveness through multiple lenses and methods, as recommended in the AAUP’s 1975 Statement on Teaching Evaluation. This holistic and rigorous standard of evaluating teaching ensures that teaching effectiveness is being measured rather than student and colleague resistance to innovative teaching methods or course content that challenges the status quo. Using multiple lenses, methods, and evidence types is a more robust approach and is less prone to misinterpretation and bias.

Count and weight overloads for faculty members of color.

The research shows that institutions and departments routinely assign informal and formal overloads to faculty members of color, meaning that those faculty members are performing disproportionate amounts of teaching, service, and mentoring. These overloads draw time and energy away from work to fulfill other tenure standards—most often, by reducing scholarly productivity.

When universities demand additional labor from faculty members of color and fail to recognize the effects of that demand in tenure standards, they contribute to the failed tenure bids of those faculty members whose files have a resultant “gap.”

The fix here is to count overload labor in one tenure review area toward the resultant deficiency in another. For example, a mentoring or teaching overload could be counted in place of a publication or other scholarly output. A grant could be formally credited to the tenure file of a faculty member of color in exchange for service overload. If a university deems work important enough to place an overload on a faculty member of color, that labor should also be important enough to be recognized and counted in the formal tenure standards.

The Frustration is Real

If you happen to be on a campus where faculty members of color are frustrated by the institution’s diversity statements, climate surveys, healing circles, book clubs, bias trainings, planning committees, and affinity groups, here’s the deal. The talk among faculty members of color is centered on the disconnect: “That’s nice window-dressing, but where’s the real change?” “What does all this stuff have to do with my overly full plate of scholarship, service, and teaching work, especially when little or none of it counts toward tenure or promotion?” “Why invest in my delivery of innovative and excellent scholarship if you aren’t going to count it toward tenure?” “Well, a new diversity statement doesn’t make the tenure and promotion system more equitable, but okay.” The frustration is real. No one is saying not to do those other diversity-focused actions. But if institutions really value the contributions of faculty members of color, they shouldn’t undertake those actions without also making real changes to tenure criteria and processes.

According to The 2022 AAUP Survey of Tenure Practices, universities are increasingly including diversity, equity, and inclusion in tenure criteria, reviewing standards for bias, and training tenure committee members. Yet frustrated faculty members of color are likely still telling those same institutions that talk is cheap, because these actions orbit the promotion and tenure process rather than directly altering it. Material changes in tenure outcomes are important. And material changes in the broader system of promotion and tenure criteria are where the needle—and the number of tenured faculty members of color—can be moved.

This article has laid out answers to the question “what’s in the way” of better tenure and promotion outcomes for faculty members of color. Instead of repeating the same woeful statistics and overlooked solutions, I have sought to describe how this problem can be addressed by changing current inequitable tenure criteria and overcoming the standard fear- and scarcity-based objections to those changes. The fixes suggested above are the start of a plan of action for any institution that sincerely aims to increase the number of tenured faculty members of color on campus.

Chavella T. Pittman is a professor of sociology at Dominican University (Illinois) with expertise in higher education, marginalized statuses, and research methods. She provides consultation, coaching, and workshops to remove structural obstacles to the success, tenure, and promotion of diverse faculty members.

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