Though few undergraduates likely know this, today is a milestone for our university. The tenure review committee released a report Monday evening that called for substantial, if not ground-breaking, changes to Yale’s notoriously frustrating tenure system. The committee, chaired by institutional heavyweights Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and Graduate School Dean Jon Butler addressed forthrightly the existing system’s two major problems: the complex rules for funding new hires and the elongated tenure clock.
Graduate students will undoubtedly read over the report trying to divine its implications for their own futures, but few undergraduates are seeking academic careers, and an even smaller subset will compete for tenure at their alma mater. Nevertheless, the proposed changes could improve undergraduate academic life and, for that reason, the importance of this report bridges the sometimes perceived divide between graduate and undergraduate interests.
The News, writing about the tenure system in April 2004, described the current setup as a “Faustian bargain” for junior faculty. Young associate and assistant professors would come to Yale, put in 10 years of teaching and research, and then potentially be denied tenure because of a lack of departmental resources. That system, besides hurting Yale by leaving it vulnerable to “poaching” of promising junior faculty unsure of the likelihood of gaining tenure here, prevented young faculty members from feeling fully invested in a Yale community of which they might not be a member for long. But those junior faculty members teach a lot of undergraduate classes, in addition to advising senior essays, writing letters of recommendation, mentoring students, and fulfilling a number of other duties that have the ability to shape, for better or worse, a student’s Yale experience — even though those duties are distractions from their primary goal of producing tenure-quality research.
The main objective of the report is clearly to improve the quality of life for junior faculty members — and the News does not envy the stress they endure as they spend nine years interviewing for their desired job. But an undeniable side-effect of the changes, if implemented, would be to improve the quality of the academic experience of those students who work with junior faculty.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against the Graduate Employees and Students Organization was that their demands, such as those for increased graduate stipends, were out of touch with those of undergraduates, who were lobbying for increased financial aid. But this tenure report belies the divisions that some saw in our University community — this report reminds us that our academic community is just that, and what helps one person feel more secure and productive will have a spillover effect on other scholars and students here. Students interested in improving undergraduate education should pay attention to this report; we might not be up for tenure, but we need to care about those who are.