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We Must Name Systemic Changes in Support of DEI

It is time to not just say the system in academe is inequitable but also to start putting our finger on the particular pieces that require a reset, write Beth Mitchneck and Jessi L. Smith.

August 24, 2021
 
 
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The National Academies recently hosted a convening, Addressing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism in 21st Century STEMM Organizations: A Summit, to draw attention to making systemic change in the academy. Too often, we multitask in these remote conversations, checking email or making lunch while we listen in. But not this time. This was a send-apologies-for-missing-your-next-meeting type of event so that you could hang on every word in every session.

We both have spent the bulk of our careers studying, advocating for and implementing programs aimed at achieving diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, in STEM. We also co-authored “Recipe for Change: Creating a More Inclusive Academy,” published in Science. In that article, we argue for making sustained change in the academy in part through data awareness and institutional policy change, noting that policies related to promotion and tenure may be the “single greatest hurdle” to changing the status quo. Given the disruption of COVID-19, we have a new source of urgency and potential for tackling that greatest obstacle to DEI -- evaluation criteria -- as soon as possible.

We applaud the compilation of cutting-edge social science research, sometimes based unapologetically on critical race theory, on how bias and stereotypes disadvantage the health and welfare of millions of Americans and ultimately lay open the possibility of the U.S. being unable to maintain the innovation necessary to remain a world leader. When the co-chair of the National Academies’ summit, Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering, asked panelists what makes them hopeful for the future, they responded, in turn and with gusto, that having the support of the U.S. Senate, the young people and the mental uplift after experiencing collective wins bring hope to them.

What brings we two authors hope is the continual recognition on the part of speakers like those at the summit that many academic systems and structures must change. At the summit, we were hopeful when speakers called for making the invisible visible as a precondition to that change. We were hopeful when we heard about the great social science research studies underway.

That hope quickly dissipated, however, when it became clear that even many of the leaders in the field find it difficult to name the actual systems and structures that necessarily must change. People seem to agree that the system supports and protects the status quo, but very few appear able to point to the specific parts of the system that do so. How can we fix what we don’t name? The problem is much bigger than increasing the representation of women and people of color in STEM.

To be sure, achieving a more equitable representation of our population is an important goal, but it is for naught if the system doesn’t also change. After all, we don’t want to send our talented marginalized and minoritized researchers to work without identifying and removing the underlying barriers to lasting change.

But what exactly is it that we are trying to change?

It’s taken decades for us to get to a place where most people agree that the academy is not the objective, level playing field we all hoped it would be. Now it is time to not just say the system is inequitable but also to start putting our finger on the particular pieces that require a reset. We call on all academics, funding agencies, professional organizations and leaders to consider the following structures as a jumping-off place for change. It feels too big to try and change a system, but if we can name parts of the system, then we can put ourselves on an inspirational path forward that finally leads to real change.

Merit and Metrics

On the first day of the summit, a speaker discussed the construction of the meaning of merit. Admitting that the normative definitions of success and merit are in and of themselves barriers to achieving the goals of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion is necessary but not sufficient to create change. Most of the academy functions by using a narrow definition of merit limited to a neoliberal view of the university: that merit is indicated by obtaining funding dollars or by producing lots of peer-reviewed journals or juried exhibits in prestigious outlets that garner a high number of citations or visits. Some institutions also include attracting many doctoral students or obtaining high numbers of student credit hours in their definitions of success.

That hegemonic, numbers-crunching conceptualization of merit in the American academy today stifles innovation and constitutes one of the main techniques of maintaining the status quo and reproducing the social order that undermines efforts toward DEI. We are not the first to point this out, of course, but thinking about merit as embedded in the system helps us focus on change strategies.

In the academy, we have been using the same metrics to assess merit in annual performance and promotion reviews for eons, despite the fact that our work lives and expectations have changed significantly over the last half a century. For example, the advent of the internet has meant that, at a minimum, many new outlets for and forms of scholarship should be part of the reward structure.

