Delving into the complex tenure system

For some junior professors, coming to Yale is a Faustian bargain.

The scholarly resources are boundless, academic heavyweights fill the faculty offices, and the students are among the world’s best. But the downsides, many professors say, are the difficulty of earning tenure at the University and the potentially dire consequences of failing to do so.

Receiving tenure is a scholar’s ultimate goal and guarantees academic freedom and job security. But unlike most universities, Yale has a labyrinthine, imperfect and — in some cases — infuriating tenure process, professors say.

Critics say departments wield too much power, with senior faculty deciding in concert whether junior professors are worthy of tenure, and the administration only “rubber-stamps” departmental decisions. After nearly a decade of service, many talented juniors leave the University without a job.

For some, leaving Yale means stepping into a professional desert — they are too old for other junior positions, yet not tenurable at top institutions. Several academics are vexed that a tenure denial can be career ending.

Though advocates acknowledge that the system is far from flawless, they say it is the one that works best for Yale. The University’s grueling tenure review process, with its best-in-the-world standards, ensures that only exceptional professors secure a spot in Yale’s celebrated permanent faculty. Few fear that the system damages Yale’s standing in the academy.

“For better and for worse, building and maintaining a really excellent university requires making very hard choices at the moment you decide on tenure,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.

Creating a ‘bottleneck’

However successful it is at luring luminaries, many professors say the University’s system is woefully outdated. Yale is an anomaly in today’s academic marketplace, where tenure track systems rule and an increasing number of competitive institutions ferociously recruit what seems more and more like only a handful of superstar professors.

Tenure track at most schools guarantees junior professors a slot in the senior ranks so long as their scholarship, teaching and citizenship pass muster. But slots at Yale are allotted based on a complex pool of so-called Junior Faculty Equivalents, or JFEs.

Each department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is allotted a subscribed number of JFEs. A junior position uses one JFE while a senior position uses two. In short, departments juggle their JFEs to balance appointments, often banking on retirements to open up slots for promotions.

“There’s no track, so in order to promote someone, you have to identify two JFEs,” physics professor Thomas Appelquist, a former Graduate School dean, said. “That’s an immediate impediment and it creates a bottleneck at the tenured level.”

Deputy Provost Charles Long, who for years has overseen JFE allocations, said his office tries to ease the congestion caused by the resource allocation process.

“I do understand there’s criticism that it’s not easy to find resources,” Long said. “We build into the slot system sufficient flexibility.”

Physics Chair Ramamurti Shankar recently designed a tenure track system of sorts for his department. Shankar jockeys JFEs within the department by setting up tenure reviews to coincide with retirements.

“We have beaten the system,” Shankar said. “Whenever I hire someone in a junior position, I make sure that when that person comes up for tenure it’ll be correlated with some other retirement — We work resources around from one subdivision to another.”

This system allows the Physics Department to recruit top junior faculty by ensuring them there will be available resources down the road for a possible promotion, physics professors said.

“The very best candidates compete with the very best institutions in the country, and if we can’t offer a tenure track system, we just can’t get them,” physics professor Meg Urry said. “We make a big investment in our junior faculty and we’re spending a lot of time on them and investing a lot of the energy on our departments. To do that and then boot them out just doesn’t make sense.”

As the clock ticks, professors leave

Yale’s system is also unique in its prolonged tenure clock, which is 10 years, rather than the standard five to seven year clock. Typically, junior professors are reviewed for tenure in their ninth year.

The system gives juniors more time to complete research, publish books, prove their teaching abilities and take on administrative roles in their departments, the system’s supporters say.

But critics profess that it also leaves Yale’s bigwigs-in-the-making more time to weigh outside offers from rival institutions.

In 1997, with a promise of tenure as its bait, Dartmouth lured political scientist Alex Wendt away from Yale, where he had served as a junior professor for eight years.

“When you come in as a junior, you’re told that the chances of getting tenure are fairly low,” Wendt, now at the University of Chicago, said. “There’s just an assumption that you’ll come here for five or seven years and move somewhere else.”

This month, the Women Faculty Forum launched a task force to review Yale’s faculty development and retention policies, including the tenure system.

“It is hurting the institution to lose extremely talented young people to rival institutions,” political science professor Seyla Benhabib, who is spearheading the task force, said. “Some of them get swiped by Harvard and some get picked up by Princeton and other institutions — It’s damaging to the institution at large.”

