Briefly Noted: On Tenure and Teaching

I’m sure nobody saw this one coming. In a recent edition of The Chronicle, Dan Berrett reports on the findings of a recent study at Northwestern University and concludes that tenured professors at this top tier university were consistently rated lower than non-tenure track professors. “Students learned more,” writes Dan Berrett, “when their first instructor in a discipline was not on the tenure track, as compared with those whose introductory professor was tenured, according to a new paper from researchers at Northwestern University.”

In the article, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” Berrett reports on a paper entitled, ““Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?” co-authored by David N. Figlio (director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research), Morton O. Smith (President of Northwestern), and Kevin B. Soter.”[1] The authors answer in the negative. “The students,” they write, “were more likely to take a second course in a discipline if the first had been taught by an untenured faculty member, and they were more likely to earn a better grade in the next course compared with students whose first course in the discipline had been taught by a tenured or tenure-track professor.” After checking and double-checking, the authors report the consistent result that undergraduate students at Northwestern learned better under part-time instructors than tenured or tenure-track professors.

The study was only conducted at Northwestern, which limits its impact and applicability. As Berrett notes, “The fact that the study was conducted only on students at Northwestern makes it both useful and limited for its broader application.” The Northwestern student body is certainly above the national averages for academic performance: “ . . . students who were described in the study as less-qualified academically . . . still posted an average SAT score of 1316.” Further, non-tenured instructors at Northwestern likely do not resemble other part-time instructors; Northwestern pays quite handsomely, giving part-time faculty members anywhere from $4,200 to $7,334 per course.

I’ll limit my response to one brief reflection. As I read the article, I kept imagining the part-time and non-tenured professors at Northwestern who are no doubt “lean and hungry,” who are forced to be good teachers in order to keep their jobs. They have not yet been given cushy and almost-untouchable tenured positions at Northwestern (or at any other state or private university). Like anybody else in working America, their paycheck depends upon their ability to do their task in a way that contributes to the community.

By way of contrast, tenured professors might lock into a six-figure salary for four decades while never progressing, and perhaps even regressing, in their classroom instruction or student interactions. There are various reasons that a professor might perform poorly and without improvement over the course of their tenure. On the one hand, the fault might lie partly with an administration that does not encourage faculty members to improve as instructors, or does not equip them with the resources to catalyze improvement. On the other hand, the faculty member might be undisciplined, lazy, or apathetic. Or he might value his research projects to such an extent that he allows those projects to take clear priority over his students.

Whatever the reason, it is a crime against students and against the profession to take one’s teaching duties lightly.

Thomas Cronin put it nicely, in his 1992 article, “On Celebrating College Teaching”:

Great teachers give us a sense not only of who they are, but more important, of who we are, and who we might become. They unlock our energies, our imaginations, and our minds. Effective teachers pose compelling questions, explain options, teach us to reason, suggest possible directions, and urge us on. The best teachers, like the best leaders, have an uncanny ability to step outside themselves and become liberating forces in our lives.

Likewise George Steiner who, in Lessons of the Masters, writes:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

As seminary professors, may we never reduce to gray inanity the breathtaking splendor of our ultimate Subject—the Triune God and the world he created. May our efforts be pleasing to him, and may we teach in a manner worthy of our calling.


[1] Dan Berrett, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 20, 2013): A13.