Earlier this week, Timothy Ellison ’10 masterfully articulated an anxiety that haunts young academics, and even ambitious undergraduates: the horror of the tenure process (“A trying time for tenure,” Feb. 14). Recently I watched as an inebriated first-year grad student delivered an improvised sonnet on the issue, pausing between segments to blow smoke rings from a cigar. The Byronic vision which haunted him, he claimed, was the elusive figure of tenure review, a temptress who could lead onto to the idyllic ivory tower, but in an instant damn him, with one spot from the pen of the Machiavellian faculty chair. Hyperbolic students aside, tenure causes anxiety even to the most rational of academic minds, of all genders and races, and from New Haven to Palo Alto. Ellison did not mention, however, that the tenure process at Harvard and Yale differs from their Ivy peers in one crucial regard, a difference that systematically discriminates against women.
At most American universities tenure is granted when a faculty member is promoted from assistant professor to associate professor. At Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, promotion to associate professor does not normally entail tenure — rather, tenure is granted as a candidate is promoted from associate professor to full professor. In practical terms, this means that a faculty member who joins Yale at entry level may wait an extra three or four years to reach tenure review than her equivalent at Princeton. In a culture which encourages “life experience” and designs undergraduate degrees of four years and graduate degrees of five or six, few academics will be younger than 30 by the time they obtain a position as associate professor.
At Yale, such faculty members may be promoted to associate professor in their fifth or sixth year of service, and if they continue to excel, will be considered for tenure at eight years. This means that the woman who joined Yale at 30 can only discover whether she has a future in the New Haven area at 38, an age at which her chances of starting a family are already in decline. If she chooses to start a family before obtaining tenure, she will be left to juggle childcare with the toughest years of her career — years in which her childless equivalents will be flying off to conferences, earning citations and, ghastly as the image is, staying late at faculty seminars to try to schmooze with the senior faculty (world-weary as the senior faculty may be of such boorish tactics).
Unlike most professional jobs, academia is a vocation that encourages its followers to reside in local communities focused around a single workplace. When academics are denied tenure, they usually must move from one university to another, uprooting themselves and their families. The anxieties around tenure mean that many men and women spend their thirties questioning the validity of their career choices. As it is, most industries suffer a well-documented “pipeline” effect, in which women, at each key stage of their career, drop out of the workforce. In this case, some women will drop out, while some will simply leave Yale. Given the choice between starting a family in Princeton at the age of 36, or New Haven at the age of 38, these women will chose Princeton. Two years may not seem a significant amount of time to wait for promotion at most stages in life — but for women, the difference between having a child at 36 and 38 is huge.
Certainly men, as well as women, make active and caring parents, and many women, myself included, make early choices not to have children. But the biological pressures that are placed upon women in their mid to late thirties cannot have the same impact on even the man most devoted to fatherhood. It is also true that in most professions, one’s thirties are important years for building careers, and most young professionals struggle to balance raising children while impressing the boss. But tenure has long been fetishized as incomparable to any milestone in the professions. There may be a case for delaying the provision of tenure until after the childbearing years rather than rushing it to an earlier stage; at Princeton, since 2005, when assistant professors welcome a child, their deadline for tenure is automatically delayed, giving them more breathing space to complete the requiste number of publications and job security while their children are young. Yale adopted a similar policy in 2007, one warmly endorsed by a committee responsible in that year for a serious review of tenure policy. The same review appears to have made tenure procedures more streamlined and transparent, although faculty point out that is it too early to judge its impact.
Nonetheless, the report of the 2007 committee contained no discussion of the interaction between the “tenure clock” and the “biological clock.” The members of such committees are far more qualified than I to debate the optimum scheduling of “tenure clocks,” but it seems clear that the current coincidence of biological and career flash points is unsustainable. Currently, only 21 percent of tenured faculty at Yale are female. Yet, 47 percent of entry-level positions are filled by women. If Yale hiring practices continue to ignore the realties of female bodies, they will continue to lose valuable faculty.
Kate Maltby is a senior in Saybrook College.