Congratulations! You are a female or minority professor, and you’ve been selected to play Yale’s Tenure Game. With a strict time limit of nine years, your objective is to teach, research, and publish your way across the board to meet your department’s expectations for promotion. Your final goal? Tenure. Academic freedom, job security, and a salary increase of roughly 50%. Along the way, you may face additional challenges, like being asked to sit on a committee, mentoring an undergrad, or raising a family. Don’t let these obstacles distract you too much, because you’ve only got one shot at this: if you don’t win tenure, you might be able to stay at Yale, but you’ll likely have to restart the game at another university. The clock starts now. Go!
Yale, like many institutions across the country, has struggled in recent years to increase the diversity of its faculty. Out of this year’s tenured faculty, only 24.1% are female and 13.4% are non-white — that’s 262 women, 146 minorities, and 689 white men. One way Yale has begun to address this disparity is by examining its procedures for faculty promotion and asking whether those procedures are fair for female and minority members.
In 2006, Yale began a seven-year initiative to increase the percentage of female and minority faculty. At the time, only 19.4% of tenured faculty members were women, and 10.4% were minorities. As part of the initiative, Yale planned to hire 30 minority professors and 30 women in science and engineering departments.
By 2011, Yale had hired 30 new female and 56 new minority faculty members. At first glance, these are promising numbers. But during the same five-year period (2006-2011), 12 female faculty members and 34 minority faculty members left the university, yielding a net gain lower than was hoped for. Statistics from 2013 reveal that Yale is still falling short of its original goals.
Obstacles along the path to tenure represent only a fraction of the challenges women and minorities face in academia. Some of these challenges affect would-be professors long before they begin their careers. But the obstacles presented by the promotion process deserve a thoughtful examination because they are within Yale’s power to address. What should Yale be doing to support its female and minority professors as they navigate the path to tenure? Or does the responsibility to figure out the system, and overcome its flaws, lie with the female and minority professors?
The path to tenure at Yale begins with an appointment to Assistant Professor. During your third year, your department will conduct an internal review to decide whether or not to renew your appointment. In your fifth or sixth year, you’ll be evaluated for promotion to Associate Professor based on your scholarship, teaching, and your commitment to the university. As an Associate Professor, you may take a full year of leave before your tenure review, which must occur by the end of your eighth year on the tenure track. This review measures your contribution to Yale and to your field. After nine years, your time is up: you’ve either achieved tenure or lost your only chance to do so at Yale.
This process may sound straightforward on paper, but, in practice, the tenure track is fraught with uncertainty: what defines excellent scholarship at Yale, and how do you prove that you’ve achieved it? In a Faculty of Arts and Sciences satisfaction survey published in 2007, junior faculty respondents said that Yale’s review and promotion process was the greatest of seventeen potential causes of “extensive stress.”
If you’re an assistant professor navigating this tenure process, you’ll need a mentor — a tenured colleague who can advise you on strategy, give you a sense of the quality of your work, and discuss the everyday difficulties of seeking promotion. The 2007 faculty satisfaction survey found that women and minorities tend to have more difficulty finding mentors and building relationships that are often critical to getting ahead.
To understand this difficulty, it’s important to know the difference between formal and informal mentors. Formal mentors are senior professors who’ve been assigned by each academic department to offer guidance to new professors. Informal mentors are found through unofficial channels: at a department meeting, through team-teaching a course, or simply during a chat over coffee.
Frederick Wherry, a young, African-American professor in the Department of Sociology at Yale, encountered little trouble navigating the informal mentoring system. His journey to a full professorship at Yale began at a conference in Montreal in 2006. At the time, he was on the tenure track at the University of Michigan. The conference was his first contact with Yale’s sociology department: Wherry met Philip Smith, then the associate director of Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology. Smith mentioned Wherry’s work to the other directors at the Center, and, a month after the conference in Montreal, Wherry was asked to give a talk at Yale. Then the invitations from Yale kept coming — Wherry was welcomed for the Center’s spring conference, and again for the sociology department’s fall colloquium.
But when Yale approached Wherry with a job offer in 2008, he turned it down: the position wasn’t tenure-track, and at Michigan, Wherry was working his way up one of the nation’s top sociology departments. Still, Wherry maintained communication with Yale. He continued to network with Yale professors at national conferences, and, in the spring of 2012, he received a second Yale job offer — this time, with tenure attached from the moment he walked on Yale’s campus. Wherry accepted the professorship.