Columbia University Provost Alan Brinkley said it is important for universities to strike a balance in their faculties between professors who were internally tenured and those who were tenured from outside.

“Every university that used to rely primarily on recruiting senior faculty from outside understands now that it’s too hard to do that,” Brinkley said. “You have to have a home-grown cohort if you want to have a stable faculty.”

The real problem, political science professor Bruce Russett said, is that rival universities are playing a “strategic game” by tapping budding scholars in Yale’s junior ranks and luring them away before they are reviewed for tenure in the ninth year.

“We are prone to losing a lot of good people who are not willing to wait that long and take that kind of chance when they have very attractive alternatives,” Russett said. “[There are] late-in-the-academic-year wolves trying to steal our sheep.”

Sometimes Yale will play hardball and compete in bidding wars in order to combat a competitive tenure offer from outside. In several cases, the University has extended tenure offers ahead of schedule, knighting top junior professors just as they begin to hit their stride.

“I’ve been dean for 11 years. How many times did a person not get tenure because they were thought to be tenurable and there wasn’t a slot for them?” Brodhead said. “The answer is almost never.”

For many, waiting idly is a risk

Despite the University’s increasing willingness to tenure younger professors, many junior professors say they are scared to risk staying at Yale when they know statistically that their prospects for promotion and job security are slim.

About 54 percent of Yale’s 379 senior faculty members were tenured from within the University ranks, according to internal statistics.

Yet most professors claim such a figure is misleading. Many junior professors are denied tenure in their ninth-year review, and others leave the University before they are up for tenure.

Junior classics professor Shilpa Raval said many of her untenured colleagues are scared to take a risk by staying at Yale and going through the review process.

Many junior professors arrive at Yale as ambitious scholars setting out to prove themselves so that a decade down the road they receive tenure, Kevin Repp, a junior history professor, said.

“It’s increasingly tempting after a while to begin to imagine that as an opportunity. We’re only human,” Repp, who was denied tenure this year, said. “It’s taken a lot to not fall into that trap.”

Political science professor Allan Stam left Yale in 2000 after accepting an offer from Dartmouth. He said this month that the low internal tenure rate fosters a bitter atmosphere at the University.

“When you first get there, you think you’re going to get tenured and then a few years go by and you realize they’re probably going to fire you,” Stam said. “If you know you’re going to get fired, why should you invest in the people around you?”

Some professors claim Yale sometimes takes advantage of its junior professors by expecting them to teach heavy course loads and take on administrative duties.

“Yale gets tremendous mileage out of all this,” one professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “[It is like] a stable of bar girls. When they get to a certain age, you just dump them off.”

But the notion of tenure creates anxieties on all campuses, not just on Yale’s, History Chair and incoming Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said.

“[Tenure] is inevitably of concern in any system that judges the quality of one’s performance,” he said.

Graduate School Dean Peter Salovey said Yale does everything it can to retain its top junior professors.

“If you’ve hired an outstanding junior faculty member and that person has been a successful scholar, teacher and citizen during their untenured years at Yale, you don’t want to lose that person because they’re nervous they won’t be considered seriously,” Salovey said.

To that end, Yale provides a plethora of resources and amenities to junior professorsÊ– including paid year-long leaves of absence and top-notch libraries and research facilities — that many nontenured professors happily take advantage of, Long, the deputy provost, said.

“Those are things we do in order to counteract the biggest differences about our system, which is, ‘Why should I come to Yale if I don’t get tenure?'” Long said.

Political logrolling

Despite drawing criticism recently, decades ago Yale’s tenure system was even less progressive and transparent.

When he was reviewed for tenure in the English Department in 1985, Brodhead said he did not learn of his verdict until 10 days after the senior faculty voted in his case — and he only heard by way of the hallway rumor mill, not from his chair.

“In those days the mystification was intense,” Brodhead said. “People are not required to love the current system, but things are done here more thoughtfully and more transparently than in the past.”

But many professors still grumble about the back-room political logrolling they claim plays a major role in the tenure process at Yale. One professor said senior faculty have been known to make controversial decisions “in the dark of night with lightning speed.”

Cathy Trower, a tenure expert from Harvard, said politics are part of tenure decisions at nearly all institutions, not just at top-tier schools like Yale.

