Prioritize Teaching in Faculty Structure

As promised, here are a few of the ideas which I think should be adopted to raise the level of teaching while cutting costs:


Eliminate Tenure

I used to be a firm advocate for tenure, arguing that it was a perfectly reasonable compensation structure in an environment that privileged free expression. Dean Dad has long since convinced me that tenure does little to promote or protect free expression in academia. Having seen the relative commitment to teaching/mentoring, I’ve become convinced that the costs of the tenure system outweigh the benefits.

The main problem, as I explained in the earlier post, is that tenure is non-teaching focused. The hiring and advancement process places research above teaching. Then, in granting tenure, the university basically gives up all opportunities for incentivizing good teaching in the future. With a lifetime appointment earned by limiting teaching efforts, few tenured professors are ready to do an about-face and embrace teaching as their primary focus.

Basically, tenure is a subsidy to pay for private research. Which is fine as far as it goes – we do need some independent research and an occasional break for research can help professors maintain the vitality of their teaching. But I think that the balances has tipped too far in favor of research so that instead of a revitalizing pursuit it has become the primary focus of the profession. More research simply leads to less teaching instead of better teaching.

There will probably be room for tenure in private universities for a long time to come. If students want to pay for that subsidy, that’s up to them. But at the public universities it seems increasingly difficult to justify committing taxpayer money for a promised lifetime appointment of independent research. Better to put the money toward building a pool of great teachers.


(Nearly) Eliminate Adjuncts

Adjuncts are the flip-side of tenure-track professors, offsetting the expense of the research subsidy and providing much-needed enrollment flexibility. Eliminating tenure would mean raising the status of the teaching-focused professors at a net benefit in both teaching and cost.

Right now, adjuncts do a lot of teaching for little pay and tenure-track professors do (relatively) little teaching for much more pay. Eliminating the subsidy on independent research (tenure) would free up funds to pay a reasonable wage for those doing the bulk of the teaching. If the per-course wage went up, the former adjuncts could teach fewer courses more effectively.

Without lifetime tenure commitments, universities would also have greater flexibility in responding to enrollment changes. Professors could be hired full-time for 1, 3, 5, or perhaps 10 years depending on the foreseeable need in a particular department. That’s less job security than tenure entails, but far more than most professors are getting now. Occasionally universities would need to hire part-time, temporary faculty (like adjuncts now), but with greater overall flexibility in the system this would be much more rare.

And this wouldn’t mean the total elimination of independent research. Medium-term faculty could negotiate for earned research sabbaticals as part of their contract. But in those cases when universities chose to hire someone primarily for their independent research, they would have to justify those decisions on a case-by-case basis and be up front about their indirect benefit to the university.


Evaluate Teacher Performance

One of the things that has shocked me about higher education is how little teaching evaluation goes on. Graduate students are regularly given teaching positions at the institution where they are enrolled with little or no instruction in pedagogy. And while diligent professors take steps to oversee their grading and handling of disciplinary matters, rarely do they take the time to observe classroom instruction by their teaching assistants. It is possible to finish a Ph.D. at a major institution without having anyone but students ever observe your teaching. And once you get a job as a professor it is very rare that a colleague would see you teach, or vice versa.

Conscientious teachers learn to evaluate their own performance in the classroom and work to improve in areas where they fall short. But to really improve they need at least two things: a critical outside opinion and good role models. As the system stands now, professors get neither. Student evaluations are all well and good, but they can’t match the feedback of a fellow teacher focused on the craft rather than the material. And a teacher who only watches herself or himself teach will quickly run out of new ideas to address potentially long-standing problems.

Evaluations also need to have some consequences. In the current system, poor evaluations could do real harm to the prospects of adjunct professors (if they were found out). But it would have almost no impact on the prospects of tenure-track professors. In the new system I’m envisioning, performance evaluations could really matter. Consistently good professors would merit longer contract, higher pay, and other perks because they would be a greater asset to their particular teaching-focused institution. Conversely, poor teachers would receive shorter contracts, lower pay, and fewer opportunities for their own research. Further pedagogical training could also be built into their contracts.

Remember, teaching is cheap. There are a lot of people out there in most fields with the appropriate academic credentials. So even including bonuses for good teachers and an increase over the salaries of current adjuncts, this new teaching-centered faculty model could save colleges and universities a lot of money.


This is the third of a series of posts on keeping education costs down. It is the second part of a discussion of re-emphasizing teaching at the post-secondary level. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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