The Brightest Among Us

Disneyland “is the real country presented as imaginary to make us think other things are real,” says J. D. Connor, an assistant professor in the History of Art Department at the close of a lecture in his course on Disney. “But the real is no longer real.”

“Mind blown,” the student next to me whispers.

As usual, when J. D. Connor speaks about film, he leaves me feeling that if I listened hard enough, I, too, could use the clues in pop culture to unlock the invisible workings of the universe.

Professor Connor has been my faculty advisor, my tour guide through both America’s most iconic media corporation and, in a class dedicated to the JFK assassination, the real-life political thriller that’s been an American obsession for the past fifty years. More than 2,600 Yale graduate and professional students voted him to be one of the humanities lecturers at the 2015 Inspiring Yale event; more than two hundred students enrolled in his course on Disney this semester. But despite his popularity and gift for teaching, Yale has decided to let J. D. Connor go.

Last spring, when professor Connor informed me that he was up for promotion and would be on leave next year if all went well, I worried that I would be without an advisor for my junior year. Any other possible outcome never occurred to me. Until he was denied promotion from assistant professor to “associate on term,” the tenure track was something to which I had given little thought. When I admit this to Tamar Gendler, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, she tells me that, too, is a part of the tenure process: “There’s no reason [students] should have to know how the walls are wired. They just want the lights to be bright.”

But suddenly, a bulb was out, and I wanted to know why. I tried my best to perform diagnostics. I knew it wasn’t the bulb itself, because Connor was one of the best teachers I’d ever had. Instead, I turned my attention to the wiring, which I did not understand at all.

tenure illustration primary

In which I learn a bit about electrical wiring

Professor Amy Hungerford, who chairs the Tenure and Promotions Committee for the humanities, walked me through the three criteria that form the basis for decisions on tenure—research, teaching, and service. It is difficult for faculty to receive tenure if their teaching is poor and shows no signs of improvement, she explained. It is equally difficult when the teaching is superb but the scholarship is borderline. A weak publishing record is particularly lethal, in line with the adage, “publish or perish.”

“Research will always be the emphasis of Yale,” said Kathryn Lofton, a tenured faculty member who serves on the committee currently reviewing the tenure system implemented in 2007. The committee is set to publish its findings in 2017, and every ten years thereafter. Lofton, a professor of religious studies, has a nose ring and a tattoo: she is hardly the image of an educational system entrenched in conservative ideals. I struggled to reconcile her words with her appearance and friendly demeanor.

I wanted teaching to carry more weight and felt compelled to blame my misconceptions about Yale’s teaching emphasis on something concrete, so I settled on its promotional materials. I went back and watched “That’s Why I Chose Yale”—the giant hallmark card from the Admissions Office to prospective students. The video opens with a tour guide fielding questions at an info session. A young woman in the front row asks, “Is it true that all Yale professors teach?” The tour guide replies, “It is true that every tenured professor in Yale College teaches undergraduates…” I thought the tour guide would finish his sentence with something like “which shows the care and thought Yale puts into the classroom experience of its students.” He did not. Instead, the sentence ends, “… so even a freshman might be taking a class from a Nobel Prize winner.”

The guide was implying that prestige or, at least, prestige by proxy, is what we’re getting at Yale. This is not what I thought I was getting when I came to Yale. Perhaps it’s because the University’s message about low faculty-to-student ratios and small class sizes is what won me over, rather than the promise of glimpsing a handful of Nobel laureates. Or maybe that’s how I preferred to frame my priorities to myself when I came to Yale as a freshman. Regardless, I am left with the suspicion that I didn’t fully grasp the terms and conditions before clicking the “agree” button.

In which I learn that this is not the original wiring

It turns out, there are worse things than the current tenure system. Before 2007, Yale’s tenure system was a far uglier beast than the one that dictates hiring practices today. At that time, junior faculty were hired without the guarantee of being considered for tenure. Untenured ladder faculty could not remain at Yale for more than ten years, so if the ten years passed and the department failed to find room in its budget to hire a tenured professor, the faculty member would be forced to leave. If a department did have the resources to make a permanent faculty hire, it typically conducted a nationwide search to fill the newly available senior position. Preference was not given to the junior faculty already at Yale.

“You can’t develop close friendships because they get swallowed up by the fog machine.”

I came to understand the pre-2007 system as a ten-year post-doc. Though Yale could not guarantee junior faculty job security, it could offer its untenured faculty world-class resources, and, more importantly, the Yale seal of approval on any published material. Gambling ten years of your life on a nineteen percent chance at tenure, however, seemed a high price to pay for prestige.

At the very least, the new system provides a clearer path toward consideration for tenure, though Lofton stated that the University does not keep data on likelihood of tenure, so it is difficult to compare. To me, the reorganization seems by no means satisfactory for all. “It’s like The Hunger Games,” said a recently tenured faculty member, who I will call X as he asked not to be named. It is a good illustration of the contentiousness of this issue that out of the thirty professors I asked about tenure at Yale, almost all either declined to be interviewed or chose the safety of anonymity.

“You can’t develop close friendships because they get swallowed up by the fog machine,” X said. By then end of the tenure process, faculty members have watched a good portion of their colleagues leave. When, or if, they make it through the process, at least some—the X’s of the University—have developed survivor’s guilt.
I know that I am not the first person to reach the conclusion that Yale is something less than paradise for the untenured faculty member. This past year, there have been several voluntary departures in departments such as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and African American Studies, amid criticism of Yale’s institutional culture and hiring practices, including the tenure process. While some people, like J. D. Connor, wait to find out that they will be asked to leave, others go willingly to places like Columbia, Cornell, the University of Chicago, places where the tenure process is sometimes almost halved from Yale’s nine-year process to just five years.

In which I watch the electrician work with my eyes closed

At this point in my interviews on the subject of tenure, I have heard so much about this chart that it feels like I’m meeting a celebrity.

The document given to newly hired faculty at Yale outlining the tenure process is beautifully laminated. I receive this exact shiny piece of paper in plastic from Gendler. I have the urge to run it under water. At this point in my interviews on the subject of tenure, I have heard so much about this chart that it feels like I’m meeting a celebrity. At the top of the page is a small, colorful chart, which depicts the steps of the post-2007 tenure system in chronological order. “The fact that this chart even exists is an incredible achievement,” Lofton had told me at our earlier meeting.

I peruse the picture at my leisure, tracing the process from hiring, as a first year associate professor, to the final committee review for tenure. It’s a story told in acronyms and italics: the road many of our professors are on, but which few of us understand as we listen to their lectures and speak with them during office hours or in seminars.

Junior faculty members at Yale are hired as assistant professors. After leaping over a few comparatively lower hurdles during their first six years, they come up for promotion to associate professor with tenure or full professor (depending on their department) in their eighth year.

If the candidate passes an internal departmental review, the department puts together an application that it brings before the Tenure and Promotions Committee for the candidate’s general area of study: humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, or physical sciences and engineering. Unlike tenure review at many other universities, the committee is comprised of senior faculty members, rather than administrators. The application consists of one hundred pages of the applicant’s work and a minimum of seven letters of review from faculty in the same area of research at peer institutions. Gendler reads all of the professor’s end-of-semester teaching evaluations and builds a report on the candidate’s teaching abilities to present to the group.

The members of TAPC vote by secret ballot. In order to receive promotion, the applicant needs a majority. The content of the discussion is never disclosed to the candidate. But the final outcome is simple and irrevocable as best I can tell from the chart: “A candidate for appointment or promotion to a tenure position, whether at the rank of professor or associate professor, must have attained scholarly or creative distinction of high quality as demonstrated by both research and teaching. Consideration for tenure emphasizes the impact and continuing promise, at the very highest levels, of the candidate’s research and scholarship, as well as excellent teaching and engaged University citizenship within and beyond a department or program […] Tenured faculty at Yale are expected to stand among the foremost in their fields in the world.”

As a student, that is exactly the kind of person I want teaching all of my classes. But for faculty, “there is a general vagueness about the criteria for tenure,” as X tells me. “It is unclear whether two books is enough [in the humanities and social sciences], though some people receive tenure having published only one book.” The nebulous nature of the criteria causes anxiety.

“Research, teaching, service—to excel at the highest level in all three is virtually impossible,” says Charles Musser, a tenured professor of film and media studies. “If they wanted to shoot you down, they can always find a category. At least, that was the feeling that was shared by my cohort group of junior faculty as we faced the tenure process.” Though the intricate process could not be described as arbitrary, student spectators and faculty climbing the ladder are left in the dark at decision time.

