“Study Gives Tenured Professors a Failing Grade” is the headline of a recent Walter Russell Mead blog post. The study shows that a Northwestern undergraduate in an introductory course is more likely to take another course in the field and perform well in it if his or her instructor is not tenure-track. That, according to Mead, is evidence that “murmurs of consternation emanating from teacher lounges” over “the replacement of tenure track positions with adjunct professors” are unwarranted. These murmurs, he claims, are really about the disruption of “business as usual.” But the study shows nothing of the kind.
In common academic parlance, “adjunct professor” refers to an employee who is usually hired on a part-time basis, paid by the course (about $3000 is reportedly the average fee), and granted no benefits. Many adjuncts are superb teachers. However, since they work for institutions that make minimal commitment to them and must often commute from college to college to make ends meet, parents can justifiably question whether they offer superior instruction.
The Northwestern study, however, did not focus on such professors. As David Figlio, the study’s lead author, told Eric Schliesser of NewAPPS, the study looked at “long-term full-time lecturers” with long-term contracts and the same benefits as tenure-track faculty members.”
Besides, relying on tenured and tenure-track professors isn’t business as usual. In 2007, just over 25% of the professoriate consisted of full-time tenured or tenure-track professors. Another 15% or so were full-time non-tenure track professors. The remainder were part-time instructors and graduate assistants. Perhaps over at Bard College, where Mead teaches, there is really a teacher’s lounge, where cynical tenured faculty members sit around, rub their hands together, and chortle about the status quo. But at many colleges and universities, they probably don’t need one anymore.
The Northwestern study shows that both tenured and tenure-track professors, who live in fear of being denied tenure, are outperformed by their less privileged counterparts. So the cushiness of tenure does not explain the finding. Northwestern’s tenure system presumably favors research over teaching, so that would-be tenured professors have an incentive to limit the hours they spend preparing to teach. But other tenure systems, including the one in place at my college, weigh teaching more heavily than research. The results of the Northwestern study imply at most that at universities that value research more than instruction, tenured and tenure-track professors are on average slightly less effective teachers of introductory courses than full-time, long-term, non-tenured instructors, whose main work is teaching. Perhaps it doesn’t take an all-star research team to draw that conclusion.
Some colleges and universities‒I would not count Northwestern among them‒have let the pursuit of research prestige get in the way of their educational missions. But the ongoing “disruption” Mead cheers on, which consists in replacing long-term tenured and tenure-track employees with part-timers at $3000 a pop, advances nobody’s educational mission.