A solution for bad teaching? Really?



In a well-meaning article for The New York Times, Wharton professor Adam Grant proposes trifurcating tenure, slashing it apart, essentially, in order to save it. He ends by writing:

Dividing tenure tracks may be what economists call a Pareto improvement: It benefits one group without hurting another. Let’s reserve teaching for professors with the relevant passion and skill — and reward it. Sharing knowledge with students should be a privilege of tenure, not an obligation.

That sounds nice; there certainly is an appeal to splitting the tenured into researchers, teachers, and researcher/teachers and giving each differing requirements. After all, we split our universities into research institutions (generally universities), more traditionally student-centered colleges, and community colleges. Why shouldn’t tenure reflect that split?

Well, it already does. Expectations for tenure are institution specific. Few community colleges demand the same sort of publications that a top research institution does.

Grant’s proposal begs the question of just what tenure is. Writing in 1971, William Van Alstyne defined it:

Tenure, accurately and unequivocally defined, lays no claim whatever to a guarantee of lifetime employment. Rather, tenure provides only that no person continuously retained as a full-time faculty member beyond a specified lengthy period of probationary service may thereafter be dismissed without adequate cause. . . . [T]enure is translatable as a statement of formal assurance that . . . the individual’s professional security and academic freedom will not be placed in question without the observance of full academic due process.

Tenure, let me repeat, centers on due process and academic freedom. These are not things that are divisible by researchers and teachers but apply to both. Creating differing types of tenure for different roles will only weaken defenses of tenure by creating new and distinct constituencies of tenure. We don’t need that.

It may be (though my experience gainsays it) that there is no correlation between research and teaching, as Grant claims. But that does not mean there is no connection. Academic freedom itself, if nothing else, is a connection.

True, good researchers are not always good teachers, and vice versa. But that does not mean, as Grant claims, that “Tasks should be grouped together based on the skill sets of the individuals who hold them.” Education is not task-based in quite the same way business is. The way tenure decisions are made takes into account this very fact, anyway. Candidates are judged individually within broad (and, therefore, often poorly defined and, as a result, contentious) standards–and by a number of different groups within departments, the faculty as a whole, and administration. A star researcher is rarely held to the same teaching standards as a master teacher who, in turn, needn’t produce at quite the same level in order to gain tenure.

We certainly need to talk more, and more publicly, about tenure, but it would help to start with an understanding of just what it is meant to be and with what it is in practice. We should do this before proposing changes.

We’ve got to first understand that we’re not going to solve the problem of bad teaching simply by changing tenure. That will only happen with changes in training, hiring and mentoring–all of which precede tenure.