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Disincentivizing Dissent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

My perspective differs from your previous commentators; I am a doctoral student in psychology. As a graduate student, I have had a front row seat into the life of professors seeking tenure and how that affects classroom learning.

The tenure process is constantly spoken about among professors. Students become privy to the high-stake political games that have to be played, which causes many of us to reject academia. To be honest, i have no desire to enter academia because of the rigorous process and the politics that accompany it. The process stifles your freedom of speech. You risk your job by speaking your mind, discussing things from a novel perspective, or even speaking about what is right. Not only that, professors in the race for tenure de-emphasize teaching (the university I attend is research focused) and spend the majority of their time on writing grants, manuscripts, conference presentations, and devising research projects.

Because of this, the teaching duties fall squarely on the shoulders of students, who are subjected to teach two classes or three labs. Yes, students receive a stipend for teaching, but it takes away much needed time for us to focus on other parts  of our graduate experience, such as our dissertations and attending to our therapy clients. Furthermore, the money is not even enough to live on in this major US city. So not only does the stress affect the junior professors, it trickles down to the students. It causes us to neglect areas of our graduate program that are vital to our professional development.

What I have noticed is that when professors finally earn tenure, the desire to publish or get grants dissipates.

This of course affects students because it allows less and less of them to receive tuition (grants provide tuition for many students) and does not permit future students to gain experience in research. And students enter a PhD program to gain research experience!  Thus, it causes students to become disgruntled and resentful of the program.

The tenure track allows certain professors to slack in other ways. Because some professors have already gotten theirs, they couldn't care less about mentoring students in research. They become elusive in the department. With all the inherent obstacles in obtaining a PhD, ferreting out a professor so you can speak to them at least once every two weeks makes the process even more difficult. This process is new to many of us, and we need guidance. I have seen a number of students fall behind in the program or just leave because their professor is inaccessible. It becomes frustrating and angering when you hear from older students or alumni that Prof X was such a wonderful mentor and doing so much research when they were in the fight for tenure.

Even more, because they know they cannot be fired or that getting fired is an exhaustive process, some tenured professors do not even do the minimum to adequately teach a course. They arrive late. They have subjective criteria about how they grade students. They don't have office hours. They don't answer emails. They are only on campus at the time they teach. Even worse, they don't teach the subject matter they are assigned to teach! 

I see the value and benefits in the tenure process, but it really must be reworked to improve our system of higher education.