Wednesday, July 14, 2021

By Amanda Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Achieving tenure can be one of the most rewarding accomplishments in a professor’s career and can provide job security in a competitive environment. But, is it always a fair process? 

To help examine this question, UTRGV has been selected as part of a consortium of nine universities given a $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study tenure and promotion processes. 

The grant started on July 1 and is being led by The University of Houston. In addition to UTRGV, participating institutions include Hampton University, University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, Lehigh University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Rice University. 

Dr. Ala Qubbaj, UTRGV site principal investigator of the grant and dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, said women and underrepresented minorities are less likely to be tenured, so the study is meant to help shed light on a growing national issue. The ultimate goal is to minimize bias and increase diversity in the faculty tenure process.

Tenure is when a faculty member reaches indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for extraordinary circumstances, such as financial depletion or overall program discontinuation. Basically, achieving tenure means that a faculty member has a permanent job contract.

As tenure and promotion processes are critical to a faculty member’s career and the integrity of higher education, especially in an increasingly competitive environment, it is widely assumed that the most deserving and talented faculty members get tenure. This study is meant to challenge that assumption by focusing on external review letters, or ERLs, which are considered an important factor in tenure-making decisions. 

ERLs are review letters written by senior scholars. In the letters, evaluators include confidential assessments of a promotion candidate’s overall contribution as an educator, and the trajectory of the candidate’s role.

“We will study the role of external review letters in the tenure and promotion process and outcome, and how gender and ethnicity play into that,” Qubbaj said. “The consortium approach to the study will provide a large data set to ensure the anonymity and validity of the results.” 

The study will include the group of nine universities to examine multidisciplinary expertise crossing STEM and non-STEM fields, and coding five years’ worth of ERLs for all nine universities. 

“Collaborations of this sort can help shape the future of academia,” Qubbaj said.  “The results from this research would help inform the tenure and promotion processes, as well as trainings, in order to minimize biases and ensure a fair and equitable process.”


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.