Naming and Addressing Bias in P&T

Part II of our P&T Series Discusses Concrete Steps that P&T Committees can Take to Manage Bias in the P&T Process

Promotion and tenure (P&T) in academia is an essential and highly consequential process which can be affected by many biases. Fortunately, there are ways that policies and practices can reduce the impacts of these biases. The P&T process guides faculty members as they advance through their career and recognizes the knowledge, expertise, contributions, and growth they have accumulated in their field. Given its importance, it is critical to preserve the integrity and objectivity of this process. However, because human judgment is involved in P&T decisions, we must acknowledge the role bias can play. If P&T committee members and administrators are not aware of how conscious and unconscious biases can influence their decision making and if they take no steps to modify their practices in order to address these biases, the process will not be fair and inclusive.

To develop an inclusive mindset focused on why candidates should be promoted versus searching for reasons for denial, faculty must acknowledge their biases. In our role as Faculty Advocates, we created a a document detailing several different biases that can affect P&T decisions and ways to minimize their impact. We summarize some of these guidelines here to facilitate constructive discussion among P&T committee members and a fair decision-making process.

  • Identifying Biases: We recommend that P&T committee members acknowledge and address potential biases upfront before reading and evaluating dossiers. In particular, committees might keep in mind the following biases:

Confirmation Bias: We often seek out and assign more weight to evidence that supports our initial assessment of a candidate and ignore or devalue evidence that contradicts this assessment.

Contrast Effect: A candidate may be evaluated more favorably or less favorably depending on how their record compares to that of a previous candidate. This is problematic, as all candidates should be evaluated against the predetermined P&T standards, not other, past P&T cases.

  • Reducing Inappropriate Discussion: We also encourage committees to consider best practice recommendations to guide their discussion of P&T cases. Should the conversation steer towards topics not related to the merits of the case, members can refer to discussion guidelines and point out how the conversation is not appropriate. Some examples include:

When discussing leave: If a committee member claims a candidate had “extra time” for research due to parental leave or another form of leave, committee members can reference the guidelines regarding tenure clock stoppages and remind the committee that no research is expected during these leaves.

When discussing collegiality: If the discussion turns to a candidate’s collegiality, the committee can pause the conversation to define what they mean by collegiality and make sure this term has a standardized meaning across candidates. This is essential as collegiality can mean different things and be used as a form of bias against P&T candidates from underrepresented groups.

  • Modifying P&T Practices: Throughout all P&T processes, we recommend that P&T chairs center the process and its outcomes on the merits of the case, avoiding  discussions that veer into the biased territory noted above. In their leadership role, P&T chairs play a important part in ensuring the integrity of the P&T process. For example, P&T chairs should:

Keep standards front and center: P&T chairs should display and review the P&T standards with regards to research, teaching, and service before and during discussions of the case. This will help guide the discussion towards the relevant standards and prevent biases from factoring into the decision.

Solicit and respect all input: Chairs should guarantee that each committee member is given an opportunity to share their evaluation of the candidate, as this will ensure that diverse and contrary perspectives are heard and considered.

Biases are inevitable in any decision involving human judgement, and P&T decisions are no exception. However, by acknowledging and discussing these biases among P&T committee members as well as with administrators, and by modifying our policies and practices to address these biases, we can minimize their influence and attain P&T processes and decisions that are fair and inclusive.

Author Information: This blog post was co-authored by Chris Henle and Dan Graham. Chris is a Professor in the Department of Management. Dan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology. Both Chris and Dan are Faculty Advocates in the Advocates & Allies Program of Faculty Success.