Ellison: A trying time for tenure

The shocking murder of three faculty members and wounding of three others at the University of Alabama on Friday was, no doubt, an act of a narcissistic and severely disturbed mind. The accused, Amy Bishop, an associate professor of biology who had been twice denied tenure presumably had a great deal of emotional baggage about which I cannot begin to speculate. But, at least according to Friday’s report in The New York Times, the professor spoke about her failure to receive tenure as “unfair” and presumably that factored heavily into her horrifying act of retribution.

The extremity of the Bishop case does, alas, provide an opportunity to reopen the endless discussion of the value of the tenure system. As a senior planning to go to graduate school in the humanities and then into academia, I have had a number of surprising insights into the system since I have begun to speak with my professors about careers within the university. Some of these insights have been disturbing, and my impression of the system is that it almost always undermines the intention of intellectual freedom upon which the idea of tenure was originally predicated.

Junior faculty, especially those in the humanities, are under inordinate pressure to perform. I was once in a class during which my professor, whom I happen to like very much, repeatedly referred to valuable items of scholarship only to dismiss them, saying jokingly, “of course, that won’t get you tenure.” A tenured professor once encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in classics, which I had been studying heavily my sophomore year — even though I had expressed an interest in changing my field to English and comparative literature — simply because he thought the job prospects would be better. (Though classics graduate students struggling to find jobs right now may grumble reading that.) When I mentioned that Amy Hungerford, a professor of English and the department’s director of undergraduate studies, had issued similar warnings to undergraduates considering graduate school in her field, but tempered her warnings with a heartening reference to how much she loved her job, the professor simply said to me, “Yes, but, she has tenure.”

Fair enough, but should the potential loss or gain of tenure weigh so heavily upon a faculty member that it colors undergraduate student advising? Is it only possible to enjoy one’s career as an academic if one has tenure? Are the only valuable intellectual endeavors those which will result in tenure? The anxiety over tenure seems to deflect attention from what should be the most prominent piece of advice to students considering academic careers: Pursue what you love, engage in the intellectual activity you regard as most important and leave concern for tenure until it actually becomes an issue, which is to say, 15 years from now. Over the past four years, I have witnessed a couple extraordinary intellects at Yale be denied tenure at Yale — a failure which I feel could only have been motivated by factional ideologies. So, it seems safe to say that, at a certain point, it really is out of your hands.

Especially savvy students in the humanities are often aware of which professors have received tenure and which have not, or even, perhaps more bizarrely, which professors are “up for” tenure. I have known of students who have shied away from the courses of untenured faculty members because they worried that a recommendation by one of these professors would be less valuable. More strident tenured professors advocating for a given junior faculty member may unwittingly set up unseen factions within the department. Students have speculated, “Well, who was it that voted against this person? Surely I must, then, avoid him or her.” Denying tenure in a particular field of interest could result in the impression that the department’s attitude toward a given intellectual approach has changed. False impressions and undoubtedly unfounded rumors may ensue.

Rumors and disappointment and wayward advising are, no doubt, a far cry from murder. But should professional academic advisers already be planting the seeds of tenure anxiety in the undergraduate minds just beginning to find their bearings in the academic world? Is this obscene checkpoint, which has become an ideological apparatus rather than a tool to promote intellectual courage, really all that matters? Bishop’s reaction is surely outrageous in its own right, but if tenure can induce mass murder, then surely it must induce much less patent problems among even the most brilliant faculty and graduate students such as depression, anxiety, self-doubt, passive aggression and factionalism, none of which would stimulate rigorous and passionate intellectual inquiry. We need to think harder about the function of tenure for today’s academic climate before the university becomes just another locus of self-aggrandizement or a political stomping ground.

Tim Ellison is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • academic

    Mr. Ellison you have made some excellent points and I heartily encourage you and other students to remain aware of and to continue describing the prominence of tenure in early academic careers. I also note a critical professional value of fairness among most journalists by having incorporated in their stories various evidence of the Alabama faculty gunwoman as well-performing in teaching and research duties.

  • This is not why I chose Yale

    What I think is really sad overall about the tenure process (at least for undergrads) is that it’s set up so that Yale loses so many great teachers. How much do our oci evaluations come into play? Not much at all I bet because our university values research over learning. The people I’ve learned the most from at Yale have all been lecturers. My worst teacher (who clearly hated teaching and would go away to conferences for weeks at a time) was rewarded with tenure last year. It is possible to find professors who are both great teachers and great researchers, but lately Yale has not seemed to do a good job with this.

    Also, tenure in the sciences can be just as if not more political than it is in the humanities. We all know that the university loves big money big grant research. It’s a lot easier to get hired if you study the reactions between molecules rather than the interactions between whole organisms. If you’re in biomedical research you’re probably pretty set, whereas the E&EB department hasn’t given anyone tenure for nearly ten years.