“Obviously everyone will tell you there are politics,” Trower said. “When I talk to junior faculty, I really encourage them to think as much politically as they do about their research and really being proactive in forging coalitions on campus and being a likeable colleague.”

Trower said a candidate’s chances for tenure can become derailed if the candidate lacks strong ties with senior professors in his or her department.

Longtime political science professor William Foltz said personal politics are a natural part of the tenure review process but are not the decisive factor.

“Some people will also say, ‘Oh, God, what a pain in the ass he is,'” Foltz said. “[But] if we didn’t hire people because they were a pain in the ass, we’d have a depleted faculty.”

There are enough loopholes in the tenure system that departments can adjust procedures to reach preordained outcomes, one professor said.

“Because of the obvious unlikelihood of junior faculty at Yale getting tenure, the process of going through it has been crude and unattractive and in some cases just plain rude and disrespectful,” the professor, who asked not to be named, said.

But psychology professor Robert Sternberg said tenure at Yale is no more political than at other institutions.

“The people who leave generally go to pretty good jobs,” Sternberg said. “If the department voted against me, why the hell would I stay here? It’s like a romance.”

‘The abortion issue of the academy’

Questions of tenure, the thorny processes by which Yale professors are promoted, and the accompanied secrecy and back-room politics — mythical or not — have stirred many controversies on campus. A Google search last week of “Yale tenure denial” yielded 5,370 Web pages.

But although a few Yale tenure denial cases have been high profile — Henry Louis Gates in 1985, Diane Kunz in 1997, William Lee Blackwood in 2000, and Mary Habeck in 2004 — most have passed quietly.

Tenure expert Richard Chait wrote in his 2002 book, “The Questions of Tenure,” that “tenure is the abortion issue of the academy.”

“It ignites arguments and inflames almost religious passions,” Chait wrote.

Despite its contention, the Yale tenure system seems to work as well as any other, Foltz said.

“It’s an industry that moves people around, [but] it’s the most effective university system in the world,” Foltz said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of things wrong with it. But it’s one in which tough personal decisions get made.”

Appelquist, the former Graduate School dean, said no system would be perfect for Yale; decisions are made “by human beings,” he said.

“Those decisions are no doubt viewed by some people as political decisions,” Appelquist said. “[But] I think people are doing their best job — to make sure that we have departments that are up to date and in fact leading and shaping the different academic disciplines.”

Some professors say the problems lie in Yale’s departments, which critics assail for holding too much control over tenure decisions. There are not enough checks and balances in the system, some professors say.

“The question is whether the way it is being administered still fits that original design or whether departments are becoming so hegemonic that they’re trying to find ways to rig the system,” one professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I have seen cases in which grave injustices were done.”

Another professor complained that Yale’s system is designed to reward mostly canonical professors.

“Young protegees get swept up into the system very rapidly,” he said.

Leaning forward, looking back

The Yale administration is currently reviewing the tenure system and is discussing various aspects of its structure. In interviews for this article, several top administrators expressed an open-minded willingness to consider changes to the University’s unique tenure system.

Long said a committee of senior administrators, including the deans, has been meeting this spring to consider reforms to the tenure system.

“We’re not contemplating going to a tenure track institution, but we are looking at all of our components to see what proposals might gain us some of the positive features of a tenure track system,” Long said.

The committee is looking at ways to streamline the scholarship review process that involved outside letters of recommendation and the search process, Long said. In short, these changes would make the tenure process easier for junior faculty while maintaining Yale’s traditionally high standards of scholarship.

“We’ve had some recent discussions,” Brodhead said. “I don’t say that to profligate a revolution, but rather that we are always thinking about this system and how to make the system good for all parties.”

Yale President Richard Levin said the atypical system seems to work well for the University.

“I think we have a very rigorous system that insures a first rate faculty,” Levin said. “It’s very much an assessment of the merits.”

Butler, who is preparing to lead the Graduate School, said the administration is pursuing tenure reform in an “informal, yet vigorous fashion,”

“We want an effective system that sustains the best possible departments through the best possible faculty,” Butler said. “[But] Yale has used the current system for many, many decades — and look at its standing. Yale does very well.”

Yale’s laborious and imperfect tenure system, with its intricate promotion standards, keeps many junior professors from clearing the gates to academic freedom.
Philip Rucker
Yale’s laborious and imperfect tenure system, with its intricate promotion standards, keeps many junior professors from clearing the gates to academic freedom.

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