The most serious decisions that a University makes involve the tenuring and promotion of its faculty. Typically, a faculty member’s performance in teaching, research, and service is assessed by colleagues who are of higher rank in the candidate’s department. This includes evaluating letters of reference submitted by prominent experts in the candidate’s field of research. The department then makes a recommendation to the Dean. After the Dean and a university tenure and promotion committee make their recommendations, the Provost makes a final decision that must be approved by the University’s Board of Trustees. To the best of my knowledge, at Lehigh, nowhere throughout this process is the candidate’s research performance ever compared with the average research performance of the tenured faculty in the candidate’s home department.
Why is this important? The answer is very simple. If the candidate’s research performance is significantly better than the average, then the candidate is having a positive impact on the prominence of that department and the University as a whole, and a promotion may be warranted. If the candidate’s performance is not any better than the average, then there’s no net gain and the case for promotion is weak at best. Given the fact that Lehigh is striving to become a prominent University, and since the prominence of a university, both nationally and internationally, is largely a function of the quality and quantity of the research that it generates, special weight must now be given to the candidate’s research performance.
In 2019, assessing research performance has been made easier through the use of impact factors, the h-index and other bibliometrics. Although such assessments are not perfect, they can provide an estimate of average research performance and serve as a useful frame of reference. While outside letters by experts have some value, in my 40+ years of reviewing such letters, I don’t recall ever reading one that was negative. In a broader context, assessing average research performances would serve as a useful metric for Lehigh’s Path to Prominence; i.e., they would help clarify whether individual departments and the university as a whole are moving up or down in prominence from year to year.
Steven L. Regen
University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry