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Time of Arrival
The recent addition of seven women to the ranks of Yale’s tenured professors bodes well for the university’s goal of attaining a more diverse faculty. A new tenuring initiative promises to keep up the momentum.

Yale administrators and faculty members breathed a collective sigh of relief in mid-March when Glenda Gilmore, a professor of history who was granted tenure in January, decided to stay in New Haven rather than accept a job offer from her “hometown” school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To be sure, Gilmore’s department was pleased to have secured the services of the eighth-generation North Carolinian, who is an expert in the history of the American South. But administrators had another reason to be happy, for in remaining at the University, the historian joins a small club—women with tenure—whose members are among the most eagerly sought-after people in academia.


“Many institutions have done better than we have.”

Gilmore’s decision has a special resonance at Yale, for its club has long been smaller—some would say scandalously smaller—than those of many of its peer institutions. There are several structural, societal, and historical explanations for the situation, but by bringing Gilmore and six other women into the tenured ranks of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—a 3 percent increase that takes the University out of the Ivy League’s statistical cellar—Yale has shown that change is indeed possible. And to keep up the momentum, President Richard Levin and Provost Alison Richard put forward a new initiative in March designed to boost the representation of both women and minorities on the senior faculty.

“We’ve proposed a call to action, a plan that moves us toward fulfilling our aspiration to be a more diverse community,” says Richard, an anthropologist who received tenure in 1980, a time when there were only 16 tenured women on the FAS faculty. “And while it’s true that many institutions have done better than we have in this area, our trajectory is now going in the right direction.”

In addition to Gilmore, the newest members of the club are Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular biology and biophysics; Naomi Schor, professor of French; Noel Valis, professor of Spanish; Margaret Riley, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Karen Wynn, professor of psychology; and Ellen Oliensis, professor of classics. They, along with administrators like Richard, deputy provost Diana Kleiner, and dean of the graduate school Susan Hockfield, all of whom are senior professors, bring the current total in the FAS to 50 tenured women. This is about 15 percent of the senior ranks. In comparison, Harvard’s tenured faculty has been about 12 percent female, Stanford’s 14.5 percent, and MIT’s 13 percent. However, the figure at Brown stood recently at 21 percent, while at Dartmouth, it was 29 percent. According to a study done by the American Association of University Professors, about 26 percent of all tenured professors nationwide are women.

“Our numbers are not what we would wish,” admits Richard Brodhead, dean of the College. “We’ve succeeded in attracting a very heterogeneous group of students, and while we'd never make an appointment on the basis of gender, or, for that matter, race or ethnicity alone, we need to increase the variegation of our faculty.”

Besides complying with legal strictures against discrimination (an affirmative action program has been in place at Yale since 1972), one powerful argument for bringing more women into the tenured ranks is the desirability of crafting a faculty that represents a diverse array of viewpoints. Then there is the crucial matter of mentoring.

“To have a generation of women very gifted in, say, the sciences or any other discipline turn to another major because they don’t see women in positions of leadership is not desirable,” says Brodhead, adding that there can be a ripple effect throughout the University. “The lack of senior female professors can be hard on untenured women, which in turn can be hard on female graduate students, which is hard on female undergraduates. It works all the way down the line.”

Taken to its extreme, this might, says Provost Richard, dissuade potential students and faculty members from wanting to come to Yale. “We would be at risk of losing our competitive edge,” says Richard. “I want to ensure that our successors view us as a congenial place.”

If nothing else, the provost and her colleagues want to avoid the painful situation that was revealed two months ago at MIT, when a report on gender discrimination at its School of Science documented a pattern of widespread, but apparently unintentional, bias against female professors in everything from hiring to promotions to inclusion on key committees. Worse still is the kind of deliberate bias that chemist Leslie Craine alleges took place several years ago at Trinity College in Hartford. After the school denied her bid for tenure, Craine sued, claiming sex discrimination. In February, a jury agreed and awarded Craine $12.7 million. (The case is under appeal.)

At Yale, women already occupy numerous leadership positions, and Richard explains that regular monitoring for such problems as salary inequities prevents the development of a pattern of overt discrimination. But some professors, citing both history and the relatively small number of senior female faculty, allege that “subliminal discrimination” is very much in evidence.


“The initiative provides resources for creating new faculty slots in disciplines where women are underrepresented.”

To improve the diversity picture at Yale, the President and the Provost have proposed an approach that provides the “carrots” of incentives, including the possibility of creating new positions, rather than the “sticks” of numerical targets or quotas. Richard is quick to point out that the new initiative should in no way be seen as calling for any relaxation of academic standards. “It would not serve Yale or women well to be recruiting less-than-outstanding candidates, or to be perceived as doing that,” says Richard.

Accordingly, the University’s grueling tenure process, which requires an international search to find the best scholar in a particular discipline, remains firmly in place. What’s different, explains Richard, is that departments are now being given “a new degree of freedom in allocating positions.”

Faculty appointments are the currency of the academic realm. “They’re a precious resource,” says Dean Brodhead, who is a professor of English. This has been especially true since the early 1990s, when “restructuring” held sway and multimillion dollar deficits mandated shrinking the size of the faculty by more than 5 percent. The end of mandatory retirement compounded an already difficult situation by allowing incumbent professors to remain in their posts as long as they chose.

For women faculty at Yale, the result was that the relatively great strides which had been made in the previous decade slowed to a crawl. In 1984, after a two-year investigation, the Advisory Committee on the Education of Women issued a report on the status of female professors. Among the committee’s 32 recommendations was one that called for doubling the number of tenured women (from 15 to 30) in the FAS. “By 1990, we'd reached our goal, but then things began to stagnate,” says Marie Borroff, one of the report’s principal authors and the second woman to receive tenure at Yale. (The first was historian Mary Wright; both were tenured in 1962.)

In 1991, Borroff, now Sterling Professor Emerita of English, and a group of women wrote to then-President Benno C. Schmidt Jr. suggesting that the University continue its efforts to diversify the faculty by setting a goal of doubling again the number of female professors with tenure by the beginning of the millennium (from 9 percent to 18 percent, which would have brought the total to 60 women). “The President was interested, but he didn’t say yes,” says Borroff.

At Yale, a full professorship becomes available when its incumbent vacates the post, or through the reallocation of what are called “junior faculty equivalents.” In any event, hiring at the senior level has been something of a zero-sum game. “Say you have a vacancy develop in Antebellum American history, and the department has identified that area as a critical component of its intellectual mandate, then clearly the driving consideration will be to find someone who fits that bill,” says Brodhead.

Unfortunately, in some subject areas, most notably the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and economics, there is a genuine dearth of female scholars in the pipeline. And even in the humanities and the life sciences, areas in which women now enjoy a significant presence, “there may not be an appropriate female or minority candidate out there in the year you’re looking for someone,” says Brodhead. “Remember, the scholars we seek at the senior level have two characteristics: They’re at the top of their discipline, and they went into their particular field a long time ago. You can’t just instantly manufacture these people, so you have to be patient.”

It is also hard to recruit them. Top-notch female scholars are avidly sought out by competitors who, not infrequently, attempt to raid Yale’s tenured ranks. There is also often the matter of the “spousal concern.” Because of the University’s distance from major metropolitan areas, it can be at a disadvantage in providing adequate career opportunities for spouses, whose academic or professional needs must be met before the recruited professor agrees to come.

But patience can also be “a two-edged sword,” says the Dean—and an excuse, albeit an unintentional one, for institutional inertia. Brodhead notes that when it comes to recruiting on the senior level, the result is often a suite of candidates, excellent scholars all, who nevertheless tend to be a reflection of the still largely male nominating committees. “When you ask people, 'Isn’t there anybody else in this field?' they at first may say no, but then, after they’ve thought about it for awhile, they often come up with new names. So one thing we’re trying to do is induce a sense of continuing care about this issue by creating incentives to make sure departments look extra hard at all the scholars who'd be appropriate for a particular position.”

The initiative’s biggest incentive is that it provides resources for creating entirely new faculty slots in disciplines where women are underrepresented. An earlier policy allowed a department some leeway in hiring, but any additional positions created for senior female professors were, in essence, mortgages. While these could be quite long-term, they could only be issued in anticipation of the future retirement of someone already on staff.

With Yale’s budget in the black, and with better financial times overall, the University is now in a position to be “more flexible in hiring,” says Provost Richard. And while it is hardly the beginning of an open season for the acquisition of academics, however desirable their gender, race, or ethnicity characteristics would be for the statistical profile of the faculty, a bit of judicious growth is possible. “We’re willing and able to seize opportunities,” she notes.

The University’s intentions may be laudable, but a number of women have voiced concerns about Yale’s tenuring methods, which seem designed to seed the senior faculty with established scholars who have made their marks at other universities rather than with those who have started and developed their careers in New Haven. “Yale recruits plenty of really fine women into its junior ranks, but they often get poached by other universities,” says Mimi Yiengpruksawan, a recently tenured art historian who has prospered in the predominantly male field of Buddhist studies. “We call the situation ‘the revolving golden door.’”

Of the five junior professors who started in Yiengpruksawan’s department at Yale in the early 1990s, only she remained to attempt to “run the gauntlet of tenure.” The process, she explains, can be “frightening and unpleasant,” and because it’s perceived as futile by many junior professors, women and men alike, “they tend to leave for good jobs elsewhere rather than go through with it. Yale becomes a bridge to better positions, and the junior faculty is basically a wasted resource.”

As Yiengpruksawan became better known in her discipline, she too was approached by other universities interested in making her a tenured member of the faculty, but she resisted. “My friends told me I was insane to stay, but I felt it was worth the risk,” she says.

Especially important, says Yiengpruksawan, was the kind of encouragement and advice she received from senior female faculty like Mary Miller and Diana Kleiner, both art history professors. “Women mentors have made a big difference for me.”

Newly tenured molecular biologist Jennifer Doudna concurs. Her academic goal has been to figure out the inner workings of ribonucleic acid, a molecule that both conveys genetic information and regulates key chemical reactions. “At key points in my career,” she says, “I also had women mentors—science teachers in high school, a female biochemistry professor in college, and Joan Steitz when I came to Yale.”

Steitz, who last year was named Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, was “an enormous influence,” says Doudna. “She is deeply committed to the community of science, and in addition to showing me, by example, how to manage a laboratory team, Joan did things like calling me when I didn’t get my first research grant to commiserate and plan. She’s been there, and for women who are coming up through the ranks, it’s absolutely key to have a mentor who can show you that it’s possible to do science and have a personal life.”

However, dealing with tenure, in any discipline, and a lifestyle, particularly one involving a family, is never an easy balancing act. This affects University efforts to increase the number of senior female professors in a variety of ways.

For junior members of the faculty who'd like to try for tenure, the issue of child-bearing is often paramount. Valerie Hansen, who specializes in premodern Chinese history and was tenured last year, has had three children since she came to Yale as an assistant professor in 1988. The University’s leave policy is “very generous,” says Hansen, as is the fact that the tenure clock, which normally is not allowed to run more than ten years, is suspended for six months after a child is born.

A Yale-sponsored day care center would be a plus, many women professors note, as would a schedule designed to accommodate faculty with families. Glenda Gilmore, who has a 7-year-old, says that she often has to leave late-afternoon meetings to get to day care. Increasingly, her male counterparts are in the same bind, and Gilmore no doubt speaks for many when she rues the fact that a number of after-class events start “at the arsenic hour, 5 o'clock. I’d like to participate, but I have other responsibilities.” The entire system, says Gilmore, is “based on an antiquated model that doesn’t work for either women or men.”

When Marie Borroff received tenure, Yale was an almost all-male institution. Her colleagues in the English department and elsewhere may have been “very enlightened and as unchauvinistic as could be,” and her gender may not have been an impediment. In that era, however, a women’s place was considered to be more in the home than at the head of a classroom, and though overt sex discrimination has been made illegal, the more subtle ghosts of the old-boy network continue to persist. “It’s a question of gradual change, mind by mind by mind,” says Borroff.

To be sure, an increase in the number of female senior faculty could be achieved fairly rapidly with the adoption of a tenure-track system, by establishing quotas, or, as some institutions have done, by simply making lucrative job offers to superstar women professors that few could refuse. There is, however, reason to believe that Yale’s approach could also work. It just might take longer.

Consider that when Roberto González Echevarría, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature, was chairing the Spanish department in the late 1980s, there were no tenured women in its faculty. Now, of the six senior professors, four are female, including the current chair, Maria Rosa Menocal, the R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese. “There were and are plenty of women in this field,” says González Echevarría (the entire junior faculty is female). “We just had to be aware of them.”

Of course, when it came time to fill openings in his department, old habits and perhaps a legacy of machismo might have had him looking only for male scholars, but González Echevarría had a counterbalancing force in his life—yet another example of the power of the ripple effect. “I grew up in the house of a female professor, my mother,” he says. “To me, it was the most natural thing in the world for a woman to be an intellectual.”  the end


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