10 Years Until Tenure

February 11, 2005

If a report issued Thursday gains momentum, the tenure clock -- and many other things about faculty career paths -- could see significant changes.

The American Council on Education released the report, which attacks what David Ward, president of the council, called the "rigidity" of the tenure system. The report warns that unless colleges become more flexible about how professors are recruited and what is expected of them, they will lose much of the best talent -- especially women.

Claire Van Ummerson, director of the ACE's Office of Women in Higher Education, said that women frequently must "compromise their personal values" to fit into the academic culture. And women who use flexibility that some colleges offer risk "marginalization" in their departments.

The report calls for a variety of changes in policies. Besides changing the tenure clock, it seeks:

  • The creation of "re-entry" positions, similar to postdocs, for professors who take a few years off to care for family members and want to move back into professional life.
  • An end to the bias against people who have "résumé gaps" because they took time off to care for family members.
  • New flexibility in how benefits are awarded so that faculty couples can gain support for child care.
  • New incentives for faculty members to retire -- or to start transitions toward retirement -- so that colleges can hire younger, more diverse talent.

Several presidents who participated in a telephone conference call Thursday to release the report said that they were not only open to these sorts of changes, but were already starting the process at their campuses.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, said that officials there were already studying a possible change in the time before a tenure review to 10 years from the traditional 6.

Coleman noted that there are "differences of opinion" on whether this is a good thing for faculty members, some of whom fear the impact on their careers of too long a period. But she said that lengthening the potential period to 10 years would not necessarily mean that everyone had to wait 10 years.

Faculty groups have traditionally insisted on shorter periods. But at a preview discussion of this report earlier this month, an official of the American Association of University Professors said his group was open to discussing longer periods, because of the view that this would help parents navigate the tension between the tenure process and their family lives.

Coleman stressed that while this report might be motivated by a desire to attract a more diverse faculty, such a recommendation could end up helping scholarship. "If you really want people to do risk-taking research," she said, six years may not be enough time to demonstrate an idea's value. Ten years might encourage such research, she said.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said that in his previous job, as president of Ohio State University, the medical school lengthened its tenure review period to 10 years from 6. Faculty members and administrators agreed that given medical professors' clinical responsibilities, six years "wasn't a reasonable period of time," he said.

Kirwan called on colleges to recognize that a faculty career is long enough -- 40 years or more -- that it is not terrible for people to take several years off to care for family members.

Tenure may be "a bedrock principle," he said, "but too many of its policies were developed in a different era and a different time."

The presidents acknowledged that institutional culture can be difficult to change. But they said they hoped that by talking about these issues, which they intend to continue to do, they could promote change.

Coleman also noted the "elephant in the room" -- the controversial comments by Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's president, about why he believed there were relatively few female scientists.

"The political dynamic has changed in the last few weeks," she said, and the interest in this issue "provides us with a nice opening."

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