Tenure system triggers faculty culture shift

When Jill North, an assistant professor in the philosophy department, was considering a job offer from Yale four years ago, she could think of only one real downside: the University’s outdated, opaque tenure system.

Under that system, revised last year after an 18-month review, junior faculty members in humanities departments like philosophy had an almost negligible — 11 percent — promotion rate. In fact, overall, assistant and associate professors across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences were tenured at a rate of just 19 percent, because they could only be considered when a space in their departments opened up or when a new one was created. Even if an assistant professor was considered for promotion, which normally happened near the end of a 10-year “clock,” the faculty member was evaluated in an “open search,” and compared to candidates around the world, with little emphasis on promoting from within Yale.

“I had other job offers, and the job at Yale was the one I wanted most, except for the tenure system,” North said. “When it came down to it, it was a tough decision.”

In the end, North decided to make the move to New Haven. And with the changes made to the tenure system last year — an extra year of leave for research for non-tenured faculty, guaranteed funding for the promotion of each qualified assistant professor who takes a position at Yale, a shortened, nine-year clock and a renewed focus on mentoring young academics — she said she is happy with her decision. And given that most junior faculty members chose to adopt the new system this year, she is clearly not alone.

“I’m thrilled,” North said. “I never really understood the intricacies of the old system. I still worry about getting tenure, because I really want to stay, but at least there’s sort of a more understandable process for getting there.”

Here to stay?

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey — who co-chaired the Tenure and Appointments Policy Committee that conducted the review with Graduate School Dean Jon Butler — said the creation of a system similar to the “tenure tracks” at most other universities has demystified the once-complex system that faculty members frequently cited as obtuse and alienating.

“There’s a better understanding of the tenure process at Yale than used to be the case,” he said.

The February 2007 report that proposed the changes was unanimously approved by a faculty vote last April and implemented in July.

Assistant ecology and evolutionary biology professor Thomas Near said the guarantee of a potential tenure slot if standards of scholarship and teaching are met has created a sense of permanence among the junior faculty and, perhaps more importantly, “recognition of retaining our talent.”

This newfound hope of tenure has a two-fold effect on his colleagues, Near said. It removes the threat of “brain drain,” especially from Yale’s humanities departments, and puts the onus on junior faculty to prove themselves to both their peers and their department chairs.

“It even more puts it on the responsibility of the faculty member to be productive and interact broadly within the international community so they would rank and be deserving,” Near said.

North, the philosophy professor, agreed that the revised system’s rules for the promotion process — it eliminated open searches entirely — fosters a comfortable environment for Yale’s junior faculty.

“Now we can sort of compete for junior faculty in a way that we couldn’t before,” North said. “Junior faculty come here really genuinely excited to be here.”

And chemical engineering professor Chinedum Osuji said the notable focus on internal candidates implies that Yale is increasingly supportive of its non-tenured faculty.

“You get more of a feeling that the University is behind you,” Osuji said. “The tenure system at least as it existed before did not give that impression.”

Other changes to the rules, including the possibility of up to two years of leave to work on research and prepare for making a case to the tenure committee, are also on non-tenured professors’ minds.

“It’s an incredibly generous policy,” said assistant political science professor Vivek Sharma. “It’s practically unheard of at other institutions. I would assume that everybody is very, very much aware [of it].”

“That is the best thing about the new process,” Near said. “It’s a very high bar that the University has set. I don’t think that bar has changed very much, but they’re going to give you everything you need to succeed.”

Monitoring mentoring

One of the improvements junior professors pointed to was the administration’s rejuvenated focus on a formal mentoring program within each academic department.

In fact, the tenure-review committee’s February report specifically mentioned mentoring as critical to the success of the new system, a fact noted by higher education experts when they reviewed the report last year.

“I was delighted and stunned to see the word ‘nurturing’ in the report,” Director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education Cathy Trower told Inside Higher Ed that month.

Butler said he and Salovey asked all University departments two years ago to establish formal mentoring systems, with “many but not all” complying. The new tenure system, he said, spurred the rest of the academic departments to follow suit.

“Obviously, this is the first year that we’re operating in this fashion,” Butler said. “We need to sustain that system and nourish it.”

All of the junior faculty members interviewed who discussed mentoring said they were pleased with the attention they have received from senior faculty in their department.

“Non-tenured faculty speak with appreciation for the systematic contact [mentoring] creates with the tenured faculty,” Salovey said.

Butler said he and Salovey plan to continue talking to department chairs every year in order to assess both the new system and more specifically, departmental mentoring — especially because a formal comparison of tenure rates between the old and new tenure models will not be possible until almost 10 years from now.

“We’re only seven months into it, and the year isn’t over,” Butler said. “[Comparing the tenure rates] could take a decade for a very simple reason. All of the faculty we are considering now started on the old system. We wouldn’t be able to measure the rate of tenure for them for up to six to nine years.”

Until the point when administrators can statistically analyze the new model, they are relying on anecdotal evidence to assess the effects of the new system. Besides, they said, this is a year of transition, packed with obstacles for both professors and administrators.

“There is a good deal of confusion surrounding the new tenure regulations and what they really mean in practice,” assistant French professor Julia Prest said, declining to elaborate.

“The administration is clearly still working out the kinks in the new system,” assistant music professor Ian Quinn said. “The procedures for leaves and various forms of mentoring have been put into place for the first time this year, and I’ve heard about some bumps in the road.”

But all that is to be expected, Salovey said.

“This is the conversion year,” he said. “People had to select whether they wanted to stay on the old or new system. We’re probably not operating as smoothly or efficiently as we will next year.”

Since the new system was enacted, the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers has met twice — once in December and once in March — and approved eight internal candidates for tenure.

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