Tenure system may be revamped

A faculty committee recommended significant changes to the current system of tenure and appointments procedures at Yale, releasing a long-awaited report to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Monday.

Perhaps most notably, the report proposes separating questions of financial resources from questions of a candidate’s suitability for tenure, which would make Yale’s system more closely resemble the “tenure tracks” in place at other universities. The report’s other major proposals include eliminating open searches during internal tenure evaluations, slightly shortening the tenure “clock” from 10 to nine years, creating an additional yearlong leave for associate professors and improving mentoring programs for junior faculty.

The committee, chaired by Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, was appointed by the Provost’s Office in April 2005 to evaluate all aspects of the current system in light of heavy faculty criticism about the lack of transparency in tenure decisions. Under the current system, Yale is the only American college or university that fails to guarantee resources for a potential tenure promotion at a faculty member’s initial appointment. It is also the only school that conducts open searches — in which external candidates are considered for the job — when an internal candidate is being considered for tenure.

Astronomy and physics professor Charles Bailyn said he hopes the recommendations are implemented, but that even if they are, the new system will simply align Yale with other institutions, not make the school a leader in adapting the institution of tenure to the demands of a modern university. He said he hopes the University will continue to evaluate and refine the system every 10 years, as proposed in the report.

“There are still many ways in which the academic career track is out of synch with the way people live their lives in the 21st century — this is true for Yale, and for every other major university,” Bailyn said in an e-mail. “So I hope that in the future … we’ll be able to do something really forward looking, once we get used to the new system.”

The current system of tenure was developed through the recommendations of a series of three tenure review committees, beginning in 1950.

Members of the committee said the standards required to obtain tenure would not become less rigorous under the new plan, though resources would be available to promote every junior professor who comes up for a tenure review. Calhoun Master and history professor Jonathan Holloway said the committee was concerned with junior professors’ general anxiety about their future prospects at Yale. He said this stress may prevent them from completely investing themselves in the University, as they instead focus primarily on the research that will win them tenure in the future.

“No matter what we propose, this is not about changing the standards or lowering the standards at all,” he said. “It’s not going to make tenure any easier to win.”

Under the newly proposed system, committee members said, the University will be more able to attract and retain top-quality faculty because it will be able to guarantee that resources will be available to promote a junior professor to tenure if he or she meets scholarly standards. Members of the committee and faculty said that, in the past, a perception that tenure is nearly impossible to get at Yale has kept many competitive candidates away from the University.

“By clearly providing resources for the potential tenure of every assistant professor we hire, we can actually be much more clear on the issue of the possibility of tenure and can also concentrate on the issue of quality and achievement in [new] faculty,” Butler said.

The recommendations may also facilitate the hiring of women and underrepresented minorities, which has been a priority for the administration for several years, several committee members said.

Thomas Pollard, chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, said the report is “excellent” and a step in the right direction. The two leaves of absence will help faculty establish their research, Pollard said, a requirement for tenure that takes many years to accomplish, especially in the sciences. Pollard said he thinks the recommendations will appeal to a large pool of prospective candidates, which will help to increase faculty diversity at the University.

“I think this is going to make Yale attractive to faculty candidates of every sort,” Pollard said. “If that helps us bring in more diverse candidates when we advertise for jobs, that’s super.”

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences will discuss the proposed recommendations during a faculty meeting scheduled for March 27, and on April 4, the FAS will vote to recommend the entire document to the Provost’s Office for final approval or disapproval.

If the faculty adopts the recommendations, they would automatically apply to all assistant professors whose appointments begin July 1, 2007, or later. Current junior faculty can choose whether to remain on the current system or switch to the new one, Salovey said. He said the committee’s recommendations were designed to complement each other and to work well together as a group.

“We’ve proposed modifications to old processes as well as new elements of various kinds,” Salovey said. “The various elements were proposed because they work together well as a whole.”

Associate professor of English Amy Hungerford said she would be surprised if the committee’s report did not pass a faculty vote and believes that most junior faculty will switch to the new system if it is implemented. While she said she thinks the new system will facilitate hiring competitive faculty, its effect on retention of junior faculty remains to be seen.

Hungerford said she remains concerned that the standard for tenure remains nebulous and unquantified in the report.

“It used to be enough to write a very significant first book and show evidence of another significant book on the way,” she said. “Recent experience with the process has started to make it seem like you have to have two books finished, or more. If the standards are not quantified in any way, and if there’s not a good culture of consistency across these decisions, the standards will start to creep up.”

Hungerford said this uncertainty can favor junior professors who come to Yale after completing a postdoctoral fellowship over candidates who are hired fresh out of graduate school. This can privilege candidates who can adapt to a nomadic lifestyle — moving from one institution to another — and disadvantages candidates with children and spouses with careers, she said.

While she said her concern is a “complex and subtle” one, she thinks the University should look for models in other institutions that have more systematically defined the criteria for receiving tenure.

A link to the report, which is posted on the Yale Web site, was e-mailed to professors Monday evening and hard copies are being mailed to professors’ homes.

Comments