Getting Tenure Back on Track

At a history conference in 2004, an eminent Yale historian introduced himself to David Bell, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. “Oh, how nice to meet you!” the Yale professor said warmly. “What work are you doing?” Bell-once a junior faculty member in Yale’s history department-eyed his fellow historian before politely answering the question. But, as he recalls now, “I had to hold myself back from saying, ‘I had an office across the hall from you for years! You really should know who I am.'” To merit his former colleague’s attention, Bell had to leave Yale and get tenure elsewhere.

On February 5th, 2007, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tenure and Appointments Policy Committee released its report on tenure at Yale. Acknowledging the plight of Bell and legions like him, the report offered specific changes to the tenure system and an admission Yale junior professors have long been waiting to hear: the reluctance to grant tenure junior faculty members is hurting the Yale community and hindering the University in the cutthroat world of academia. “It’s unusual,” says Professor Jon Butler, Dean of the Graduate School and co-chair of the committee. “Most reports on tenure and appointments don’t discuss the experience of junior faculty.”

Beginning in September 2005, the nine-person committee met 31 times over 15 months. Provost Andrew Hamilton, who appointed a committee of four divisional directors and three professors, co-chaired by Dean of Yale College Peter Salovey and Dean Butler, initially expected the group to finish its report by spring 2006. But the committee quickly realized its work would take significantly longer. The problem was not divisiveness; a united belief in the need for reform charged the group from the start, and all of its members easily agreed on the targets for change. Rather, the delay was prompted by the committee’s determination to find a concrete solution to an arcane system, one that could provoke a change in Yale’s overall academic culture. The report aims to be not only a technical tweaking, but a holistic evaluation. “The problem we’re addressing is not one of the number of people tenured or the rate of tenure,” Dean Salovey clarified. “The problem addressed is how to achieve rational and appropriate teaching and citizenship at Yale.”

Until now, Yale’s tenure policy has differed radically from those at almost all other universities. At a tenure-track university, junior hires are guaranteed that a tenured position will be available should they eventually qualify for it; their cases are reviewed internally, and a lot of them make the cut. But Yale promises nothing: junior hires are not necessarily reviewed for tenure; instead, they’re often told that no openings exist in their department. If a junior faculty member is brought up for review, he or she must compete without preferential treatment against every other scholar in the field, with the position awarded to the most qualified candidate.

The University has justified its unique system by arguing that Yale is a unique place. To receive tenure at Yale, a candidate must, as the report insists, “stand in competition with the foremost leaders in their field throughout the world.” Salovey claims that the report will not lower these standards. “It is difficult to get tenure at Yale, and it will still be difficult to get tenure at Yale, and we’re happy about that.”

Yale’s tough love policy has long distinguished it among elite institutions. But in the increasingly competitive world of academia, the Yale system has become more and more of a liability. The committee aims to streamline what is currently regarded as a cumbersome and illogical system that is not only out of sync with the rest of academia but also hampers Yale in its quest to attract and retain the best faculty. The report compares the existing structure with the Swiss Franc, “a unique currency with increasingly high transaction costs,” and proposes a multifaceted solution. The new policy will give each junior faculty hire two years of paid leave, a guaranteed shot at tenure in a shorter amount of time, and preference over outside candidates in the tenure competition.

Aformer Yale associate faculty member felt like she had been let back in the pearly gates when she was offered a junior position in the University’s political science department. “I had been an undergraduate at Yale, and I felt like graduation was expulsion from Paradise,” she remembers. “So getting a job there was beyond my wildest dreams.” A junior position can spark the hope that Yale will ask you to stay for good, but those familiar with Yale’s tenure system will advise new hires not to get too attached. From those who left after a few years to several current department chairs, the same sentence surfaces again and again: I never expected to get tenure here.

The faculty member loved the excitement that filled the political science department when she arrived. “I thought, this is an extraordinary intellectual environment, and a place where my scholarship would really improve.” But she kept her hopes in check. “In general, I thought I wouldn’t get tenure, but it would be a wonderful place to be in the meantime. It was dangerous to have anything else than that for your attitude.” Four years later she accepted a job at Princeton. She loved her position at Yale, but Princeton’s system guaranteed tenure review, and seemed to be governed by a rationality absent from Yale’s. She was content with her junior faculty position at Yale because she arrived fully prepared to leave. But for a number of the most promising young post-docs, the question remains: Why bother with Yale at all?

One major issue addressed in the report is Yale’s former system of Junior Faculty Equivalencies. In the unreformed system-which will permanently disappear on July 1-JFEs served as financial allotments for faculty members. Departments had set numbers of JFEs; a junior hire took one JFE, and a senior hire took two. For a junior faculty member to achieve tenure, an extra JFE had to be available within his or her department, which occurred only when a faculty member had recently vacated a position or if the department chair successfully petitioned for another. Under such a system, even the most qualified junior faculty member could be refused tenure if no additional JFE was available. When Salovey was a junior professor, the then-chairmen of the Psychology department told him, “Peter, even if Psychology gave a Nobel prize, and you won it, we still can’t guarantee there will be a spot for you.” Many faculty members see JFEs as a useful pretext for the department to deny someone tenure without even reviewing his or her work.

