The tenure process is a widely-accepted academic tradition, a rite of passage that profoundly shapes the lives of young faculty. To a professor under review, receiving tenure means job security and greater freedom to develop research and curricula; failure usually entails a one-year job hunt. At the University, the rigid tenure process is undergoing review, and the 13-member task force assigned to investigate the process is set to make recommendations for change as early as this spring. Hopefully, the committee will come out in support of some of the key proposals that have been suggested.

Chelsea Trull

Among potential changes being considered, the prospect of increased flexibility in the length of the tenure process is particularly noteworthy. Currently, tenure-track faculty members at the University are reviewed no later than their seventh year. Changes to this unnecessarily inflexible system would be beneficial to the University, its faculty and its graduate students.

Offering a more flexible, less rigid academic environment would provide the University with an edge in recruitment over those schools with more standard tenure procedures. Just as a more collegial office environment is likely to draw more interest than a stuffy, shirt-and-tie atmosphere, a flexible tenure process would convey to prospective faculty hires that the University is a less pressured, more reasonable professional environment.

Additionally, increased flexibility would allow young faculty more time to take risks in their research. University Provost Paul Courant has noted that although the University generates mountains of incredible research, it is possible that tenure-track faculty put potentially groundbreaking, yet risky, projects on the backburner out of fear of failure. Instead of carrying out novel investigations, these faculty members focus on cautious projects more likely to generate results in order to earn tenure. Under this new system, young professors will be under less pressure to produce results within a set timeframe and thus more willing to undertake cutting-edge explorations. Expectedly, some of these research initiatives will yield dead ends, but others may spark exciting new areas of investigation. The University, which directly benefits when its professors announce major breakthroughs, will undoubtedly reap the rewards of a more relaxed research atmosphere.

The years that a professor spends in pursuit of tenure do not occur in a vacuum. The late 20s and early-to-mid-30s are also replete with consuming, nonprofessional tasks, such as starting a family or assisting in the care of aging relatives. Although there are currently exceptions to the tenure process that allow for these events, the system is not designed to accommodate them. The result is that many promising future professors, especially women, turn away from academics due to the unnecessarily rigid tenure requirements. Relieving this pressure and allowing young academics to balance their private and workplace responsibilities will enable a more diverse group of individuals to find secure positions in academia.

Lastly, the graduate students studying with younger faculty would benefit from a more flexible tenure process. The stress that young professors feel inevitably bleeds over into their graduate students, who often carry out much of the research that builds a professor’s case for tenure. More flexibility would not only free time for projects that graduate students initiate, but also relieve the stress that many of these students feel when working for tenure-track faculty under pressure to generate results.

The process that creates a young academic — a post-graduate doctoral program — has the flexibility that tenure lacks, awarding degrees early to some students and allowing an extra year or two for others. It would be extremely wise for the University to adopt a similar, less rigid system to benefit young faculty, their graduate students and the campus at large.

 

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