A proposal for restructuring tenure

An Op-Ed from the NY Times (warning: paywall) suggests creating research and teaching tenure tracks and hire people for one or the other. This is an interesting proposal, and while the author Adam Grant marshals empirical evidence showing that the two skills are largely uncorrelated, as well as research on designing incentives, it seems that the social and economic barriers to implementing such a scheme are quite high.

Firstly, the economic. Grant-funded research faculty bring in big bucks (sometimes more modest bucks for pen-and-paper types) to the university. They overheads (55% at Rutgers, I think) on those grants help keep the university afloat, especially at places which don’t have huge endowments. Research in technology areas can also generate patents, startups, and other vehicles that bring money to the university coffers. This is an incentive for the university to push the research agenda first. Grant funding may be drying up, but it’s still a big money maker.

On the social barriers, it’s simply true in the US that as a society we don’t value teaching very highly. Sure, we complain about the quality of education and its price and so on, but the taxpayers and politicians are not willing to put their money where their mouth is. We see this in the low pay for K-12 teachers and the rise of the $5k-per-class adjunct at the university level. If a university finds that it’s doing well on research but poorly on teaching, the solution-on-the-cheap is to hire more adjuncts.

Of course, the proposal also represents a change, and institutionalized professionals hate change. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good idea to have more tenure-track teaching positions. However, forcing a choice — research or teaching — is a terrible idea. I do like research, but part of the reason I want to be at a university is to engage with students through the classroom. I may not be the best teacher now, but I want to get better. A better, and more feasible, short-term solution would be to create more opportunities and support for teacher development within the university. This would strengthen the correlation between research and teaching success.


5 thoughts on “A proposal for restructuring tenure

  1. I think research and teaching are not as disconnected as this article makes it out to be, especially in the context of college education. High school education or remedial education is a separate issue.

    First, most researchers are also excellent teachers, especially because they are very excited about the material.

    Second, the curriculum tends to be much better when active researchers who keep up with the field design the courses. I went to an undergrad school where the professors were not as active in research as some of the places in North America. As a consequence, while the curriculum was extremely rigorous, it was still a little behind the times. Newer parts of computer science such as machine learning were not taught, and things were generally a little bit boring.

    In short, I see much value in researchers teaching classes.

    • Yeah I am guessing if I read through the research he cites I will find that the statistical tests are fairly narrow in scope and the findings are a bit mixed.

      Your point — that research impacts teaching — is part of the NSF guidelines, right? I think they also recognize that having active researchers advancing the field helps build new ways of teaching/understanding basic material.

  2. I agree with Kamalika. Teaching and research are very much in synergy with each other. Why? Because teaching encourages faculty to take a fresh look at established subjects. Repeatedly. First when they are preparing for a course or planning a syllabus. And then again, vicariously through the eyes of their students. This helps feed the constant spirit of questioning that is necessary to do good research.

    More importantly, the actual tasks of teaching — coming up with homework and exam problems, examples for discussion sections and lecture, interesting new labs, etc. are excellent practice for the core skills that a researcher needs. That is why having graduate students TA is so important to their education, not just for those that will become faculty members. Human beings have a very complicated relationship to mentoring and values — seeing your advisor teach and care about teaching is an important part of it. It is important that “people like you” engage in the activity and not just “others.”

    All these bozos are just looking for excuses to avoid giving support for teaching. Because that costs money. And space. And makes no revenue for the school since while the funding agencies will stop the funding if the research stops being interesting, the revenue from tuition has seemingly no connection to teaching. And it is hard to understand how it could. After all, the students and their parents are not in a position to know. They have an information asymmetry. (Meanwhile, peer-review means that the funding agencies at least have some noisy information on research quality.)

    The right answer is to give public universities a straight-up share of state GDP plus some fraction of all taxes paid by alumni. The back-end is where the value is generated and good teaching will presumably enhance that in the long run.

  3. Anant, Anand, It is worth going through the study of first-year undergraduate students that is the basis of the discussion (http://www.nber.org/papers/w19406.pdf?new_window=1) . To paraphrase: students who come in with poor scores, go on to take more courses in the subject and do better when taught by non-tenured folks to tenured folks. They explicitly mention that they cannot predict the outcome if this study was done for the high years. It definitely says that more of the fees should be going to the non-tenure-tracks who are teaching. Of course, they do say that being a top department in political science and economics (two courses they compare), the calibre of every instructor is high too.

    • Yeah I meant to take a look at the study, but this is exactly the kind of result I would have expected. The study cohort is quite specific (early years, low scores).

      At the moment there are only rewards for getting outstanding teaching evaluations — perhaps a better incentive system is needed in that respect as well. But I hear you on the salary front.

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