The New Tenure Track

Mary Lewis, a member of the faculty since 2002 and previously Loeb associate professor of the social sciences, has been named professor of history. Gita Gopinath, a member of the faculty since 2005 and previously associate professor of economics, has been named professor of economics. Jeremy Rau, a member of the faculty since 2003 and previously associate professor of linguistics and the classics, has been named professor of liguistics and the classics. Matt Welsh, a member of the faculty since 2003 and previously Cabot associate professor of computer science, has been named McKay professor of computer science.

Those routine announcements by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—one each week during this past July—signal something new at the University. During the past half-decade, Harvard’s system for appointing tenured (full) professors has been altered fundamentally. In the past, senior scholars were for the most part hired laterally, from other institutions. Now, assistant and associate professors (untenured ranks at Harvard) are hired on a definite “tenure track.” In fact, FAS officially prefers “tenure-track professors” to the previous term, “junior faculty.”

The new system heralds real changes in the composition of the Crimson professoriate. Combined with current financial circumstances, which may result in accelerated faculty retirements, those changes could be profound—particularly for FAS, whose ranks are heavily weighted (70 percent or more) toward senior, full professors.

When she was hired at the Graduate School of Education, in 1984, Judith D. Singer recently recalled, “I was told, ‘Assume you will not get tenure.’” The attraction was to come to Harvard early in one’s career, get good academic experiences, work with challenging students, use the University’s intellectual resources—but with an implicit promise no stronger than “Do good work and we’ll see,” as she put it. Singer, now Conant professor of education, did get tenure, but she remembers cautioning junior colleagues at the Graduate School of Education that they might have a chance at a permanent appointment “if you are fabulous….” Today, in her dual role as senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, Singer has University-wide oversight responsibilities for recruiting and promotions.

The import of this shift to a tenure track was suggested in “At Harvard, Tenure Isn’t Just for Old People Anymore,” a feature published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in mid May. Reporter Robin Wilson wrote that the change “is altering faculty culture at Harvard, which had a reputation for treating junior scholars as second-class citizens.” She quoted D. Sunshine Hillygus recounting her mortgage-broker’s advice when she arrived as an assistant professor of government in 2003: “‘The lender said, “You are a junior faculty member? OK, we can do a variable rate.”’” There was no point to a long-term fixed mortgage, because the prospects for remaining at Harvard were nil. (Hillygus recently accepted a tenured associate professorship at Duke.)

Limited-duration junior-faculty stays were the norm at the University, Singer said (apart from Harvard Law School, which makes relatively few junior appointments but historically has done so with an eye to promotion, and Harvard Business School, which has long trained junior faculty members in its teaching and research methods and then considered them for tenure).

But that practice had consequences, and increasing costs in recent decades. Emphasizing lateral senior appointments meant that assistant and associate professors faced a ticking clock, almost necessitating their departure from Harvard seven to eight years after their arrival—which Singer called a discouraging and “illogical” way to recruit. It also gave the impression that departments could be cavalier about their searches: identifying younger colleagues who could temporarily fill critical teaching needs, but not committing to invest in their scholarly development.


Singer also pointed out that peer institutions have had a tenure track (and most offer tenure at the associate-professor level), offering a more secure path unavailable here. And with the rise of dual-career families, the near-certainty that one partner would have to relocate in several years weakened Harvard’s competitive status even more. (The Chronicle reported that dual-career conflicts have increasingly derailed Harvard’s senior-faculty searches, too.)

FAS dean Michael D. Smith said in a recent interview that in many cases, good younger scholars are doing “outstanding work” and that they are attuned to some of the most “interesting new ideas,” so failing to attract them impoverishes the faculty. Further, he noted, “If we are serious about ensuring rich pools of women and underrepresented minorities” in assembling candidates for prospective appointments, “looking to attract young people is a main way to make progress.” That is true simply because current scholarly cohorts are more diverse than the senior faculty ranks from which Harvard has traditionally drawn its lateral appointments. (For more discussion and data, see “Faculty Diversity Developments,” January-February, page 48, on the annual report published by Singer’s office.)


The move to a tenure track was formally signaled in then-FAS dean William C. Kirby’s February 2005 annual letter to the faculty: “We have revised our procedures to ensure that non-tenured searches are carried out with the care and thoroughness that we expect for senior appointments”—both to augment the faculty’s bench strength and to dispel the “common misperception that achieving tenure at Harvard is inconceivably difficult, if not impossible.” Accordingly, Kirby wrote, “From now on, departments may describe assistant professorships as ‘tenure-track.’ We will aim to give every assistant professor the time, support, and advice she or he will need to be competitive for tenure at Harvard.”

That promise has been made tangible in multiple ways. Formally, FAS’s tenure track—detailed in a 20-page handbook—embodies two important procedures. First, Smith said, a search for an assistant or associate professor means that FAS makes a budgetary commitment to a permanent position. In the past, not even outstanding young scholars could be sure that a tenured opening would exist when they reached the end of their junior appointments. Now, assuming a candidate is reviewed favorably as an assistant and an associate professor, “Dollars will not keep you from the opportunity” of competing for tenure, Smith said.

Second, the tenure-review process has changed in a critical way. In the past, for all searches, Harvard solicited outside experts’ evaluations on a “blind” basis: what did they think of the work done by a list of candidates for a possible appointment? Now, reviewers still receive a list of scholars in the field for comparative purposes—but they are told explicitly which candidate is being considered for promotion to tenure and they receive a sampling of work by and CV of that individual. Thus, the process is no longer blind—which in the past yielded such anomalies as a young scholar competing for an appointment with, say, the senior professor who was his dissertation adviser.

Other practices are boosting junior scholars’ prospects as well. As Smith noted, their development is jump-started in a three-day new-faculty institute, which offers insights into how Harvard works; an explanation of tenure procedures and requirements; teacher training; support in starting up a lab; and more. Formal and informal mentoring systems are encouraged, and department chairs are being directed to make tenure-track professors’ performance reviews focused and productive. Singer’s office has overseen the progressive roll-out of dependent- and childcare, research-support, and other programs that help faculty members navigate their scholarly careers as they also cope with family and life issues. All these investments, she said, are a recognition that recruiting outstanding younger professors and enabling them to develop is “a much better way to build a faculty” in contemporary academia. “Now when we recruit assistant and associate professors,” Singer said, “we can say Harvard is a great place to be a junior faculty member.”

Source: Office of Faculty Development and Diversity


What are the results? For the 2008-2009 academic year, Singer said, Harvard approved 41 tenured appointments: 20 internal, 21 external. For 2009-2010, she said, 47 appointments were approved, with 29 internal: more than 60 percent. FAS data show that of the 41 people who began tenured positions in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 years, 22 were promoted and 19 were external recruits. Smith indicated that future results would likely be in line with those proportions.

Does Harvard sacrifice quality in making professorial appointments this way? Singer insisted that appointment standards are unaltered. She noted that peer institutions “have managed to do this for much longer than we have,” while touting the quality of their faculties. Assessing a younger scholar’s work and promise on seven to nine years of evidence is “a lot of data,” she said. In the meantime, her data and Smith’s indicate that Harvard continues to make lateral appointments of more senior professors, too.

In any tenured appointment, Smith said, “There is a time when we have to make a bet.” For external recruits, that can be on Harvard’s calendar. With a tenure track, the principal difference, in his view, is that the “bet” has to be made at the end of the assistant and associate professorship years of a candidate who has excelled. The payoff is that “we have outstanding young people here doing outstanding work”—to the benefit of students and faculty colleagues.

Many more opportunities to make those bets may be in the offing. Last December, FAS and four professional schools offered retirement incentives to senior faculty members (see, Breaking News, December 2, 2009). Of the 180 eligible professors, 127 are within FAS. Indications of acceptance were due June 30, but will not be reported until after a 45-day rescission period (after this issue of the magazine went to press). If a significant number of those eligible do retire (within one, two, or four years), atop normal annual attrition, FAS will be in a position to make a very large number of new appointments in coming years.

Smith said that FAS could comfortably conduct 40 or so searches per year (about the recent rate) and—significantly, given the faculty’s improving finances—he now felt comfortable maintaining its present size, rather than shrinking it, as earlier forecast. Depending on retirement trends, recruiting success, and future attrition (from professors who go elsewhere or do not make satisfactory progress), FAS could—as a result of tenure-track recruiting—look a good deal younger and more diverse than it has in the past.

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