Even if a JFE became available, the hurdles have just begun for the qualified junior faculty member: the open search. When a position became available in a particular department, Yale sent letters to top professors in that field asking them to list the best scholars in the discipline. If the faculty member’s name didn’t surface on these lists, the process stopped right there. Until now, there was no such thing as an “internal candidate” at Yale. The system put no value on place; to be reviewed for tenure was to apply for a fresh job open to the best candidates in the field.

Though the open search policy seemed ruthlessly fair, there was suspicion among junior faculty that it was sometimes manipulated to produce certain desired results. The letter of the law is so high that it can be used as a shield from blame; Hypothetically, if a department liked an inside candidate, the chair could send the letters to a select sample of scholars likely to include the candidate’s name on their lists. In the opposite scenario, all a department had to do was stick to the written rules, and there was a pretty good chance the candidate wouldn’t make it through.

It’s hard to distinguish rumor from truth, but the rampant speculation and nebulous anxiety the open search policy inspired among junior faculty was detrimental enough. “I remember worrying more about the oddness of Yale’s procedures than my own work,” said Salovey. “Are people going to realize with this list of names that the question is really ‘Should we tenure Peter or not?’ I was more worried about these issues than my scholarship or teaching, because I felt those things were under my control.”

As elite departments develop at universities across the country, young scholars no longer feel compelled to risk Yale’s tenure policy to achieve prestige. “The first complaint is that they don’t do that at Princeton, they don’t do that at Michigan, Berkeley, Chicago, and on and on,” observes Butler. “Brand new faculty don’t want to go through that. It’s so far from the center, from standard practice. Among other things it probably restricts the numbers of people who want to come to Yale.”

Academia is notoriously gossipy, and the committee is confident that news of Yale’s tenure changes will travel fast. By abolishing JFEs and promising each junior faculty hire the resources for a potential senior position, the new report places more significance on the initial hiring than ever before. “The old system created a little bit of cynicism,” remarked Salovey. With an open search policy “there’s the sense that if some appointment doesn’t work out, the system is self-correcting.”

While the changes make Yale’s system less idiosyncratic and more attractive to potential hires, the results cannot be entirely predicted. When the diennial review mandated by the report is published, it will reveal whether the number of junior faculty promoted to tenured positions at Yale increases. At least as important as numbers, however, is convincing the nation’s PhDs of Yale’s change of heart. Butler said, “We think this will attract really exciting, excellent new non-tenured faculty and propel them into the kind of the career they want. And if they are successful, we hope that they’ll stay at Yale.”

David Bell had been a junior faculty member in the Yale history department for four years when Johns Hopkins offered him a job. The position was untenured, but Yale’s system made it hard to justify staying in New Haven. Bell was torn, and he went to his department chair’s office to tell him about the offer. “We’d like to keep you,” the chair responded. “What can we offer you?” Bell knew he was far too young to come up for tenure at Yale, but he asked his chair if the department could create another JFE in his field to indicate at least a modicum of commitment. The chairman looked into it, but to no avail. Instead, he offered to shorten Bell’s tenure clock, so that he would come up for tenure a year earlier. Bell was unconvinced. “Without a JFE in place,” he notes now, “it was like an offer to accelerate your trip to the firing squad.” Shortly after his meeting with the chairman, Bell accepted the Johns Hopkins position, where, he said, “I went in with the expectation of getting tenure.” Only four years later, he got it.

Before the report, Yale had little to offer junior faculty courted by other universities. This rendered it vulnerable to other universities eager to capitalize on Yale’s tough standards. In a rapidly growing department like political science, inter-school competition for junior faculty is fierce. “What places tend to do is try and go after people before they can make it by the Yale criteria,” says Professor Ian Shapiro, who chaired the political science department for five and a half years. “Pick them off earlier and earlier and earlier.”

But, as Bell’s case exemplifies, the clinching reason to leave Yale is not that it’s difficult to get tenure. Though many junior faculty leave for schools with significantly higher tenure rates, many others chose alternatives like Princeton; whose tenure rates are comparable to Yale’s. People leave because they are not guaranteed even the possibility of vying for tenure. Everyone wants to know they will get their fair shot, and until now, Yale has refused to provide this comfort.

The changes remove a huge source of anxiety for junior faculty and allows the University to more competitively recruit and retain faculty, but it’s hard to envision how the promise of tenure for everyone meshes with departments that depend on a large horde of junior faculty to staff small classes.

The English department prides itself on its impressive number of low-level seminars available to and even designed for freshman and sophomores. “Offering extensive introductory seminars taught by ladder faculty is a real priority for us,” says Professor Langdon Hammer, chair of the English department. “I assume that we will do whatever we need to do to ensure that we maintain that commitment. There’s a real consensus that that’s part of ‘what we do good.'” But staffing all the classes of English 125, 127, and 129 depends upon a large junior body-and the assumption that most of them will not be tenured at Yale. If the ratio of junior to senior faculty (currently 20:23) remains the same, can Yale honestly guarantee resources to tenure all of them?

Hammer believes the new system is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. “I don’t see that the new accounting system mandates any particular ratio of junior to senior faculty, or otherwise promises to structure what departments do. I think it’s simply a new way of describing how faculty resources are allotted and spent.” As Yale can no longer feed junior faculty JFE excuses, the new system will force departments to deny them tenure on the basis of their work. English Professor William Deresewicz points to places like Stanford, which has a tenure track system but doesn’t tenure an appreciably higher rate of junior faculty in the humanities. “So that’s always going to be hanging over you to some degree.”

Deresiewicz is leaving Yale. In fact, after nine years as a much-loved junior professor in the English department, Deresiewicz is leaving academia, and not exactly by choice. His tenure clock has run out, and the department concludes there were no openings in his field, 19th Century British literature. The long ten-year tenure clock has left Dersewicz out of sync with the rest of academia. There are few jobs advertised, and the ones he applied for he didn’t get. The new system has reduced the tenure clock from ten to nine years, a move that, combined with the two years of leave, may help prevent the situation that Deresiewicz now faces.

“It’s very hard to get a job as an associate professor in term,” Deresiewicz explains. “It’s an in-between rank that schools don’t usually hire at. So you’re either left applying for a senior position, and you’re at a disadvantage because you’re not already tenured, or you’re applying for a junior position and a lot of schools won’t even consider someone because they have to pay them too much, or because they have to tenure them too fast when they get there.” The English department’s statistics suggest that Deresiewicz’s experience in not representative. According to Hammer, the vast majority of associate professors do not have trouble moving on to tenured or tenure-track positions at Yale or other universities.

Nonetheless, the theme is recurrent in conversation. While Bell skipped out early to Johns Hopkins, he watched two of his former colleagues await a tenure decision, only to be denied. “One of them is now working at the Beinecke Library, and the other is working at a public policy organization in New York. Their careers are completely derailed,” Bell laments. “If they had come up for tenure earlier, they would have been able to apply for junior level positions, but now it’s too late.” Bell compared these experiences to a candidate who was recently denied tenure at Johns Hopkins. “He was able to turn it around and apply for junior positions at other places. If this had happened, you know, three years later, like it would at Yale, he might well be just kicked out of the field entirely.” Yale’s long tenure clock permits a department to postpone the bad news. “I think,” Bell concludes, “it would be better if Yale were hard-hearted with people earlier on.”

There will always be a tension between the University’s desire for the best faculty in the world (and the ruthless system is proscribes) and the intimate chats and personal relationships that pepper a department’s daily life. For students, it would be like going to school with the admissions department for eight years before applying to Yale. For internal candidates, Dereseiwicz believes the “personal stuff” will always color the ostensibly objective system. “Academic human nature being what it is, internal tenuring decisions, as opposed to when we bring someone in from the outside, are always going to be bound up in personal relationships, in politics, and therefore in rumor, in mystery.”

Tenure review inherently involves judgments by friends and colleagues and the awkward balance of departmental camaraderie and cutthroat competition often makes it easier for senior faculty to avoid the topic of tenure with their juniors altogether. Deresiewicz realized in his third or fourth year that he wasn’t sensing the promising “signals” from the department that some of his peers, who later received tenure, were. “No one from the senior faculty had used the word tenure to me in an official-or even scarcely in an unofficial-capacity before this year.” Deresiewicz understands the need to tiptoe around the tenure topic. “Nobody wants to talk about it because it’s a very uncomfortable subject. Because, quite frankly, it’s a kind of structural violence. The people who are running it don’t want to be associated with this. You’re doing something that’s inherently, well, violent, so there’s the tendency not to be upfront about it, not to be honest about it. And that’s a problem.”

In his sixth year, Deresiewicz had the required “six-year review,” when associate professors can be promoted to associate professors on term. He received the promotion; but he remembers vividly sitting in his Chair’s office, listening to her discuss his work, and waiting for the subject of tenure to come up. It never did. The sore point for Deresiewicz is not being denied tenure so much as the inadequate communication that proeceeded it. “The point is that they need to start talking about it earlier,” he says.

The tenure committee’s report places additional emphasis on the required third and sixth year reviews. But the tenure committee also hopes to spark a more informal university-wide discussion that may assuage some of that violence with dialogue. “I think what junior faculty members have felt, and what to a degree it seems the University has come to feel, is that the junior faculty is a remarkable resource of the University that hasn’t been sufficiently drawn upon and maximized,” remarked Hammer. “And I would say simply talking about it is healthy.” The Yale community will have to wait to see what the report’s changes amount to. But at a place like Yale that both nurtures and depends upon an open exchange of ideas, a real conversation about this contentious topic is an achievement in and of itself. And the University, finally, seems willing to talk.