    Plus if you’re in the sciences it’s a lot harder to just up and move than if you’re in the humanities. Not only do you have to pack up your books and maybe your grad students, but you also have to find someplace else with the right technology and/or study system for you to continue your research.

  • MV

    The frustration young academics in the humanities feel is often not about getting tenure. It’s about getting any job at all, period.

  • ESC

    #2, you need to check your facts a bit – EEB tenured one of their junior faculty in 2007.

  • @2

    I’m sorry you were unaware that Yale was a research institution, and not a teaching college, when you chose it.

    I absolutely agree that the tenure process is badly in needing of improvement, if not revolutionary change, in both sciences and humanities.

    But man of us also came to Yale because we wanted professors at the top of their field — in research — not because we wanted the best teachers.

    There is room in the world for both. That’s why we have UC Berkeley, and Yale, and MIT, but we also have Pomona, and Amherst, and Swarthmore.

    Yale should keeps it’s focus where it is, while continuing to change the system to allow give teaching some (albeit lesser) weight, and to allow more junior faculty a realistic chance of being promoted (This is where the real problem is.)

  • super

    @MV: You said it perfectly. We grad students dream dream dream of getting anything that even resembles a tenure-track job.

  • the truth about tenure

    Tenure is a highly political process. If they like you, they will find a way to keep you. If they don’t like you, they will find a way to get rid of you.

    Things such as teaching evaluations, etc. are used selectively when they don’t like you.

    Research is a highly specialized thing. A faculty member’s research is usually understood by another faculty member in another university, and two other grad students. You can get more funding for your work, and do work that will likely have impact at some point. However, the powers-that-be have no way of evaluating that. Universities get letters about a person’s work, but ultimately, it all depends on the people making the decisions. Some decision makers are in the job because it’s their calling, but most are there because they play politics.

  • faculty

    The problem in the humanities is different: people denied tenure at Yale can have a very tough time finding any other job at all. That is not true in the natural sciences or social sciences.

  • alum

    the real issue is that the tenure system doesn’t reward the best or most creative work. it benefits average scholars/professors who are well within the mainstream. once they get tenure, professors have little incentive to do a good job. in my experience, many become lazy and apathetic. the tenure system cheats not only college and graduate students, but institutions themselves. universities are run by people who have strong personal interest in the tenure system; therefore, nothing is likely to change. yet i suspect that if universities were run by people who actually had the interests of the students and the institution in mind, it would be abolished. the result would be both better teaching and better research.

  • skeptic

    “Tenure” at academic institutions is about a long term job contract, usually until the holder voluntarily resigns it. Like most jobs, there is a “probationary” period. Because of the very long commitment, there is a strong incentive to err on the side of conservatism, that is, to make the mistake of not tenuring someone turns out to be a “winner” rather than taking chances and end up tenuring someone who turns out less than hoped. Every tenure position locks the institution in to an obligation for a very long time and precludes making a better future appointment. I do not think that many would favor a “tenure all people hired” policy which would mean permanent jobs for the good, the bad, and the mediocre, or alternately, hiring only established scholars with long track records. Yale’s revised system for tenure review is not very hard to understand: when a faculty member is hired, a position (“slot”) is funded that will make it possible for that person to be granted tenure after a probationary period, if she/he meets the expected standards of scholarship, teaching, and university involvement. Some may argue that Yale’s standards are unreasonable, but we are trying to be world-class, right? So “good enough” might not be good enough.

    Until the new procedures, there were significant flaws… the standards for junior (assistant professor) hires varied widely between departments… some (notably the sciences) tried to hire only candidates that looked to have the potential to meet the tenure standards in the near future, while other departments did not apply that standard, preferring instead to rely on outside hires of proven scholars for the tenured positions. This situation led to uneven promotion rates, feelings of unfairness, and discouragement. The new system goes a long way to address these issues, and will take time to make its effects felt.

    As a final point, all hiring, promotion and tenure decisions are based on the collective judgment of faculty members (not “the administration”)and of course are not perfect. Exactly like grading, subjective factors are unavoidably involved. Not a great system, but in a world of limited resources sometimes we have to say “no” so that we can say “yes” to someone else who we, collectively, prefer to have at Yale.

  • ScottD

    The message is loud in clear, if you are White: DO NO APPLY!

  • cracker jack

    Get a grip. Seriously.

  • Morse ’11

    Shut up, please, before you make white people look stupider than they already do.

  • @#12

    Third try attempt to post this comment:
    As a white person I find your comment stupid. Yale was entirely white for how many years of its existence?