The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ vote last week to shorten the tenure clock is important, but may not be enough to solve problems of junior faculty attrition, professors interviewed this week said.
Last Thursday, the FAS approved a revision to the tenure system, known as FASTAP, to allow professors to undergo reviews in their seventh year and receive tenure by their eighth year at the latest, shortening the current nine-year process. All other Ivy League schools already have seven- or eight-year tenure clocks. The change approved last week comes on the heels of years of debate over the high attrition rate among junior professors, particularly of female professors and professors of color. The faculty vote last week was overwhelmingly in favor of the new system, which requires formal approval from administrators and the Yale Corporation before it can be enacted.
In interviews over the past week, professors expressed cautious optimism about the change, saying the revised system should help keep junior faculty at Yale — as long as it is accompanied by a broader cultural shift in how senior faculty judge the standard of excellence required to earn tenure.
“The real question is whether the shorter clock will also result in some set of adjusted expectations for junior faculty,” history professor and former FAS Senate Chair Beverly Gage ’94 said. “The concern is that we will expect them to do the same amount of work. Then we will have created a system with more pressure.”
Gage said the expectation for academic productivity will depend on how well individual departments implement the new system.
Likewise, FAS Senate Chair and classics professor Emily Greenwood said execution of the recommendations will be crucial. She said the committee in charge of implementation will have to do “judicious work” to ensure a process that allows for varying patterns of publication and research in different disciplines, while at the same time upholding consistency and fairness across the FAS.
Before 2007, the faculty tenure clock stood at 10 years, an unusually long evaluation period that former Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Jon Butler described as “unhealthy” and “bad for morale” in an interview with the News last spring. Under that system, tenure candidates in humanities departments were generally expected to have produced two books — or, in certain situations, one book and significant progress toward a second — during their time at the University, according to Dean of Humanities Amy Hungerford, who presented the proposed revision at last week’s faculty meeting.
Now that the clock has been shortened — first to nine years, and now possibly to eight — that expectation has to be modified, professors interviewed said, so that junior faculty are not under pressure to produce the same amount of scholarship in increasingly shorter periods of time.
English professor Leslie Brisman said the revised system may help promote “a more adventurous as well as more humane promotion policy.” But, he added, the change will only lead to real progress if it causes a larger shift in how the University evaluates excellence.
“If … departments … actually spell out the reduced expectations, but not really mean it, then the shortened period in which a young scholar could rise to the very top of her or his profession will do more harm than good,” Brisman said.
Hungerford told the News that Yale intends to “hire the very best people” and give them a fair chance to produce the standard of work required of tenured faculty.
The language used to define that standard of work has also been altered in the revised policies: Scholars who receive tenure are now expected to be not only the “foremost leaders in the world” in their fields, but also to have produced published work that “significantly extends the horizons of their discipline(s).”
Some professors said that even after last week’s revision, Yale’s tenure clock may still be too long.
Stephen Stearns, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told the News that the shortened tenure clock might alleviate, but will not fully resolve, a deep-rooted problem: Promising faculty members with a shot at tenure often receive offers from other universities before Yale is ready to commit to them.
“As soon as the broader community learns that Yale is thinking of tenuring someone — and it must learn that because we ask for letters from outside — we are at risk of losing them,” he said. “Yale’s interest in them is taken as a vote of confidence in their quality.”
Of the faculty members who voted in the Thursday meeting, 85 voted in favor of the recommendations, eight were opposed and five abstained. And just as the faculty vote was not unanimous, not all professors interviewed see the tenure changes as a step in the right direction. Political science professor Steven Smith said he fears the term “excellence” has been inappropriately redefined in response to the growing pressure on the University to improve faculty diversity. Faculty excellence and faculty diversity are separate issues, he said.