Are External Review Letters & Promotion Outcomes Fair Indicators of Researcher Performance?

UH Research Team Receives Sloan Foundation Grant to Examine Role in Tenure and Promotion Process

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Almost globally, faculty members at universities are unanimous when asked what impacts their careers most profoundly: Yes, it’s the quality of their research output, but it’s also external review letters. Considered by many higher education administrators to be the most important element of promotion and tenure decision making, these external review letters, written by independent scholars in the same discipline from other institutions, are meant to provide an objective evaluation of a candidate’s work. Despite playing a pivotal role in who gets to advance in a particular field of study and whose career comes to an abrupt halt, there is virtually no research on external review letters, until now.

The University of Houston has received a $177,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to examine the role of external review letters in the promotion and tenure process. “This work contributes critically to the national discourse on diversity, equity and inclusion among higher education faculty,” said Paula Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.

“External review letters serve a core gatekeeping function, so it is critical for us to understand whether these letters are indeed fair and objective indicators of someone’s career success, or if extraneous factors impact their content,” said Erika Henderson, UH associate provost for recruitment, retention, equity and diversity, and member of the research team.

According to pilot data examined by the research team as part of their proposal to the Sloan Foundation, the language used in external review letters can predict how promotion and tenure committees will vote. However, when the team examined the data for evidence of bias, they found the research productivity of the candidate up for promotion was less related to language than the characteristics of the letter writer, such as gender and the letter writer’s own research productivity.

“We were quite surprised by the findings,” said Juan Madera, professor at UH’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and a co-investigator on the project. “We had anticipated close relationships between promotion candidate productivity and letter content, but that’s not what we found.”

Through the Sloan Foundation supported grant, the team will partner with Texas A&M University, Louisiana State University and Hampton University to pool and analyze a large set of external review letters and promotion outcomes.

“We are confident the data generated through this project will result in changes to how these letters are solicited at universities across the country, and contribute to the discourse around bias and fairness particularly for faculty of color and women,” said Christiane Spitzmueller, UH professor of psychology.

“Through this generous grant, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is making a significant investment in helping all universities understand a major factor that influences faculty promotion and diversity,” said Eloise Brice, vice president for university advancement.