Wherry’s case is exceptional. Not only did he achieve tenure in one leap, but he also succeeded by relying on his own networking and informal mentoring connections, not requiring assistance from any department-provided formal mentors.
But according to the 2007 faculty satisfaction survey, for many woman and minority faculty members on Yale’s tenure track, the informal mentoring strategy wasn’t working. Women and underrepresented minorities were nearly three times more likely than men to report that a lack of mentors was barrier to career advancement, and female and underrepresented minority junior faculty were about twice as likely to report that they felt excluded from informal networks.
There are many possible explanations for why women and minority faculty members might feel underserved by the informal mentoring system: they may face unconscious bias from their white male senior faculty members, who may be less likely to actively seek them out to offer advice. Women and minority faculty members may also be less assertive, an observation made by several professors interviewed including Cristina Rodríguez, the first tenured Hispanic professor at the Yale Law School. From the time she was an undergraduate at Yale, Rodríguez knew that she’d need to be assertive in finding informal mentors. But this assertiveness didn’t come easily — at Yale College and later as a rising law professor — because she had to overcome her own tentativeness around authority and take risks in sharing her academic ideas with others for evaluation.
In recent years, in part to assist women and minority faculty, Yale has begun encouraging departments to provide formal mentoring to their professors. In a recent interview, Julia Adams, the deputy provost of faculty development and diversity, said that it is Yale’s responsibility to provide formal mentoring for new professors as soon as they begin their careers at Yale. If women and minority faculty need the option of formal mentoring to successfully strategize their way to tenure, she said, then Yale should provide it.
Receiving tenure and a full professorship at Yale is the ultimate mark of respect: it’s your department recognizing you as a leader in your field. However, getting recognition for their scholarship is another barrier to tenure for female and minority faculty. In the 2007 faculty satisfaction survey, 32% of women and 50% of under-represented minority faculty claimed that a lack of interest in their research areas was an informal barrier to career advancement at Yale, compared to only 15% of non-under-represented-minorities and 11% of men.
Some professors feel that they have to prove not only the merit of their individual work, but also the value of their field’s existence in the first place. Mary Ting Yi Lui, the only professor of Asian American Studies at Yale, has grown accustomed to defending her work to colleagues who perceive it as an “identity project” rather than legitimate academic scholarship. Lui says that during graduate school and while teaching at Yale, she’s had to fight the perception that her work — in the history of Chinese Americans — is merely “activism” or “service”. Her colleagues are sometimes surprised, she says, to hear that she teaches meaningful topics such as immigration law.
In universities across the country, gender and ethnic studies are gaining acceptance as legitimate areas of study. Still, they are much newer than traditional fields like history or economics, and, as a result, the legitimacy of professors’ work in gender and ethnic studies may be questioned more frequently. This affects faculty diversity, because gender and ethnic studies departments are disproportionately filled by women and minority faculty. According to a report published by the Women Faculty Forum in 2012, all Yale faculty members appointed by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program in 2011-2012 were female. Six out seven faculty members appointed in the African American Studies Department in 2011 – 2012 were also female. Of the 23 total faculty currently affiliated with the African American Studies Department, thirteen are African American.
Establishing more recognition for ethnic and gender studies is an area in which Yale can continue to grow. Although African American Studies became a department in 2002, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Asian American Studies both remain only programs at Yale. Without their own funding, programs have less autonomy to hire, recognize, and promote exemplary scholars.
Paula Kavathas is the current chair of the Women Faculty Forum and a professor at the medical school. When she began as a young medical school professor, Kavathas understood that she may need to work up to 80 hours per week between managing her lab, giving talks, and writing papers. But she wanted to have a family. Kavathas had her first child after completing her post-doctorate, and her second child during her first teaching job at Yale. In those early years, Kavathas felt that women were criticized at institutions like Yale for trying to maintain careers and families, and she avoided this criticism by keeping her familial commitment quiet.
The criticism is less harsh today, but women are still more likely than men to place their family before their careers. 43% of female professors who took the 2007 FAS satisfaction survey strongly agreed that care-giving responsibilities for children slowed career progression, whereas only 19% of men recognized this challenge. Anna Zayaruznaya, who will be joining Yale’s music department as an assistant professor in the fall, recalls her female senior faculty mentors saying that she’d have to choose two of the following three: husband, children, or career. Zayaruznaya’s job search itself was driven by the need to find a tenure track job at the same university as her husband.
Constance Bagley, a professor at the Yale School of Management, felt that she understood the requirements for promotion, and that she deserved it based on the merits of her work. But when her professorship was not renewed in May 2012 despite her review committee’s unanimous recommendation, Bagley felt that she had been discriminated against for her age and gender. Unable to overturn the decision, she filed a suit against the university in December 2013.
While Bagley fights for recognition, she balances a commitment even more critical: caring for her son as a single mother. In the Yale Women’s Center in the February following the lawsuit, Bagley conversed about the challenges of being a woman in the classroom, and then hurried out to pick up her son from school. As a professor at Stanford, Bagley had him on the waiting list for the campus childcare center before he was born, and childcare became a hiring condition for her — she wouldn’t take a job unless her son could be placed in a nearby. When Bagley came to Yale in 2007, her son was eight — old enough to sit in the back of the lecture hall while she taught if his school was cancelled that day.
Crystal Feimster is an African-American assistant professor in Yale’s departments of African American Studies, American Studies, and History. When an African-American pre-med student asked her to be her sophomore advisor, Feimster felt that she couldn’t say no. She recognizes that African-American students sometimes seek her out because of her ethnicity, and she counts advising as an opportunity to “give back.”
This year, Feimster has taken on two undergraduate mentees despite being on leave — a critical period for academic study before her review for promotion to associate professor. During her period of writing and research, Feimster sets aside time to make trips to campus to meet with her advisees. When extra commitments like this add up, they can make attaining tenure more difficult.
Academic departments don’t want to overload female and minority professors with additional responsibilities because of their gender or race. But because these demographics are underrepresented among faculty at Yale, departments have little option when selecting professors to give minority or female viewpoints on committees. Similarly, students who wish to connect with mentors to whom they can relate on a demographic level flock disproportionately to female and minority professors. Yale currently has eight tenured female African-American professors.
The “problem” in these situations, Wherry explains, occurs when “the faculty member is just not saying ‘no.’” While working toward tenure at Michigan, Wherry was also asked to take on additional commitments in his department. He didn’t feel that there were “evil machinations” demanding that female and minority professors take on more commitments, but he realized that female and minority colleagues had more difficulty turning these commitments down. Saying “no” wasn’t easy, especially when students asked for specific professors to teach courses, or when faculty members were told that their extra commitments would help the department. So he had to decide: which commitments were important enough to take time from his tenure pursuit?
After completing two years of courses that required time assisting students with independent projects, Wherry was asked by the Michigan Sociology department to take on a three-semester honors seminar. With a book to finish, Wherry made the strategic call to decline, explaining to his department that he needed the time to finish the final version of his book so it could be published.
Jonathan Holloway, an African-American professor who is Chair of the African American Studies department and Master of Calhoun College, knows this balancing act all too well. When he shares his experiences as a minority professor at Yale, his recollections are firm and practiced: it is clear he’s shared them many times before. Holloway is often asked to serve on committees, including committees regarding academic resources and the new residential colleges. He is “absolutely sure” that he has served on more committees than his other colleagues with the same senior rank, even though he isn’t compensated for the extra time. Instead, his motivations are personal. “I’m happy to be on those committees … asking really deep questions about what Yale is going to be,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the only black person in the room, and it gets kind of wearying after a while. I would like for there to be some other people who would do the job of ‘representing the race.’”
Yale is still developing its Tenure Game. Sometimes, the game won’t be fair: female and minority professors may have more trouble with informal networking, having their work recognized, or managing additional responsibilities. Yale needs to ensure that these faculty members can be recognized for their work and for extra commitments to their departments.
But perhaps the question that Yale ought to be asking is not if its female and minority faculty are winning the Tenure Game, but how. Yale can rework those the game board to give each of its faculty members a chance at finishing, but the challenges for female and minority faculty members extend beyond the board. Women and minority faculty are asked to play a strategy that their white male colleagues are not: to choose their careers over other critical commitments, even over helping other female and minority students achieve in academia.
As a female or minority faculty member, you, too, can win the Tenure Game. But you might find that it’s an unsatisfying victory.
Correction: Apr. 2
A previous version of this article stated that, according to Paula Kavathas, women were criticized at Yale for trying to maintain careers and families. In fact, the criticism Kavathas refers to was more atmospheric, and a feature of the mood of Yale and peer institutions at the time.