From the Editor

The academic Mount Olympus

Recent changes in Yale's tenure system.

Maybe it's best for junior faculty members at Yale just not to think about tenure.

"You keep to the ground, so to speak," says linguistics professor Maria Piñango. "You have your research, you have your students -- that is what keeps you going. You don't think too much ahead."

On the one hand, any new faculty member arriving at Yale is doing phenomenally well. In the current PhD job market, landing an offer from an Ivy is like landing a place on the slopes of Mount Olympus. But on the other hand, the odds of making it to the top, where the tenured enjoy eternal life (professionally speaking) and have research assistants to serve ambrosia and type footnotes, range at Yale from 57 percent in the biological sciences to an eye-opening 11 percent in the humanities. (These numbers, last updated in 2006, are for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Things are altogether different in the medical school, where tenure depends considerably on securing research grants.)

One reason for the low percentages is Yale's sheer selectivity. A quick semantic review: in most of academe, the sought-after entry-level post is a "tenure-track" job. Just keep making progress, in other words, and you'll reach your goal as surely
as a train pulling into its station. At Yale there is no tenure track. The term is "ladder faculty," a discreet message to all concerned that the way is not flat but vertical, and many will fall.

But another reason few Yale assistant professors have gotten tenure at Yale is that, intelligent people that they are, they don't wait passively for bad news. Before 2007, Yale's tenure promotion system typically required ten years, instead of the six or seven at other institutions. Ten years is a long time to keep hope alive. Many brilliant junior faculty have worked at Yale five or six years, established their scholarly credentials, and then either sought jobs elsewhere or been lured away by tenure offers from quicker-moving institutions.

Some administrators have argued that Yale doesn't lose many future full professors this way -- that those who have the right stuff know it and will have the courage to stick around. But Peter Salovey ’86PhD, dean of Yale College, says: "It shouldn't depend on temperament." He and Graduate School dean Jon Butler started a review of the tenure system that led last year to several changes, including a more vigorous mentoring program and two paid research sabbaticals for all junior faculty. But the most important change was in timing. Yale now has an eight-year tenure clock (with optional time off for new parents).

Because the old system was in force in 1999, when Maria Piñango first came to Yale, she had the option of staying in it. But like most faculty who were offered the choice, she preferred speed. "To me there was no question," she says. "I'd rather know sooner than later." On February 6, Pinango became one of the first eight Yale faculty to win tenure under the new system.

And on Mount Olympus, it turns out, time still matters most. "What this change means for me right now is time," says Pinango, "time to think, time to plan, to really savor [my research], to really go deeper -- whereas, before, I felt that I didn't have enough time because I had to prove myself. So now, they have given the nod: 'Yes, you have the goods. Now make it true.'" 

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