SU Receives $2.3 Million NSF Award

Written by Dean Forbes
November 15, 2016

Seattle University has been awarded a $2.3 million institutional transformation grant from the National Science Foundation that could result in a new model for faculty promotion here and potentially at other mission-driven universities around the country.

The NSF ADVANCE grant focuses on increasing the representation and advancement of women and underrepresented minorities in academic science, social science and engineering careers.

“The intent is that if you can come up with institutional programs that help advance the faculty careers of those groups then they should proliferate out to campus more generally,” says Jodi O’Brien, PhD, professor of sociology and principal investigator.

“The NSF has never funded an institution like ours for this purpose,” says O’Brien. “It received 53 proposals and five were funded. So we’re in an elite crowd.”

“This news is exciting because it reflects true academic excellence within the context of our mission,” said Interim Provost Bob Dullea. “It enhances and supports areas where Seattle University already leads, and it will allow us much greater opportunity, prominence and impact.” 

Seattle U’s grant proposal was chosen, says O’Brien, because “it’s a novel approach. It is an institutional grant to us but because we are part of a larger network of Jesuit colleges and universities, there is the opportunity for our new model of faculty promotion to proliferate out to other Jesuit institutions. That was a big plus for NSF.”

Loyola Marymount, a Jesuit university in Los Angeles, will be a partner institution and liaison, allowing Seattle U researchers to involve its faculty as well and with the possibility of Loyola implementing any revised faculty promotion program that Seattle U adopts.

The Seattle U ADVANCE grant is a five-year, phased-approach project that will focus on mid-career women who are providing strong service and leadership in their departments and colleges. Leadership activities, including shared governance and administrative roles such as department chair or associate dean, and committee memberships are foundational in cultivating and maintaining the unique educational mission of the university. Plus, they can be deeply compelling and personally rewarding for faculty members.

“What we know, because this is the same at most universities, is that women do a disproportionate amount of this so-called ‘hidden work’—the service work,” says O’Brien. “But promotion is almost entirely based on research productivity. So if women have been spending more time on institutional support work and less time in research than their male counterparts, they’re going to be less likely to advance.”

Unless a university has made an explicit attempt to incorporate service work into its tenure and promotion structure—a so-called “multi-track” model—the work can go unrewarded and become a hindrance to advancement, she says.

The overall goal is institutional structural and cultural transformation to bring the promotion standards, perceived expectations and mentoring processes fully into alignment with the breadth of a comprehensive, mission-driven university, notes O’Brien. Although the project focuses on science and social science disciplines, the intention is institutional transformation for the advancement of faculty across all disciplines.

O’Brien noted that most grant-funded programs that examine how to improve the promotions problems faced by women  feature mentoring programs that try to steer women away from doing service work.

“The problem with that, and this is what we said in our proposal, if we’re a mission-driven, primarily undergraduate comprehensive university, we’re not going to be a good university if we’re not doing those things. So we have to be doing everything, we have to be excellent scholars, excellent teachers and we have to support and reward excellence in leadership service and community engagement,” she says.

“Otherwise we’re not going to be a notable university, particularly within our mission. Mission-driven comprehensive universities like ours need to bring their promotion standards into line with the full range of the activities that make us outstanding.”

In addition to O’Brien, the Seattle U project team includes co-PI Jean Jacoby, PhD, associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering; Jacquelyn Miller, PhD, associate professor of history; Agnieszka Miguel, PhD, associate professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department; Kevin Krycka, PsyD, professor of psychology; and Donna Sylvester, PhD, associate professor of mathematics. The grant will be administered through the Provost’s office under the Wismer Center for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion.