Tenure in higher education is a sacred cow. Jobs for life (with no mandatory retirement) we are told are the backbone of academic freedom, original research, and high level teaching.
Yet, we see that the ranks of the permanently employed are thinning: according to a new study by National Bureau of Economic Research, in 1975 57% of all higher education faculty were in the tenure system; by 2009 that figure was down to 30%.
There many reasons for this trend. Expense is perhaps the biggest. According to Mark Taylor of Columbia University, a college spends between $10 and $12 million to support a single tenured professor through a 35-year career. In most colleges it is the students who pay the instructors’ salaries though tuition and fees.
The arguments against tenure are overwhelming from almost any economic or organizational perspective. But OK, nobody ever said higher education was rational; isn’t it all about the intangibles like student learning?
Don’t students reap intellectual benefits from listening to a tenured professor profess? Is there a price tag on learning?
As it turns out, even this last gasp argument does not stand up in the light of day—statistically speaking.
Earlier this month David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter published a startling study, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” The sample for this study was based on data drawn from 2001 to 2008 and included 15,662 Northwestern University freshmen. The study compared the learning outcomes of students who took classes with non-tenure line professors with those who took classes with tenure-line faculty. The authors write:
Our findings suggest that non-tenure faculty at Northwestern not only induce students to take more classes in a given subject than do tenure-line professors, but also lead the students to do better in subsequent coursework than to their tenure track/tenured colleagues.
This is academic dynamite. It calls into question a core justification for tenure. If poorly paid part timers are on balance better teachers than expensive, full time faculty, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the days of unquestioned support for tenure by college trustees and state legislatures are pretty much over. Some will try to dismiss this study as small and limited to just one university. I am very doubtful, however, this study’s findings are anomalous; in fact, I am positive the same story can be told on many campuses.
Oh and by the way, one of the authors, Morton Shapiro, is president of Northwestern and a leading expert on the economics of higher education. He is the author of more than 100 articles and five books on higher education. This study is not only statistically valid; it has the authority of experience and expertise behind it.
What does this study mean for those of us who do care about preserving the values of academic freedom, original research, public service and quality teaching? I have a deep respect for those who teach in higher education; it saddens me when I hear those who have never taught trumpet the glory of MOOCs, online learning and other get-smart-quick schemes.
That said, it would it wise for college faculty and administrators to get ahead of the curve and take the lead in reforming from within.
One suggestion: Instead of tenure, offer faculty contracts based on merit and productivity. It could work like this: Beginners would be offered three-year contracts and teaching excellence would be expected. During that time, faculty members would also have to demonstrate intellectual achievement through publication or comparable benchmarks of intellectual curiosity, competency and commitment.
After three years, every faculty member would develop a portfolio of professional objectives. For some the emphasis might be on exploring new avenues of teaching and learning, for others research might be the emphasis, but all would be expected to be excellent instructors.
Progress on reaching those goals would be assessed annually. Based on faculty reaching the goals that they and their supervisors have agreed to, they would be offered consecutive five year contracts. If faculty members fail to reach their objectives, they would be asked to step down.
To make it real, we need to think about workload. Instead of assigning the biggest classes to the newest faculty members, teaching loads should be evenly distributed so that senior faculty have as many students as newer faculty. There is no reasonable rational why senior faculty should be privileged with teaching small, specialized seminars while newer faculty teach introductory courses with hundreds of students.
There is something vaguely unprofessional about lifetime sinecures. Would we want to go to a doctor who had a guaranteed lifetime practice no matter his or her competency? I want my surgeon to be at the top of his or her game, not coasting along with as few patients as he or she can get by with.
Hopefully, common sense will prevail. Hopefully, college faculties will conduct their own reality checks, take on this sacred cow, and execute academe’s most difficult maneuver.
Photo Credit: Roseworthy Agricultural College