The argument over tenure for university professors is a long and boisterous one.
Levitt, for one, is in favor of abolition. If you are on that side of the argument as well, you may be pleased to read a new working paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter (all associated with Northwestern, in one capacity or another) called “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” (gated, sorry). Short answer (in their study, at least): no.
This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.
There are a lot of ways one can think about this issue:
- A tenure-track or tenured professor is presumably better on many dimensions than a non-tenure professor, so they should probably also be better teachers, in which case this result is surprising;
- On the other hand, those with or pursuing tenure might consider teaching an intro class beneath them, and/or may be diverting their resources and time to more “important” work (original research, etc.).
- On the third hand, maybe classroom instruction isn’t a highly-sought-after trait among tenured professors.
- Can there be a fourth hand? If so: maybe only the worst tenured professors get roped into/deign to teach intro classes.
In their conclusion, the authors are careful to note some of the many variables at play here:
How generalizable are these results? Because a key part of our identification strategy is to limit our analysis to first-term freshman undergraduates, the evidence that non-tenure track faculty produce better outcomes may not apply to more advanced courses. Further, Northwestern University is one of the most selective and highly-ranked research universities in the world, and its ability to attract first-class non-tenure track faculty may be different from that of most institutions. Its tenure track/tenured faculty members may also have different classroom skills from those at other schools. Finally, Northwestern students come from a rarefied portion of the preparation distribution and are far from reflective of the general student population in the U.S.That said, our findings that the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions.
Those wishing to minimize these findings, or perhaps find an ulterior motive, will note that co-author Morton Schapiro is not only an economist at Northwestern but also (just saying) its president.