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Colby College’s 2021 tenure cohort, from left: Bradley Borthwick, art; Alicia E. Ellis, German; Aaron Hanlon, English; Robert Lester, economics; Lindsay Mayka, government; and Arnout van der Meer, history

Colby College

Lots of people give big gifts to colleges and universities. Most of these donors have very specific ideas about how the money will be spent. So do Tom and Cathy Tinsley -- sort of. Instead of funding a specific program or endowing a particular faculty chair, the couple is giving $100,000 to all six professors who earned tenure at Colby College in 2021, to imagine and pursue new research avenues.

Forty percent of the money may also be used for personal expenses, such as childcare or long-delayed trips to visit family members in other states or countries.

The next two cohorts of newly tenured Colby professors will get the same grant, via the Tinsleys, to the tune of $2 million total. All grantees will see their gifts paid out over two years.

The Tinsleys are calling their idea the Haynesville Project, after Haynesville, La., the hometown of Tom Tinsley’s late father, James A. Tinsley, former chair of history at the University of Houston. They consider their gift, which is modeled in part after the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowships, a form of venture philanthropy. They also consider Colby to be a pilot program for this kind of giving.

“We assumed other people must be doing this, but we haven’t been able to find a program like it at other liberal arts colleges,” said Cathy Tinsley. “I would love to see if we can make this snowball.”

The Tinsleys originally considered taking their no-strings-attached faculty grant idea to one of Tom Tinsley’s alma maters, the University of Notre Dame or Stanford University. A friend then suggested speaking with President David A. Greene at Colby, where the Tinsleys’ daughter and son-in-law attended college. The friend said that Greene would make a good “thought partner,” Tom Tinsley recalled, and the friend was right.

“Most presidents would have said, ‘Tom, and Cathy, this is a great idea. Why don’t you give us enough money to endow the idea, so that we will have it in perpetuity?’” Tom Tinsley said. “And we didn’t really want to do that because we didn’t know whether it was a good idea” -- at least not yet.

‘A Game Changer’

He continued, “One of the things that we’re going to do over the next 24 to 36 months is figure out how to build the plumbing, so that if other friends -- and we think there will be others -- want to do this, we can set up the protocols and the ability to do this on a similar time period, perhaps for specific disciplines in other universities.”

For now, the Tinsleys said they’re looking forward to seeing what kind of impact this first set of grants, awarded to an entire tenure cohort of faculty members across disciplines, can have on Colby as a whole.

Greene, president of Colby, acknowledged some of the negative rhetoric surrounding tenure. But he said that in his experience, tenure means being “able to recruit extraordinary faculty who can imagine the institution making a serious commitment to them over their career, and at the same time being able to support them in ways that allow them to be highly productive throughout their entire career.”

The Haynesville Project makes tenure even more valuable, then, Greene said, in that “this says we can actually liberate you from the constraints that you’ve put on yourself to be able to get through all of these different hurdles that you’ve made it over so far. You can be liberated to do work now that is absolutely meaningful and powerful and has a high impact, and we’re going to give you the resources to do that.”

Greene added, “It’s a bit of a jolt to the system at that moment [of tenure], to be able to have the real resources to suddenly think, ‘Hmm, maybe I can take a different path. I’ve become a world expert in my field. But now maybe there’s a possibility that I can take an entirely new direction because of these resources.’”

Alicia E. Ellis, associate professor of German at Colby and one of the six grantees, said the Haynesville model is a “game changer when it comes to the depth of our research and how we bring students into that and new course design.” She said she hopes the model spreads far and wide, but that it’s particularly beneficial to professors at teaching-focused institutions, “because we’re often -- but not always -- less likely to be ones who are submitting for the big grants, and we have all these other demands on our time.”

She continued, “The marginal impact will be greater at a place like a liberal arts college. And I would love to see it at other kinds of liberal arts colleges -- places like HBCUs that are doing lots of really important work investing in students. It would be really remarkable to see what would happen if you really opened up the possibilities for people who have already been doing so much.”

