Earlier this month, a team of researchers at Northwestern University, including its president, Morton Schapiro, released a paper titled, "Are Tenured Professors Better Teachers?" Their answer, based on eight years of the school's student records, was essentially no. On average, tenure-line profs actually underperformed compared to their tenure-ineligible colleagues, at least when it came to the task of teaching first-term freshmen.
I'm not writing about this paper for a second time now because I particularly love my alma mater. Rather, this isolated, interesting study on a very specific university — with results that might not be generalizable beyond a handful of similar institutions — has managed to cause a great deal of controversy in academic circles, where some have interpreted it as a politically motivated attack on the entire concept of tenure.
Frankly, I deserve some of the blame for that. I slapped a broad, somewhat provocative headline on my own post about the study, then saved the careful qualifications for the story itself. But there was a much deeper cause behind the uproar. Tenure is slowly disintegrating, and that issue is very raw within higher education, more so than those outside the professoriate usually appreciate. Over the years, colleges of all stripes have chosen to save on their instruction costs by replacing full-time, tenured faculty with adjunct professors, who work on contract, often for breathtakingly low wages and no benefits. We're talking about Ph.D.'s who have to survive on food-stamps, in some exceptional but illustrative cases. Any study which might appear, even on a surface level, to validate that evolution from a teaching standpoint was sure to provoke some anxiety. As adjunct and writer Rebecca Schuman put it:
I fear that the result of this study will be trumpeted around universities with much less revenue and much lower adjunct pay than Northwestern, to justify the idea that, as Pannapacker has put it, since children make the best chimney sweeps, we should keep sticking children up chimneys.
“Since professors who work around rat infestations and hold office hours out of their cars make the ‘best’ teachers, we should kill that pesky tenure line and replace it, not with a humane multi-year, infinitely-renewable full-time contract position, but with four adjuncts whose combined wages equal that of a high-school teacher ten years their junior. And they can hold office hours from their 1996 Subarus, while what once were faculty offices get commandeered by a new fundraising office, tasked to support a new UltraDorm/strip mall with Jacuzzi tubs on every floor.” Don’t worry, they actually teach BETTER under those conditions! They like them!
So let's be clear today: Nothing about the Northwestern study suggests that colleges should embrace the rat-hole model of labor management. Rather, it's another piece of a growing economics literature that, taken as a whole, suggests exactly the opposite: Poorly paid, part-time faculty are poor substitutes for full-time professors.