Slowing Down Tenure Time

The University of Michigan wants to bring the promotion process into the 21st century.
February 28, 2006

The tenure clock and the biological clock -- both for birth and for death -- just tend to get in one another’s way.

In part to try to make the academy family friendly, the University of Michigan is currently mulling over changes to the process it uses to promote professors, which would include extending the maximum time to receive tenure from 8 to 10 years.

Higher education experts have increasingly been saying that, as baby boomers age and require more attention, and as more women flood academe, a bit of flexibility is in order. 

“Younger workers, male and female, are more interested in balancing work and family,” said Jeanne Miller, an information services manager at Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women. “And a lot more people are dealing with elder care.”

Normally, a Michigan faculty member is reviewed for tenure after six or seven years, with eight the upper limit. Claire Van Ummersen, vice president for the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership, said that the tenure process was created when men dominated the academy, and that it is high time for a change. She said that extending the maximum number of years for tenure review is a great way to show women that they, and their families, are welcome. “There is an increasing number of women among the best faculty [candidates],” Van Ummersen said, “and if universities want to retain the best, family friendly policies are very important.”

Currently, 279 of the 1,405 full professors at Michigan are women. Two-hundred and eighty-six of 724 assistant professors are women, and about 26 percent of all tenured and tenure-track faculty members are women.

The Michigan proposals, which were made in a report by the Committee to Consider a More Flexible Tenure Probationary Period, noted nine institutions that have more flexible policies than the current Michigan rules. 

According to Michigan faculty members, the university already has some helpful policies in place. Female faculty members who have a child can choose to freeze the tenure clock. Priscilla Tucker, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said that she took advantage of stopping the hands of tenure time for a year when she had her son, and that was 15 years ago. Additionally, men and women who are responsible for at least half of the child rearing in their family can take a full-pay semester without teaching responsibilities after a birth or adoption.

The report also suggests adding flexibility to the two current speeds available for the tenure clock: stop and go. Claire Duvernoy, an assistant professor of internal medicine, has been at the university since 1998, but is only a two-year-old on the tenure clock. Duvernoy has had two children since beginning as a faculty member, and has been working part time for the last six years. For those six years, her tenure clock has been frozen.

The options currently available for a faculty member working part time are either to stop the tenure clock completely and not receive credit for years of part-time work, or to let the clock continue as it would for a full-time worker, and risk going into tenure review with fewer years of full-time work. Duvernoy said that stopping the clock “removed the pressure,” but she has continued to publish and obtain grants, and feels that she should not be stuck in year two of her faculty career. Her only other choice would have been to let the clock continue as normal while she worked part time.

One of the proposals recommends allowing part-time work to be counted as part-time work, so a faculty member working 70 percent of full-time could make 70 percent of a year’s progress toward tenure review.

One concern that the American Association of University Professors has about extending the tenure clock is that it would prompt institutions to string along assistant professors. That, according to Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, could mean a longer wait until the academic freedom that groups like AAUP argue that only tenure can impart.

AAUP’s “ statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure," written in 1940, recommends capping the tenure probationary period at seven years. A 2001 AAUP statement, however, noted that when the tenure system was created “it was assumed that untenured faculty -- whether men or women -- were not the sole, primary, or even coequal caretakers of newborn or newly adopted children.” AAUP now says that, upon request, a faculty member should be allowed to stop or extend the tenure clock. But Bowen hopes that institutions take care when winding the tenure clock. “It does a disservice to candidates when the tenure clock can be turned off too often and for too many years,” Bowen said, because “it can interfere with tenure, which is critical for academic freedom, and it leaves [assistant professors] in limbo.”

One of the most important functions of the Michigan report, according to Janet Weiss, one of the committee co-chairs and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, is to create a culture where faculty members are not afraid to take advantage of family friendly policies. Weiss said that, in the past, many people were not aware they were entitled to leave, and others -- especially women having children -- were loathe to take advantage of policies for fear of being looked down on when tenure review came along. “We think making the policies fair and transparent and explicit will make it easier for people who need them to take advantage of them,” Weiss said.


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