Regarding her own research, Ellis said the Haynesville Project will help her forward her work in German studies and expand into the field of Black studies, in which she has a master’s degree.

“It’s pretty liberating to know that I now have this support to both move my work into new spaces, and also carve out alternative paths, where I can make an impact on the fields of German studies and Black studies,” she said. “I want to push at the boundaries of what German studies looks like and start conversations about the ways that knowledge is produced and disseminated, but also who is included and what should shift.”

Arnout H. C. van der Meer, associate professor of history and another Haynesville grantee, said that he’d previously thought his posttenure research agenda on modernity in Southeast Asia would involve mostly secondary sources. Now, he said, research trips to archives abroad are a real possibility, the pandemic notwithstanding.

“That’s a scale that was previously, for me, unimaginable,” van der Meer said. “So this changes my own understanding of my project and makes things possible that were, for me, at least, unimaginable before.”

The grant is “a really incredible sign of trust in us as scholars,” van der Meer said. “It’s stimulating, it’s very encouraging and I think it’s going to keep us going,” with teaching innovation as well as research.

At a liberal arts college such as Colby, this means that undergraduates stand to reap the benefits, in the form of newly designed courses and research opportunities.

“This is where I think the impact is,” van der Meer said. “We can continue our scholarship at eye level, and we’re going to bring that back into our classrooms. The students will benefit from this. So I think this is just a really remarkable award, and it’s almost surprising that it hasn’t happened before.”

Tenure: The Sacrifices, and the ‘Beauty’

Lindsay Mayka, an associate professor of government who studies Latin America, and another Haynesville grantee, said, “This is different than simply getting a little bit more money. And so you don’t simply just do a little bit more of what you were doing before -- you can change some of the scale.” Instead of taking one to two trips abroad to collect data and visit archives “in a constrained way,” she said, “I would want to do something that maybe involves building a team with people in Latin America, scaling up to kind of bigger things, like doing more elaborate focus groups, hiring people who are embedded in some of the communities that I study to do some of the everyday observation that I can’t do, given that I’m only doing some of these short trips.”

While the professional possibilities are wide-open, Mayka said one of the “most overwhelming” aspects of the Haynesville grant is that she’s able to use up to 40 percent of it for personal expenses, too. She said her 6-year-old daughter hasn’t seen her paternal grandparents out of state since 2019, due in large part to COVID-19, and that a Christmas trip is now in the works. She’s also thinking of ways to give back to local organizations, some of which have supported her in her tenure journey.

Multiple grantees also said that while Colby is a supportive place to work, the surrounding area of Waterville, Me., offers limited career opportunities for partners who move there to support them. This can mean a loss of income for the entire family.

Mayka said, for example, that in terms of “family sacrifices, my husband moved here to support my career, giving up a lot along the way.”

It’s perhaps impossible to understand the sacrifices an academic makes to get tenure without living it, or at least seeing it up close, as Tom Tinsley did, through his late father. Tinsley said he recalled tenure giving his own family of origin more “stability.”

Colby ultimately sees the Haynesville Project as supporting not only tenured scholars but tenure itself.

Greene said, “The beauty of tenure is that it’s not about job security, it’s really about the liberating aspect of being able to do work at the highest level, and the freedom to be able to take things in new directions and to push the boundaries of knowledge. This gift is going to accelerate that for us in really exciting ways.”

Mayka said that the tenure process “is long and tiring, and it starts after a period that was long and tiring, with grad school.” So achieving tenure -- which at Colby and elsewhere comes with extra service responsibilities and, often, depleted start-up research funds -- sometimes feels like reaching a goal “only to have your own work go to the back seat, because of all these other pressing concerns,” she said.

The Haynesville Project disrupts that, she continued, in “recognizing that we had to do a lot to get here, and therefore we have a lot more that’s left in us to contribute -- and giving us more freedom to dream about how to take advantage of the opportunities that come with tenure.”

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