Continuing to take stances on broad university issues, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has hinted that he may try to tenure a younger set of professors in the future.
It remains unclear what changes may occur at Harvard, and Yale administrators said there are no plans to change Yale’s tenure process in response to Summers’ statements.
Summers’ opinions regarding tenure attracted national attention after The Wall Street Journal published an article about his views on Jan. 11. The article quoted Summers, who at 28 was one of the youngest professors ever tenured at Harvard, as saying he would like to focus “on what portion of a person’s work lies in the future.”
Although Summers never explicitly stated that age plays a major role in the tenure process, speculation about his policies was recently fueled by the rejection of tenure for two 54-year-old professors — political science professor Istvan Hont of the University of Cambridge and music history professor Karol Berger of Stanford University.
Jeremy Knowles, Harvard’s dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, told the Harvard Crimson in an e-mail that he supported Summers’ views about desirable qualities in professors.
“[I] absolutely agree with the president that adjectives like ‘exciting, promising, and brilliant’ tend to be more persuasive than adjectives like ‘distinguished and eminent,'” Knowles said.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said Yale also looks for candidates who show great potential. But he added that potential is not necessarily equated with age.
“What you want [in a tenure appointment] is a promising person,” Brodhead said. “One who thinks of the most interesting questions to be asked in the field; one who opens up new frontiers in the field. But there’s no reason it can’t be a person who’s been in the profession for 20 or 30 years.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the average age of tenured arts and sciences faculty at Harvard is 55. Although Yale does not officially record such statistics, Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, said age patterns fluctuate.
“[The average age] shifts backward and forward,” Richard said. “There was a period of years when the average age was increasing, but I don’t know what it’s doing right now. It goes up and down according to retirement patterns.”
History Department chairman Jon Butler said his department considers many factors in tenure cases, but age is not one of them.
“I’m surprised by the emphasis on age, because among other things, age discrimination in the U.S. is illegal,” Butler said. “We want to hire people with exciting and significant historical scholarship. It doesn’t make any difference to us at which age it’s being produced.”
Brodhead and Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield are the administrators who participate most actively in Yale’s tenure process, which is significantly different than Harvard’s. Hockfield said Yale has a comprehensive policy because tenure is such an important matter.
“When you set up a process for something as serious as tenure, you want to be sure that process is sufficiently robust to take into consideration all relevant factors,” Hockfield said. “Our system is designed so it happens with the highest degree of seriousness and consideration.”
At Harvard, candidates are first evaluated and voted on by their respective departments. Then the tenure case is brought to an ad hoc committee, where the president has veto power.
Berger told the Crimson that he was unanimously approved by Harvard’s Music Department and a Harvard dean before being denied tenure, and said the case was decided at the presidential level.
In contrast, Yale University President Richard Levin plays a relatively peripheral role in Yale’s tenure process.
If a tenure candidate receives department approval at Yale, the case is then brought to one of four tenure appointments committees, which focus on the physical sciences, the biological sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.
Led by Brodhead and Hockfield, each of the committees consists of eight or nine faculty members in the academic area. After an extensive evaluation of the tenure candidate, the committee conducts a vote, in which Brodhead and Hockfield each has one vote.
If the tenure appointment committee approves a candidate, the case moves on to the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers, which consists of full tenured professors. To gain approval, the candidate must win a two-thirds majority.
Although it is rare for the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers to reject a tenure case, Hockfield said some cases in the past have undergone substantial discussion.
Physics Department chairman Ramamurti Shankar said even though he applauds the prudence of Yale’s system, he is not in favor of having the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers vote, because it delays the process.
“I think [the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers] is a complete waste of time,” Shankar said. “It’s just one more obstacle in the process. What we’re doing is right, but we need to do it faster.”