The questions asked at the recent Yale College Council panel on tenure, as well as the column by Josie Rodberg ’03 (“Forum underlines need for diversity in faculty hiring,” 2/18) on creating a diverse faculty, reveal Yale students’ remarkable narrrow-mindedness. Countless students repeatedly asked Dean Richard Brodhead and the other panelists what was being done to increase the number of minority and faculty panelists. Citing statistics — both accurate and inaccurate — the sense of righteous indignation among students was remarkable.
Given that most faculty members, let alone students, are mystified by the tenure process, it seems likely that the constant attack on the university as limiting diversity is overrated. And more importantly, this emphasis on diversity has nothing to offer a research university except for political and ethnic conflict.
Most contentious among the issues raised was the small number of female faculty members tenured in the sciences. This statistical fact was of course taken as a sign that Yale was not making any efforts to welcome women. When the Dean pointed out that until recently women rarely entered the academy to pursue careers in scientific disciplines, this point fell on deaf ears.
Enamored of numbers, it seemed like most students were unwilling to listen to the fact that only current female undergraduates could determine how many women pursued such tenure slots in the future.
Yale Daily News columnist Jacob Remes asked about the prominence of the “Old Boy Network” of hiring in the tenure process. This must be what Rodberg refers to when she writes that “given the numbers [of women who get tenure], these considerations are not, in fact “special” — they merely afford women and minorities the attention that white men have long enjoyed.”
She crosses the line when she attacks the panel for being all male, particularly since Dean Susan Hockfield was absent due to illness. The panelists did a thorough job of explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the tenure process — although Dean Hockfield’s input would have been helpful, surely the presence of three men on stage did not detract from the event.
Although Rodberg compliments the university for improving the sexual composition of the faculty, she emphasizes that change has occurred neither to a sufficient degree, nor quickly enough. This ignores the nature of tenure. Because there is no longer a mandatory retirement age for faculty, professors may choose not to vacate their chairs for many years, such that it is all but impossible for these statistics to shift drastically.
The common use of the term diversity in the context of tenure misses the mark. The purpose of the tenure process at Yale is to provide a stable environment for professors to engage in their individual research and to teach. It is not diversity of race or sex that matters, but, instead, intellectual diversity and a desire to mentor students which take priority.
The tenure process is far from perfect. Modern university politics impose the mantra of “publish or die” upon faculty members such that an emphasis on teaching is often harmed. Alvin Kernan, a former member of the English department, described the “competition for tenure appointments everywhere” as “Darwinian.” He notes that unlike the business world, there is no “quantifiable bottom line” for who should be promoted. In the academy, “the fundamental issue, ‘Who is the smartest of us all?’ cannot be definitively answered.”
As such, the process makes this determination based upon books published, books yet to be written, teaching experience, and a sufficient amount of political infighting. Yet for all of the confusion and mystery which may harm a junior faculty member in his quest for job security, the very illusory nature of the proceedings can be a blessing.
Timing is everything. When faculty contract is up for renewal, the current make-up of the department, as well as current trends in the academy-at-large play a considerable role in the process. If Professor X happens to be vacating the Sanders Quincy Hufflebump Chair of Political Science just when young faculty member Y is up for tenure review, he may be in line for the slot.
By placing an emphasis on diversity, though, the university would be tampering with an already uneven playing field. Yale does much to encourage students from all backgrounds to enter the academy, and perhaps could be doing more. But for those students who choose to measure the strength of a department based upon statistics and X chromosomes, they should realize that change will be gradual and must occur on the level of graduate school admissions.
Good luck on your GREs.
Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.