Committee on tenure recalls 1996 review

The formation of a new committee this fall to reconsider the tenure process at Yale comes 10 years after a similar committee — which debated some of the same problems — decided against major changes to the system.

This year’s committee will tackle some of the same issues that were discussed in 1996, including the process for giving tenure to junior faculty from Yale. But the experience of the earlier committee, which was chaired by statistics professor John Hartigan, suggests that reaching consensus on major changes to the tenure process may be difficult.

Peter Brooks, a former tenured professor of comparative literature who served on the committee in 1995-96, said the proposed changes at the time were not as significant as he would have liked.

“All the Hartigan report proposed was kind of fine-tuning, and I was frankly quite disappointed with the results,” Brooks said. “I think a lot of people were, which is why they’re doing it all again.”

The 1996 committee proposed to tweak the tenure procedures, but it left the basic structure of the system intact. Their largest recommendation — to decrease the power of the senior faculty to reject departmental candidates — was never implemented.

Joan Steitz, a professor in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and a former member of the Hartigan committee, said she thinks the committee’s recommendations were largely ignored within the University after the report was issued.

“Basically nothing much happened,” Crothers said. “That’s unfortunately very typical of reports by Yale committees.”

Hartigan said that although members of the committee saw problems with Yale’s complex tenure process in the 1990s, they did not share the same concerns, or the same solutions. In particular, science departments had different needs than humanities and social science departments, he said.

“It turns out that when you get people together, the uneasiness is going in many different directions,” Hartigan said.

Chemistry professor Donald Crothers, who served on the Hartigan committee, said the process of requesting resources and soliciting advice from outside Yale makes the chances of getting tenure seem very uncertain, even when the department wants to make an tenure offer.

“We’ve been able to wrestle up a slot of some kind … but the University made us pretend we didn’t have them,” he said. “I’m not against good, tough evaluation of young people, but I think we’ve got to be honest about what we’re doing.”

In the sciences, scholars typically work as postdoctoral fellows for at least two years before they become junior faculty. When a junior professor is hired, science departments have a better idea of whether he or she will be tenured, Steitz said.

Crothers said humanities and social science professors disagreed about the need for changes in 1996, so the Hartigan committee did not propose changes on that issue. But in the ensuing decade, consensus has formed around the need for change in the system for promoting junior faculty, administrators said.

Deputy Provost Charles Long said other major universities have moved to a tenure-track system in recent years, where junior faculty are guaranteed that resources for a tenured position will be available if their scholarship is up to par. Now, getting tenure is perceived to be comparatively more difficult at Yale than at other schools, Long said.

“I think the stresses on junior faculty are discussed more openly throughout the University than they used to be,” Salovey said.

Although few major changes resulted from the committee’s deliberations in 1995 and 1996, Hartigan said he thinks they avoided one major pitfall of committee work.

“We didn’t do any damage,” Hartigan said. “That’s the first thing you have to do on a committee.”

Comments