X reiterated what Lofton had told me—scholarship is what matters; teaching and service to the University don’t count as much. It would be easy to blame this on academia more broadly, except this is not the case at all top-tier universities. At Cornell, for instance, where X studied, students are asked to write letters of evaluation when professors came up for tenure.

In which I realize that meritocracy and democracy are not the same type of light fixture

When Gendler introduced the lighting analogy to me, she told me that she was curious why a student wanted to learn the wiring at all. I said that I didn’t think most undergraduates had a grasp on how the system worked. Like me, they got upset when they lost a faculty member who had made a difference in their academic career. Most, however, had little idea as to what had led to a beloved teacher’s release.

Generally, we aren’t keeping tabs on who has tenure and who is awaiting it. “It’s great news that undergraduates are not worried about who’s in what role—that means we are hiring great faculty across the board,” Gendler told me, adding that students were often not sensitive to the “formal University academic role of the faculty whom they learn from.”

Yale is a place in which the wiring is not ideal, but the lighting is flattering.

I thought back to J. D. Connor’s revelatory lectures and felt scorned because his apparent popularity among students appeared to have little to no effect in dictating his reception by the Yale tenure machine. It felt like I had entered some kind of dystopian novel where the paternalistic government was hiding things from its citizens to keep them content. Where was my ability to effect change? Had I ever had that ability? From Lofton, I knew the current review committee was working hard to find a way to better evaluate teaching in the tenure process and to make the entire process more transparent, but I felt that these changes were promises designed to appease. By that point, people like Connor would already have left for other universities.

It took a conversation with a professor studying labor history to calm me down. Michael Denning, the current DUS of American Studies, has been at Yale since the 1980s, and has observed the tenure process through its multiple iterations. He said that in the last thirty years, the essence has hardly changed.
“The ethos back then—I’ll put it on the positive side, which is their way of seeing it—[was] to get tenure you must be one of the leading people in your field. This maintains Yale’s rhetoric of excellence. You wouldn’t be here as a student if not for that.” My immediate impulse, as a student, was to refute this statement. I am not a selfish person.

I opened my mouth to interrupt, but was silenced by his next words: “At a democratic institution, it would be important to understand the wiring. However, Yale is far from a democratic higher-education institution.” I had thought the tenure system was broken. But the problem wasn’t the system; I had made a labeling error in the lighting department.

In which I find myself at the light switch

I was disappointed. Disappointed because it was my mistake, not theirs. Disappointed because Yale was not more like Disneyland. Disappointed because, more than anything, I felt incredibly relieved—I had been let off the hook.

“There’s no reason [students] should have to know how the walls are wired. They just want the lights to be bright.”

Yale is a place in which the wiring is not ideal, but the lighting is flattering. Though the system is far from humane for faculty, the research-focused rigor of the tenure system contributes heavily to Yale’s claim as one of the world’s leading academic institutions. As students, there is real economic value in being able to claim this name brand as our own. At the same time, we benefit from a cycle of imaginative classes taught by new, energetic professors striving for tenure. Under the current tenure system, though great teaching and great renown may not go hand in hand, they are not mutually exclusive. But ultimately, the wiring isn’t our concern as students. We can see the lights, so we know the system’s working fine. And the self-loathing of being another conductive element in the great mass of wires will wear off by the start of the next semester.

2 thoughts on “The Brightest Among Us”

  1. Yale is first and foremost a research institution. It is, also, in the minority of top-tier research institutions in that there is such a heavy focus on teaching by faculty. Personally I do not see any confusion between institutions that have historically staked their claim on the grounds of research over teaching (the difference, in other words, between a research institution and an SLAC–small liberal arts college–where teaching counts for more).

    It seems that the author had a rather fanciful and poorly informed understanding of what counts toward tenure in different situations (and, in particular, at Yale). It’s good that the author comes to a richer understanding of the process, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the tenure process at Yale is “broken.” If anything, it has improved dramatically and continues to reward the best of the best.

  2. Thanks for the article, but you have been bamboozled by your sources. Why? Because Yale’s tenure-track system is a recognized fake. Facing a dearth of applications for junior faculty positions, in 2007 the university switched to a supposed “tenure-track” system. The problem is that the new version is the same old shell game. Yale is, as it has been for decades, a revolving door job. Close to ten years later, the jig is up and the academic community at large is wise to it. That’s why the committee report has been commissioned. Maybe in 2017, it will come up with another phony game idea? Hide the pea under a different type of shell? Good luck with that.

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