Are Tenured Professors Better Classroom Teachers?

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.

The abstract:

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.

Another Salvo in the Tenure Debate

Should professors have tenure? The question, debated recently on this blog, misses the mark---as do the usual answers, whether "yes," "no," or "maybe."

On the "no" side, it is argued that tenure protects incompetent spongers. A very reliable (tenured) colleague, at a university that shall remain nameless, tells me of professors whose interests are no longer intellectual and who spend their time playing the real estate market. Their research productivity, measured in grant dollars or papers, is low; thus, the university is angry. Their teaching is also substandard, yet not quite abysmal enough to get them fired. To urge them to resign, the department punishes them… by assigning extra teaching!

On the "yes" side, it is argued that tenure protects academic freedom. That point is made by my colleague on this blog Dan Hamermesh. Ten years ago I agreed with him. I would not have imagined my future self happy as an associate professor at Olin College of Engineering: Olin offers six-year renewable contracts instead of tenure. Now I see Olin’s system as a reasonable alternative to tenure, for I no longer believe that tenure supports academic freedom.

A Debate on University Tenure

With only 8 percent of private employees belonging to trade unions, job security outside government employment has become a sometime thing. One group of employees, however, does have nearly total job security: tenured university professors. Faculty tenure is under attack as never before in the past 50 years.

I like tenure, but why should my group of workers get special protections against the vicissitudes of demand for our “product?” Self-interested arguments about job protection are unsatisfactory. I recently “debated” a journalist on this issue, with the resulting short video from the Texas Tribune: