tenured and tenure-track professors are worse teachers?

(Providence, RI) According to a new paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter,* if you take a class with a non-tenure track (contingent) professor, you are more likely to choose to take another class in the same subject and you will get a higher grade on that next class than if you studied with a tenured professor or someone on the tenure track. You are especially likely to benefit from having a contingent professor if you scored relatively low on academic measures before the course.

The measures of success seem reasonably persuasive, and the method seems tight. (The authors compare first-semester students, who generally don’t pick their instructors, and they look at changes in the same students’ grades over time.) The main limitation is that the study only involves Northwestern University, which is certainly not typical of American higher education and could have quirks other than just being highly selective and well-resourced.

It’s also possible that the tenure-track and contingent faculty differ in other ways than their tenure status. I would like to see the results adjusted for the age of professor. I don’t want to be ageist, but that could be a factor, and given the ban on mandatory retirements and the demographics of the tenured professoriate today, it could just turn out that the contingent faculty are younger.

This study is not an argument against tenure, which has other benefits–notably, academic freedom. But it is a cautionary note. It certainly reminds us of the enormous skill and dedication of the many young scholars who are working as adjuncts today. Many would have easily gotten tenure 30 years ago and are now working for $3,000 a course. On the other hand, there is nothing completely new here. As Max Weber said in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (1917):

According to German tradition, the universities shall do justice to the demands both of research and of instruction. Whether the abilities for both are found together in a man is a matter of absolute chance. Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation [getting the most advanced degree], the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: ‘Of course, I live only for my “calling.”‘ Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.

*See Figlio, D. N., Schapiro, M. O., & Soter, K. B. (2013). Are tenure track professors better teachers? (NBER Working Paper 19406). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. http://www.nber.org/papers/w19406

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.