Tenure systems don’t always mesh well with potential professors’ child-bearing plans. Let’s say a person starts graduate school at age 26, finishes at 32, and then faces a six- or seven-year tenure clock. That intense period of study, and the resulting race to publish, comes exactly during prime child-bearing years. And many individuals start along this track at later ages yet. I fear that this rigidly structured system, where candidates are go “up or out,” discourages many talented women from pursuing academic careers. Yet this path is the norm at virtually all top or mid-tier research universities, as well as at most highly rated liberal arts colleges.
I don’t think there is a single correct way to restructure all tenure systems, but we could start with more experimentation, as would befit the decentralized system of U.S. higher education. Imagine a greater variety of academic jobs, in areas that are not always valued highly by peer review. They might include jobs devoted to producing policy work, to teaching, to producing materials for online education, and to bringing the lessons of academia to broader audiences, such as through blogs and opinion columns. Furthermore, “up or out” provisions could be weakened, so if an individual didn’t succeed on a research track, but excelled in other areas, employment could be continued with different achievement criteria.