Abolish Tenure - But Then What?

Nov 12, 2010 | 

Jason Fertig

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Abolish Tenure - But Then What?

Nov 12, 2010 | 

Jason Fertig



Both sides of the tenure debate are stuck in stage one.

In Thomas Sowell’s Applied Economics, he uses the phrase “stage one thinking” to describe the process of only thinking about immediate consequences (versus long-term outcomes).  In higher education, one of the most egregious depictions of stage one thinking occurs in the debate of the merits of tenure.  While both sides make their case well, I contend that neither side is addressing the issue of tenure as it stands at the end of 2010.

These pro and con positions in the tenure debate are well-known.  The pro-tenure position states that professors need protection in order to truly have academic freedom, while the anti-tenure position involves presenting evidence of how professors’ work ethic stagnates once achieving tenure, leading to poor teaching and minimal scholarship.

One also does not have to search far back in time to find smart people writing on the various merits and detriments of guaranteed employment for professors.  Just last week, Professor Jonathan Cole wrote a defense of tenure in the Huffington Post. Two of the more noted education critiques of this past summer, Professor Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education?, both advocated ending the tenure process.  Last month, Duke Cheston also had a commentary on the PopeCenter website advocating a similar stance.

While these debates are stimulating to have over milk and cookies, no progress is ultimately achieved because the two sides focus on tenure in general; it’s as if they were building a college from scratch and were deciding whether to have a tenure policy, as opposed to addressing the current situation in higher education – tenure is prevalent and it cannot just go away overnight without the higher education bubble bursting.

This point is especially true for advocates of eliminating tenure in favor of renewable contracts.  Stage one thinking says tenure causes problems, so get rid of it—but what happens next?  This position seems to imply that colleges can do a valid and reliable job of assessing faculty performance on an ongoing basis – is that really true?

Consider the standard three-headed monster that comprises the faculty performance appraisal: teaching, research, and service.  Do schools effectively evaluate teaching to the point that they can consistently distinguish the best from the worst teachers on an annual basis with careers at stake?  From what we’re seeing today, no.

The most common metric for assessing teaching performance is the student evaluation.  Such evaluations are typically administered towards the end of the semester, either in the classroom or electronically through email.  These evaluations normally contain a combination of Likert scale survey items such as “the professor taught the course well” and “I learned a great deal in this course,” plus open-ended items – “what were the strengths/weaknesses of this course?”

While the aim is to assess teaching, this method tends instead to measure student satisfaction.  From experience, my evaluations have overall been high, but my highest evaluations were earlier in my teaching career, when I was more of an entertainer than a teacher.  Thus, student “affect” in such classes was high, leading to favorable ratings on my evaluations.   As I learned to be more rigorous in the classroom, my negative comments and scores increased because I didn’t always make everyone happy, but they never decreased to the point that my overall ratings were below average.  In fact, I knew I was doing my job well when a student said I “assign too much work for a summer class” a few years back.  Thus, my ratings stayed consistent while my teaching effectiveness changed.

Like it or not, these unreliable student assessments are currency both during the promotion and the job search processes.  To make this more head-scratching, sometimes the whole evaluation is not used in assessment.  In some instances, I have seen CVs that list the score on the global “taught this course well” measure.

Yet, my point is not to blast student evaluations; that argument is old.  I’m more concerned with asking if these evaluations will be the metric used to assess teaching and grant reappointment if tenure disappears.  When I hear the calls for reappointment based on teacher performance, I immediately wonder if such a system will take a bad problem and make it worse.  It’s bad enough that many professors teach to the evaluation to play it safe for tenure; if professors have to continually meet a student evaluation number to ensure reappointment, will they favor student satisfaction über alles?

Truly assessing teaching involves student evaluations plus multiple classroom visits by evaluators who understand the teaching process, analysis of lesson plans and assessments, etc. – and that is just in the short-term.  One can make the case that the best teaching method is one that has influence years later.  It is rare, however, for teaching evaluation to include reaching out to former students.  Doing so would be incriminating for faculty that received either good or bad evaluations.

Therefore, anyone who thinks that tenure going away in favor of good evaluations of teaching needs to clarify more about such a proposed evaluation system.

In the same vein of asking about whether teaching can be assessed properly, I wonder about evaluating scholarship.  The merits of academic publications are the subject of a tangential debate to the focus of this essay, but at this moment, “pubs” are a factor in the tenure process.

The assessment of faculty scholarship for tenure most commonly involves determining if that professor has met a quota of publications.  Depending on the mission of the school, that quota may limit the acceptable outlets to ones that are deemed high quality (i.e. “A” journals), or the requirement may simply be that the journals are “peer reviewed.”  Because of the sheer amount of professors in the work force, there is no shortage of available journals for submitting work, even some in which the author must pay in order for his work to appear.

Thus, in many cases, the quality of publications does not factor into promotion decisions as much as the quantity.  In the past, it was understandable to assume that the peer-review process would properly referee the quality of the output, but given the explosion of available outlets, is that notion valid today?

On the flip side of the quality issue is the problem with over-reliance on subjective “top-tier” journals –when publication outlets are limited, good work that has an influence on the profession (e.g. scholarship on teaching) may be given less weight than theoretical work than is barely read by anyone.

If we replace tenure with renewable contracts, is higher education at the point where a system is in place to reward professors who produce groundbreaking research? Or will that system compound the practice of producing small, incremental research in obscure journals just to have another notch on the wall?

Finally, I mention evaluating service with a slight chuckle.  In many cases, the unwritten requirement of service is to do it (e.g. mentoring student clubs, community outreach, etc.), but “don’t do too much because it will take away from other responsibilities.”  Thus, numerous questionable committees are created for faculty in the manner that honor societies are created for high school students – to provide a line on a resume and not much else.  Is higher education ready to properly evaluate faculty service?

I advise the anti-tenure crowd to think beyond stage one here.  In order to justify eliminating tenure, that side has to articulate a valid and reliable evaluation method (not just mention “performance-based evaluation” or “merit”) because one does not currently exist on a wide scale.  There are certainly schools that have a rigorous performance appraisal, including Columbia as mentioned in Professor Cole’s article. I contend, however, that the common practice of appraising is too political and not focused enough on effective teaching or meaningful scholarship to justify replacing tenure with merit-based contracts.

I make my argument as an agnostic on tenure.  I want teaching improved more than anything, and I’d support any system that improves that practice.  I am aware that some may see my argument as biting the hand that feeds me because I am taking on the very process that decides my career, but I do not see it that way.

Much like in the classroom, I want to make people think (especially beyond stage one).  In this case, whether you are for or against tenure, if you get what you want, what happens next?

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