Breaking the oldest rules in the book: making promotion and tenure more equitable

Pardis Mahdavi and Scott Brooks explain how a rethink of the processes that govern promotion and tenure to put diversity work at its heart could result in a more equitable higher education system


12 Jan 2022
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It is incumbent upon university leaders to create diverse and inclusive communities and curricula

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Arizona State University

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They are the oldest rules in the academic handbook: promotion and tenure. And in many ways, they uphold the academic structure. But as conversations abound about the need for higher education to be more equitable and committed to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (Jedi) issues, we now need to have the hardest conversation of all: what that means for the structures that uphold inequality.

Across the globe, leaders in higher education are talking about making diversity statements a mandatory part of the job search. We have weighed in on this conversation, calling for rubrics and training on how to read and evaluate diversity statements. But is it enough to ask for a diversity statement only when a candidate is applying for a role? How do we ensure that this is not just another check mark, further siloing diversity work to the hiring process only? We propose a major structural shift in higher education: reforming promotion and tenure to centre Jedi.

Talking about tenure and promotion reform might sound like the surest way to get faculty’s hackles up, but this should be an inclusive process that is a calling-in rather than a calling-out. So, what does that look like?

1) Continuing to uphold diversity statement principles from hiring into faculty’s daily work

We should create a continuum from when an applicant applies for a job by infusing the principles of their diversity statement into the ongoing work they do on a daily basis. Universities must devote time to developing creative solutions to change the academic structure and must teach faculty and students about ways to engage structural change in order to uphold Jedi values.

As we suggested in our advice for how to write an effective diversity statement – faculty need to know how the academic structure reinforces and recapitulates to inequities and inequalities and how we can individually and collectively mitigate and eliminate structural racism. We need faculty who stand in the gap for their students, who create more opportunities, who use their resources to help others who are less resourced and are unaware of the hidden rules or do not know how to navigate academia.

Faculty should prioritise equity over equality. They should identify new pools of talent and figure out which resources are needed for equity. They should speak up for those who are not at “the table”. They should challenge the criteria used for hiring, admitting and selecting, particularly when they notice a pattern of selection that does not lead to diversity.

To support this major shift, faculty should be offered workshops, training, individual mentoring and other assets, such as free online courses through initiatives such as Arizona State University’s Starbucks Global Academy. For example, a workshop on inclusive pedagogy, how to offer epistemological lenses to your syllabi or enlightened mentoring might facilitate some thinking in these areas for faculty who are less comfortable with Jedi work. An institution can motivate staff and faculty to engage with these trainings by offering bonuses in annual performance reviews and by holding individuals accountable, as we detail below.

It is important to stress at this stage that this structural shift is not an affront to academic freedom and that this is not a request to change syllabi, research foci or teaching. Rather, it is an offering for a new way to think about the work already being done.

2. Ensuring that diversity work is ongoing and accountable

There are many ways to ensure that diversity work is ongoing and accountable – here are just a few:

  • Invite candidates for promotion and tenure to submit a diversity statement that offers an opportunity to reflect on the Jedi work they have engaged in throughout their time as faculty. This is a chance to render visible – and to get credit for – those vast amounts of invisible labour that faculty do to support diversity within institutions, with students and in their own work. Faculty could focus on how they have put Jedi values into practice in their teaching, research, mentoring and service.
  • Ask that candidates address diversity in each section of their materials, reflecting on what they have done in the Jedi space with regards to their teaching, their research and their service. In this model, rather than drafting a separate diversity statement, candidates would be asked to weave their reflections into their personal statement.
  • Include questions about diversity as part of students’ evaluations of courses. This adds another layer of evaluation, increasing accountability and creating opportunities for faculty and student growth. Students’ feedback offers important perspectives on what is working in the classroom. In addition to helping to improve teaching, students’ feedback reveals information about the campus environment and can inform directions for student-focused diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming that is co-curricular, or can be infused into the curriculum.
  • This structural shift would have to be accompanied by mandatory training for all search committees in how to read and evaluate this change in promotion and tenure materials. Faculties and committees should decide which route to take, how to communicate this to candidates and whether to include these materials for external reviewers.

One last thing: do not exclude Bipoc academics from this process

While it has been said that Black, indigenous and other people of colour (Bipoc) should not bear the burden of fixing the system that oppresses them, attempts to fix the system without their input are unrealistic, impractical and exclusionary. Bipoc individuals cannot be excluded from this work because they know it better than white colleagues. They must be guides to ensure that reform is working. Moreover, the boom of opportunities related to diversity, equity and inclusion should be a boom for many Bipoc academics who study race and racism. Hiring white academics into new positions with resources only continues Bipoc exclusion from the power positions of higher education. Some faculty have a head start on Jedi, and these faculty, who are largely Bipoc, should be rewarded with opportunities to lead in this area, which many have always been engaged in as part of their invisible and unpaid labour.

Pardis Mahdavi is dean of social sciences at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and directs the School of Social Transformation, and Scott Brooks is an associate professor with the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, both at Arizona State University.


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