Tenure Reform Comes to Yale

University panel seeks a true track for promotion and -- in move that surprises observers -- endorses the idea of nurturing young faculty.
February 7, 2007

A special panel studying tenure policies at Yale University released its recommendations on Tuesday -- with several ideas that are key to faculty members in New Haven and others that experts hope could be influential elsewhere.

For those starting their academic careers at Yale, the most significant reform may be the creation for the first time of a true tenure track at the university. Yale is among a handful of universities (Harvard being the most notable) that have historically made it almost impossible for junior professors to win tenure. If Yale adopts the changes, it would still be extremely difficult for junior professors to meet the standard set for tenure -- namely that they "stand in the competition with the foremost leaders in their fields throughout the world." But junior professors would be assured a shot at demonstrating that they met that standard -- something they typically do not receive now.

Advocates for changes in tenure policies nationally saw as most dramatic recommendations that concerned the general treatment of junior professors. The panel proposed that departments provide them with regular mentoring and guidance, clear explanations of expectations, and actual assistance in doing their jobs.

Such recommendations are hardly novel, and experts on faculty life have been pushing them for some time. But many such experts have said that some of the most prestigious universities have been the least likely to pay attention -- and that their inaction enables others to avoid dealing with the issues. So Yale's new push is seen as dramatic.

"This is pretty major," said Cathy Trower, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a Harvard University-based project that studies institutions nationwide. "I was delighted and stunned to see the word 'nurturing' in the report."

Yale created the faculty panel to review tenure policies for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2005 -- only the fourth such review since 1950. In explaining the need for change, the panel said that Yale's tenure system -- and especially the practice in which most junior faculty members have zero chance at tenure -- is out of step with higher education and damaging to the university.

"Yale's current system is distrusted by some non-tenured Yale faculty. It is anomalous within American higher education and has not always been practiced uniformly.... To put it metaphorically, the system may be like trying to support the university on the Swiss franc, a unique currency with increasingly high transaction costs. The committee strongly believes that Yale must modify its system of tenure and appointments to suit current conditions within the university and outside of it as well," the report says.

The part of Yale's current policy that the committee was most critical of was the complete separation of junior and senior faculty lines. What this has meant is that a junior professor -- even one who has met the standard of being among the best in the world in his or her discipline -- can be considered for tenure only if a tenured slot opens up. A junior slot is never considered to be one that might turn into a senior slot.

The committee wants to drop that system. "Consideration for promotion to tenure will be detached from resource issues. All new non-tenured appointments to the ladder faculty will be understood to carry the resources required for tenure, should tenure be warranted on the basis of merit," the panel writes.

By making such a change, more attention will be devoted to who is hired for junior positions, and to helping those hired succeed, the panel says In addition, the panel notes that junior professors are much less likely to be white men than are their tenured counterparts. By blocking almost all junior professors from advancing to tenure, Yale has been limiting its ability to diversify the faculty, the panel says.

In addition to making it feasible -- structurally -- for junior faculty members to win tenure, the committee proposes more practical ways to make it possible for them to attain the level of research excellence that tenure would require. Yale has two tiers of junior faculty members, with assistant professors eligible to be promoted to associate professors prior to tenure. Under a restructured nine-year tenure clock, those passing various levels of review would receive two, full-year paid leaves prior to coming up for tenure.

Beyond giving junior faculty members time and resources, the committee urges Yale to give them professional guidance and support. And echoing points made recently by the Modern Language Association, among others, the report calls for faculty members to be told exactly what will be expected of them.

"If we are committed to maintaining the highest standards of faculty excellence everywhere, we must continuously develop effective means for nurturing that excellence in our non-tenured colleagues," the report says. "And we must be clear about what we expect of them. What generally is anticipated by way of books, articles, and grants? What is considered evidence of excellence in teaching? And what are the obligations of non-tenured faculty for committee work within and outside their departments? Departments and programs that make joint appointments must clarify the expectations that they have for non-tenured faculty and explain how non-tenured faculty will be reviewed by each department and by the departments jointly."

Trower, who works to promote better career paths for faculty members, said the report was "fabulous" in its endorsement of important principles. "What they came to is what people have been recommending," she said. Trower said she was particularly impressed with providing two research leaves, stressing the importance of mentoring, and creating the possibility of earning tenure.

In several places in the report, the panel writes that Yale needs to make changes or risk being put at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting the best faculty talent. Trower said that those passages were particularly significant. Trower and others have been saying that universities can't rest on their prestige for recruiting young professors. To have Yale come to that realization is extremely significant and could encourage other colleges, she said.

"For Yale, which has been doing things its way for 250 years, to say that its policies are placing it outside the mainstream and it needs to change, that gives these kinds of reforms credibility," Trower said.

Other tenure experts had a more mixed view. Donald E. Hall, chair of foreign languages and a professor of English at West Virginia University, was a member of the MLA panel that recommended that English and language departments adopt far more flexibility in how they evaluate excellence and be far more open about expectations they have for promotion.

The Yale report "has the positive effect of making more transparent the process at Yale and calling, admirably, for an investment in the mentoring of junior faculty by tenured members of the faculty."

But Hall noted that the report accepts the idea that -- even with all the additional support -- very few junior faculty members will advance, just as relatively few make it now. Yale attributes all of that to its high standards, Hall said, not accepting that "by any measure of 'selectivity,' " it has "a brutal weeding out of young scholars" and the university doesn't seem to view that as a problem.

At Yale, faculty meetings to discuss the report are expected to start next month, with the goal of having policies adopted by July. While nothing is final, the university is indicating that it expects the changes to move forward.

The Yale Daily News on Tuesday endorsed the proposals, linking them -- as the authors of the report do -- to undergraduate education. In short, if junior faculty members are treated decently, the idea is that they will be better teachers. An editorial says that the current system has "prevented young faculty members from feeling fully invested in a Yale community of which they might not be a member for long." The editorial calls the proposed reforms "a milestone for our university."


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