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Study Gives Tenured Professors a Failing Grade


A study of students at Northwestern University found that students actually perform worse when taught introductory classes by tenured professors, and were more likely to remain in the discipline when they took introductory classes with outside instructors. We can almost hear the murmurs of consternation emanating from teacher lounges across the land. The NY Times reports:

According to the authors — David N. Figlio, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research; Morton O. Schapiro, the university’s president; and Kevin B. Soter, a consultant — there was “strong and consistent evidence that Northwestern faculty outside of the tenure system outperform tenure track/tenured professors in introductory undergraduate classrooms.” The differences were present across a wide variety of subject areas, the study found, and were especially pronounced for average and less-qualified students.

“Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial,” the report said.

As schools have cut costs by replacing tenure-track positions with adjunct professors in recent years, much of academia has responded with dire warnings that removing tenure would decrease academic freedom and water down the education students receive.

The first part of the argument about academic freedom makes a certain amount of theoretical sense, though in practice it has led to a profusion of published research that is routinely ignored even by most other academics in the field. The connection between freedom to pursue whatever research the professor wants and teaching quality, however, has always seemed much more spurious. Granted, this is only one study covering one university, but it quantifies something that makes a whole lot of intuitive sense: having specialized knowledge does not necessarily make you an effective teacher.

So while it’s true that the erosion of the institution of tenure is a raw deal for professors, colleges are ultimately set up to serve the interests of their students, not those of its staff. If untenured professors can in fact provide a better education at a fraction of the cost, especially for basic intro-level courses, there’s not really much room for debate. Between findings like these and the potential of MOOC-inspired pre-recorded lectures to further disrupt business as usual, the tenured university professor may become a rare breed indeed.

[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • rheddles

    “colleges are ultimately set up to serve the interests of their students, not those of its staff”

    Really? Ever been to a faculty senate meeting?

  • James Brown

    “A study of students at Northeastern University found that…”
    Please note that the study and article talk about Northwestern not Northeastern

  • Fat_Man

    One of the authors of the study is Northwestern’s president.

    The next faculty senate meeting should be très intéressant’.

  • Jeff Jones

    Anything that forces universities to do the job parents (and taxpayers) pay them to do, which is to give students the necessary skills to get a job, is music to my ears.

    If 90% of pointy-headed professors and useless administrators find themselves standing in the unemployment line, it’s just collateral damage.

  • Tina Trent

    Yes, well, that’s an easy position to take if you have tenure.

    This study will likely allow the space-filling mandarins to do even less work (0 – 1 to replace 1-2?) while adjuncts live in poverty doing all the real work. There is no movement towards stabilizing the adjunct workforce, only more and more money wasted as the thingies on top huff the higher education bubble to its end.

    I don’t know any other institution or avocation where such crude exploitation serves such a small and pompous few. Most adjuncts are very lucky to earn $30,000 a year for full-time work with no benefits and, more importantly, no job security. Hardly a healthy industry, let alone a reason to cheer.

    Finding this appealing is grotesque, unless you only value some crude bottom line, in which case, why bother with artsy chatter?

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