The missions of our colleges and universities have also changed substantially. Today, most of our academic missions include public engagement, student success and DEI. Yet those mission-critical activities rarely receive adequate attention in the assessment of merit. As we know, if a new scholar actually follows the mission of the institution, the majority of her daily work will not “count” toward promotion and tenure.

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For example, the dominance of the citation of a peer-reviewed paper has outlived its usefulness. One of us, Beth, conducted a meta-synthesis of the research literature on citation practice and citation indices. She found overwhelming evidence that citation metrics measure many aspects of our academic lives -- the size of our research networks, the disciplinary nature of our research and our own biases about whose and what research is valuable. Citation indices also measure the degree to which scholars have learned to game the system. Of course, some portion of the citation index or count may be explained by the quality or impact of the research. It is anyone’s guess, however, how much of the variation in an author’s citation count we can attribute to quality and how much to all the other factors.

Citation counts are easy. You can look up your h-factor or otherwise track your citations (and how many of you remove your self-citations?) and thus the ease of the metric makes it a difficult one to change. You can easily look up the rejection rate at a certain journal or book press and determine that this is a “high-quality outlet” based on the number of people excluded from engaging. If a professional organization only allows a few fellows each year, then that exclusivity must mean it is prestigious. We are basing merit on easy assessments. Why is that? Might this be part of the broken system we could change?

And once we are ready to rethink merit, to reimagine the process of merit evaluation, we necessarily set ourselves up to consider the elephant sitting in the middle of the broken system: promotion and tenure guidelines.

Promotion and Tenure Guidelines

The onset of the pandemic has, in fact, created a reckoning for the promotion and tenure process at many institutions because of remote work, the need to engage evaluators with the realities of the scientific research process during these disruptions and the very inequitable impact on the productivity of women and minority faculty, especially those who are caregivers. We and other academics have been very busy this year advising our own and other institutions about how to create and maintain equitable processes, especially for promotion and tenure. Yet the criteria -- what is deemed meritorious -- is a defining part of our academic system.

When Beth was the lead program officer of the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program, she found that nearly all awardees proposed working on promotion and tenure guidelines -- not actually to change them, but rather to make sure that women and faculty of color knew the rules. Those rules are the very processes and practices that make performance evaluation inequitable. Those rules were based upon the lives, ideas and values of the straight, well-off white men who for centuries made up the professoriate.

Several institutions recently have tried to make significant changes. Purdue University has created a policy to promote and give tenure to faculty for the scholarship of engagement. Seattle University is poised to make significant changes to promotion and tenure reviews. And recently, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis unveiled its first nontraditional pathway to tenure: DEI work in the academy.

Beth suggested in a recent webinar that we move toward impact portfolios, modeled in part on the portfolios that artists routinely produce, that would demonstrate the ways in which our work as defined by institutional missions has indeed contributed to achieving those missions. For example, Utrecht University has just announced a new faculty recognition and rewards system that aligns with institutional values about open science and excludes the use of impact factors.

While these examples stand out for the good, that is, in many ways, the problem. While we can point to the few institutions that are trying to change merit structures, many others seem resistant to change. Why is that? Do people fear that tenure will go away? Maybe. We believe that fear would be unwarranted if we developed more equitable procedures, practices and policies that reflected the true diversity of the research and societal impacts that our institutional missions espouse. It is time to start living those missions.

We applaud the attention to the urgent need to create an academy that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. The summit was a great example of bringing great minds together to deeply engage in the difficult work of DEI efforts. But that difficult work can only take us so far. We must name the problem and set out to change the underlying supports of the inequities.

The system is broken, yes. And we might get cut as we examine the broken pieces. But we can sweep up those pieces, name them and then build something new and different one piece at a time.

Bio

Beth Mitchneck is a professor emerita in the school of geography, development and environment at the University of Arizona. She has also served as the lead program officer for ADVANCE at the National Science Foundation. Jessi L. Smith is the associate vice chancellor for research and professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She has led multiple National Science Foundation grants on broadening participation in STEM.

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