Last month, I wrote a post called 4 Reasons to be Happy about Teaching with No Tenure, about my experience as an assistant academic specialist—a non-tenured full-time faculty appointment—here the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies (CPS).
The controversial topic of non-tenured faculty has recently resurfaced, as the National Bureau of Economic Research released a new study of first-year students at Northwestern University showing that non-tenure track faculty are more effective teachers than tenured or tenure track faculty, especially for students who are the least academically prepared. Predictably, this has inflamed the never-ending battle between those who apparently want to blow up the tenure system and those who want to ensure its primacy and longevity. This conflict has also been intensified by poor reporting in higher education news sources and the mass media alike. Comments on articles summarizing this study are rarely enlightening but do demonstrate that this issue continues to touch a nerve.
To me, this study emphasizes what should be an obvious point: If you want high-quality teaching from faculty, academic institutions need to value teaching as much as they do research. Unfortunately, the current system of rewards and recognition in most research universities values research over high-quality teaching, most
I’m not going to review the study’s research design; it should suffice to say that the Northwestern study was a pretty well designed case study of one elite university. One important point does need to be clarified, though. The study only included full-time, non-tenured faculty with long term contracts and access to benefits. Part-time adjuncts, temporary lecturers and graduate students were not included in the sample. This raises legitimate questions about the role that working conditions might play in explaining the results, but I will not address that here.
The Northwestern study should cause us to reflect on what the mission of higher education is and how to best achieve it. Research universities in particular have what these authors call a “multi-tasking problem.” They are responsible for doing high-quality research and for providing a high-quality college education. I think we can all acknowledge that it is uncommon for an individual professor to do both extremely well, all of the time. This shouldn’t be a controversial assertion. We have all experienced excellent professors from whom we learned a lot and who changed how we understood the world and ourselves. We have all experienced professors who were probably incredible researchers but who couldn’t teach their way out of a box of chalk. And many of us probably had professors who were terrible one term and great in another. Given this natural variation in individual talent, how can universities, as institutions, achieve their dual mission of doing research/scholarship and teaching?
I believe that the authors’ recommendation of a “research-intensive tenure track and a teaching-intensive lecturer track” (emphasis added) may be a bit premature and distracts from the core issue. It is possible to have both high-quality teaching and innovative research in any individual institution, but it requires that the institution value teaching to a much greater extent. It would also require greater creativity to accommodate the variation in focus on, and ability in, teaching and research among individual faculty members.
Many of my tenured, research-focused friends and colleagues want to teach more effectively (albeit not more often) while others would pay to avoid teaching if they could – and probably should be allowed to. There are also those who love teaching and who do more research and scholarship than you would expect (and could use a lighter teaching load to do more). The question is: How do we structure a research university in a way so that you can reward both teaching and research equally?
In order to create that structure, we must acknowledge that teaching quality is as important as research productivity. Then we need to figure out systems of recognition, reward, privilege and accountability that value teaching and research (and the faculty who do either and both) equally. And once we do that, perhaps the arguments about the issue of teaching versus research and tenure will be moot.