Tenure system a boon for humanities

Five years after the University instituted a tenure-track system, professors and administrators said the perception that “nobody gets tenure at Yale” is fading.

Under the tenure-track system adopted in 2007, tenure decisions are no longer dependent on departmental resources, and each junior faculty member must be evaluated for tenure by their eighth year at Yale. Since the change, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said more faculty members — particularly in the humanities, which historically had low tenure rates at Yale — are rising through University’s ranks to receive tenure, and six recently tenured professors said morale among junior faculty in their departments has improved.

At the most recent meeting of the Board of Permanent Officers on March 29, five of seven professors awarded tenure were from humanities departments.

“There was a perception in my department for many years that it was impossible to get tenure from the junior rank,” said Ian Quinn, a professor of music who was awarded tenure last month. “I believe it happened once in the last 40 years before me.”

Before 2007, Yale was extremely unusual in not having a defined tenure track, said Jon Butler, a professor of American studies and history and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who co-chaired the committee that drew up Yale’s new tenure policy. Rather than automatically considering professors for tenure after a certain period of time, Yale could only offer tenure when departments had a tenured slot available. The University was also “completely abnormal” in that it would call a nationwide search to fill open tenured positions, to which junior faculty could apply, rather than assessing junior faculty’s scholarship independently, Butler said.

Miller said the changes, which also made Yale more generous in granting junior faculty leave time, especially benefited humanities professors. Unlike in the sciences, where it is common to take a postdoctoral position between getting a Ph.D. and becoming an assistant professor, junior faculty in the humanities who came to Yale straight out of graduate school often found it difficult to work their way to tenure at the University, she said.

Of 22 professors who have been promoted internally and awarded tenure since December 2010, 11 have been from science and engineering departments, and 10 have been in the humanities, according to a list Miller provided the News.

History professor Beverly Gage ’94, who came to Yale in 2004 and was awarded tenure last month, called the generous leave policies “really critical” in allowing junior faculty to complete the type of scholarship expected of them before they are evaluated for tenure.

Recently tenured professors said junior faculty are now more optimistic about their ability to achieve tenure if they maintain a high level of scholarship.

Jing Yuen Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures who received tenure last spring, said “the morale around junior faculty was quite low” when she came to Yale in 2006. Back then, junior faculty members did not make long-term plans to stay at Yale, she said, adding that the new tenure system has changed this attitude and made the University more appealing for incoming faculty.

English professor Stefanie Markovits ’94 GRD ’01, who was awarded tenure last spring, said she has noticed fewer junior faculty leaving her department before the time when they could be considered for tenure. She said last year was the first year since she began teaching in 2001 that no junior faculty members left the English Department, adding that this is indicative of “a change in the culture of the department.”

“I have the feeling my junior [faculty] colleagues are now much more hopeful about the prospect of getting tenure at Yale,” Markovits said. “They don’t assume they’ll jump somewhere else the moment they get the first good chance.”

Mentoring for junior faculty members has also improved, professors interviewed said, and some observed that there is less of a divide between junior and senior faculty members in their departments.

Quinn said there used to be a “vast gulf” between junior and senior faculty in his department, “largely because it was seen as next to impossible to move from one population to the other.” He said he now feels junior faculty members in his department are considered “full members” of the department and have the potential to move up the faculty ranks.

Quinn added that a report released by the Provost’s Office this March that reviewed the faculty budget and accounting system also reflects a change in how junior faculty are perceived, since it proposed a new faculty accounting system in which senior faculty members are no longer counted as the equivalent of two junior faculty members.

The report, produced by a committee chaired by economics professor William Nordhaus ’63, also addressed the concern that Yale might have too many tenured professors and not enough fresh talent at the junior level if tenure rates continue to rise. The report recommends that the establishment of tenure ratio guidelines for each department and having departments conduct searches at the junior faculty level when their tenure ratio exceeds their guideline. Administrators are currently reviewing the report and have yet to make any policy changes.

Cases for promotion to tenure are considered by the Board of Permanent Officers after being approved by a professor’s department and a Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee for each academic division. The Board of Permanent Officers is a committee of all tenured, full professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Comments

  • Yokel

    Don’t make the tenure track too easy. News flash: not every college-bound high school student salivates over the prospect of going to Yale. Really good junior faculty who don’t get Yale tenure often end up teaching at really crappy schools such as Swarthmore, Williams, Pomona and Carleton. The poor souls who are “forced” to attend these other institutions benefit as well.

    • Jess

      News flash: those schools are perfectly capable of getting excellent faculty without resorting to Yale’s cast-offs.

      • SY10

        Yeah, the notion that there is a shortage of well qualified junior faculty in the humanities is ridiculous. Large numbers of humanities PhDs (including those from top programs) can’t get jobs at all.

    • ernie

      More like, if Yale tenures its own junior faculty, it won’t need to raid Swarthmore and Williams to fill its senior faculty.