STERN: A scholar’s kiss of death

A Stern Perspective

For members of the faculty, few issues are as contentious, or as stressful, as tenure. Last year, about twice as many new professors accepted job offers from Yale as in years past. Tenure will be a constant concern for so many of them.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianWhat path should junior faculty follow to obtain this plum prize? There is, of course, no one answer to this riddle, but Yale’s Faculty Handbook claims that the University looks at the “impact and continuing promise, at the very highest levels, of the candidate’s research and scholarship, as well as excellent teaching and engaged University citizenship.” Is teaching as important a consideration as scholarship?

Shockingly — and troublingly — it would appear not.

It is actually the worst-kept secret in higher education that good teaching paves no smooth path to tenure. In fact, faculty who are perceived as too focused on teaching may be seen as neglectful of their scholarship. We must ask ourselves: Should teaching be as important a criterion as scholarship in gaining tenure? No matter what we think, however, it’s not.

For decades, professors across the country have spoken of the “kiss of death” in the tenure process. The phrase was famously invoked in a 1999 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine paper, and again in a 2006 Journal of Higher Education article. This “kiss of death” is — surprisingly — the award for best teaching. Faculty members who are definitively superior teachers are assumed to be inferior scholars. And many times, they’re out of a job within a couple years.

At Yale, the award for best undergraduate teaching is the prestigious DeVane Medal. (A separate DeVane Medal is awarded to an outstanding retiring teacher.) Looking at the DeVane Medal is probably the closest we can get to examining how didactically gifted junior faculty fare in the tenure game.

In the last 25 years, six untenured professors (excluding lecturers, directors or adjuncts) won the DeVane Medal. Of these, only one went on to achieve tenure at Yale. The other five moved on to other universities, all within two years of winning the DeVane. At least three were actually denied tenure; the other two appear to have withdrawn before they were considered.

It’s not as if these professors were subpar scholars. One was Susanne Lindgren Wofford, now the Dean of the Gallatin School at New York University, no small feat. Another was Richard Garner, the Dean of the Honors College at Adelphi University. You may recognize the name of another — Steven Gillon, now a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and resident historian on The History Channel. All three of these professors were denied tenure from Yale. It would appear that Yale valued scholarship over teaching when it came time to decide who got tenure. In other words, sterling teachers had trouble becoming Sterling Professors.

Upon further examination of the DeVane Medal winners, you may notice that the majority of them had already attained tenure when they won. This isn’t too surprising; many professors, we can assume, need time to grow into their teaching.

But an examination of DeVane winners reveals a final, disturbing twist. For the last decade, almost all winners were tenured faculty; not a single was an assistant or associate professor. This comes in spite of a revamp of Yale’s tenure system back in 2007, redesigned explicitly to help junior faculty members rise through the ranks and feel more valued at Yale, a place where, historically, “nobody gets tenure.”

When the new tenure system became policy in 2007, the News wrote a glowing review, claiming that junior professors who are treated better would become better teachers. The DeVane Medal results of the last half-decade reveal that this may not be the case. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was common for junior faculty members to be named Yale’s best teacher. Now, it just doesn’t happen.

Why? It is certainly possible that, after witnessing a generation of unusually gifted teachers fail to get tenure, new Yale professors decided to buckle down and focus on their scholarship, giving less attention to their teaching than they otherwise would have done.

This is in no way an indictment of Yale’s junior faculty. They’re just doing what they have to do. It is an indictment of Yale’s senior faculty, or at least the culture that dictates the values that professors should possess. Promotion to tenure is largely decided by the “Board of Permanent Officers,” a committee entirely made up of tenured, full professors.

These professors should consider teaching as much as they do scholarship. Top-notch scholarship is imperative, but Yale is not designed just to churn out wonderful research. It is intended to enrich young minds. By overemphasizing scholarship at the expense of teaching, these professors are actively damaging the quality of those at the blackboard.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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