Careers: Yale tenure system

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People inevitably ask me if my job at Yale is "tenure-track." The academic world with the exception of Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins operate on the tenure-track (TT) and non-tenure-track system (non-TT). This blog entry briefly discusses TT/non-TT systems at other institutions, and the bizarre senior/junior faculty system used by Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins.

Tenure track: If you are "tenure-track" at a regular college (i.e., not Harvard-Yale-John Hopkins), this means that you've been hired as an assistant professor and after six or seven years, you will come up for tenure review. If you pass the tenure review, you will be promoted to the title of associate professor. Barring scandals or gross ineptness, you now have a job for life. Congratulations. The title "Associate Professor" next to the name of a professor at any institution except Yale-Harvard-JHU almost always means that they are tenured.

Non-tenure-track: At colleges that have tenure-tracks, being non-TT means that you are being hired with a limited term contract, which is usually 1-, 2-, or 3-years renewable. You have no job security and can be fired for any reason at any time. Of course, this is not an ideal situation although many lower-tier colleges are moving their entire faculty body to non-TT lines since it allows for easier restructuring.

The Yale/Harvard/JHU system: Put simply, Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins do not have tenure tracks. The YHJ system is that there are two ranks of faculty: the untenured junior and the tenured senior faculty. The two exist in separate worlds in terms of the promotion and hiring system and it is entirely unlike how other colleges operate:

Junior faculty in the YHJ system are hired as untenured assistant professors. Usually the contract is 3-years, renewable for another 3-years. After six years, you are evaluated for "term associate professor." If you are promoted to term associate professor, your contract is extended for another 4-years. Unlike other institutions, term associate professors at Yale do not have tenure. What we do have is "ten years" at Yale as a junior faculty, and then we are kicked out onto the street.

Senior faculty at Yale and Harvard do not emerge from the junior faculty. If a department or the administration decides that it wants to create a new senior line, it runs a national search for that line -- and that search usually does not coincide with when a junior faculty member is completing their term associate status. Thus, it is very very very difficult for a junior faculty member at Yale or Harvard to become tenured.

Thoughts: The Yale system is ideal from the perspective of the institution because it continuously channels new blood into departments. Senior faculty are recruited on the basis of national presence and not by a fortuitous hiring of an untested junior faculty member seven years ago. From the perspective of the junior faculty, the system has both positive and negatives. First, if you know that you are going to bail after 7-8 years, then the cachet of working at Yale-Harvard-JHU is undeniable in terms of applying for other positions elsewhere. But the downside is that every junior faculty member manages to delude themselves that they are one of the 1-2% that will make tenure. It's irresistible. If I start talking that way in a couple of years, can someone please do the favor of giving me a sharp kick under the table? Thanks.

For more thoughts, check the Yale Herald's article titled: "Revolving door syndrome plagues Yale tenure." The Yale Alumni magazine also has a well-written article on the pros and cons of the tenure system.


Karen, the situation you describe with regard to tenure at Yale may prevail in Anthropology and other humanities departments, or in social sciences, but it is certainly not the case in the Chemistry department. I recently retired after 22 years as a high level staff member in the Chemistry department (not a faculty member), and every junior faculty hire in Chemistry during that time was made with a clear committment that the individual would receive serious consideration for tenure. Indeed, in every case there was the sincere hope on the part of the senior (tenured) faculty that the junior hire would succeed in gaining tenure. Of the junior faculty present when I arrived in 1982 or hired during my time, 9 were granted tenure and 7 were denied. Standards for tenure are of course very high, and I am sure some (most?) of those denied tenure felt they were unfairly judged. I am far less familiar with the situation in other science departments, but I know there have been several cases of tenure granted to junior faculty.

It must be pointed out that during this time there were quite a few departures of senior faculty of the Chemistry department due to retirement (8) or moves to other institutions (4), making possible this upward mobility. Were this not so, the situatiom might have been much different. Either the hiring of junior faculty would have been drastically reduced, or the likelihood of gaining tenure would have been much poorer.

In addition to "tenure-track" or "research" faculty, there have been several adjunct faculty appointments in Chemistry over the years, with the rank of Instructor. These have been term contracts with no possibility of consideration for tenure, and no expectations for research accomplishments. These appointments have primarily involved supervision and teaching of the laboratory courses that are a major aspect of instruction in the sciences.

My observations during the 7 years I spent in the Harvard Chemistry department were quite different from what I saw at Yale. During that time no junior faculty gained tenure. Indeed, none expected to do so. I understand that this situation has changed, and several junior faculty in Chemistry have received tenure there in recent years.

In any event, welcome back to Yale and New Haven, and best wishes for a happy and successful stay!

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on June 6, 2005 2:34 AM.

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