Student input could improve tenure system

When my “Modern British Novel” section found out last semester that our professor hadn’t gotten tenure, there were a few initial reactions. First, surprise. Next, confusion: Why would the English Department want to get rid of such an engaging professor? Then, inevitably, anger and frustration. So our professor was going to get pushed out, and there was nothing that we could do, or even say, about it?

It didn’t help that it was our TA who broke the news. The rumor had come up in conversation, and she told us what she knew. The whole thing felt like some kind of mystery that we had stumbled upon. Our TA certainly did the right thing to explain the rumors rather than silence them or cover them in more ambiguity. But the situation pointed to a greater problem: When were we supposed to find out about this tenure business? In the small print of some departmental newsletter? When we came back to campus next fall, and found that we couldn’t sign up for a class because the professor was gone?

As we all know by now, Yale’s Tenure and Appointments Policy Committee released a report last week outlining the current tenure situation. The report summarizes Yale’s existing procedure for granting tenure to faculty members, and calls for new policies to fix the problems. It does manage to hit a few of the more glaring ones. Until now, Yale professors who were up for tenure were subjected to an open search to fill the available position. This means that an associate professor can teach at Yale for 10 years, only to be ousted by someone much older and better-established from a different university; in other words, promotion is extremely unlikely. The tenure report corrects this: “Internal candidates for tenure will be evaluated comparatively with others in their field rather than standing as candidates in open searches.” That sounds like a good start.

But how is the committee going to give students a sense of connection to the tenure process? After all, Yale prides itself on offering a more personal kind of education than many of its peers. Even at a major research university, the idea goes, students can establish relationships with their professors that might be typical of a smaller college setting. Because of a lack of accountability and transparency, the current tenure procedure undermines this goal.

Academic departments must work to incorporate students into the tenure process. At the most basic level, this means making public the searches that are being conducted to fill a position. Students should also have the right to know if their professors are being considered for tenure. But none of this will mean anything if the tenure committee refuses to listen to students’ opinions on a professor. A professor’s basic qualifications for tenure usually come down to quality of scholarship and quality of teaching. We may not be able to say much about professors’ independent work, but we can say everything about their work in the classroom.

One option is to create an evaluation system that would allow the faculty making the tenure decisions to understand how students felt about a professor’s teaching. It’s great that Yale has a system set up for students to evaluate their courses, but its primary purpose is to recommend or badmouth classes only to other students. I’m sure that a head honcho somewhere looks these things over, and professors certainly review their own evaluations to get feedback on their courses. Why not create an evaluation system that would be reviewed by the tenure committee?

This idea has many problems. Evaluations might become a free-for-all, with students either hysterically supporting or hysterically opposing their professors, as often happens on the existing course evaluation system. There could be too many opinions to take into account, or students might choose not to respond at all and make the whole thing pointless.

To that end, there is a second, better option. Forming student committees on big decisions seems to be in vogue these days. President Levin’s campuswide e-mail asking students to weigh in on the new residential colleges was a great move. The tenure committee should create student subcommittees to help report the student perspective on a professor up for tenure. The students would be junior or senior majors in the appropriate department. They could form their own strategies to gauge students’ feelings toward professors, and they would report back to the larger faculty body. According to the administration, the addition of new colleges warrants explicit student input because it will have an impact on our quality of life. Surely the same has to be true of our professors.

Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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