ambrosius aurelianus, an anonymous member of the Williams faculty, writes:

I meant the high rate at which tenure is granted–right now around 80%, a number that reflects changing attitudes to the nature of tenure decisions and an administrative belief that it is the job of departments and their senior faculty to help all of their junior hires achieve tenure.

This means, effectively, that extending a tenure-track job offer is four-fifths of a tenure decision, which tempts committees to opt for safe candidates rather than take risks. In general this tips the scale in favor of applicants some years out from their PhD, with considerable teaching experience and many publications, and tends to disadvantage junior people still finishing their dissertations or straight out of grad school. That, in itself, is regrettable. In practice it also tends to make small defects in a dossier disqualifying; no amount of upside can overcome them. Committees will get spooked by the suggestion that someone’s book might never come together, even if they show all signs of being a fantastic teacher (or, conversely, if they have great publications but they’ve never logged a lot of classroom time and their syllabi are lackluster, we’ll also be tempted to pass). In my experience some of the most potentially brilliant candidates are lopsided like this. If we weren’t so committed to tenuring nearly everyone we could afford to give more exciting people a trial run. This is especially true when we’re not sure about the research, because worst case scenario, we get six years of amazing teaching out of the candidate. But we rob ourselves of these opportunities.

A cultural commitment to maintaining a high tenure also feeds the hoary specter of junior faculty “mentoring.” In itself it’s not a bad idea to look after our junior hires, but now a lot of my colleagues see junior faculty as the other half of their pedagogical mission. Frankly this hasn’t been great for junior faculty culture at the college, and its also inevitably been bound up with a lot of overblown and unhelpful evaluative methods.

Interesting stuff! aa should join us as an author and tell us more about faculty life at Williams. I would also be curious about sigh’s take on these issues, as well as the views of other academic readers.

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