The Myth of Post-Tenure Collapse

Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young has an anti-tenure post that repeats one of the classic mistaken arguments:

1) Tenure supports bad teachers as much as it supports unproductive researchers. I can't tell you the number of bad lecturers that I have had over the years. It has to be like 90%. Science in particular is filled with a lot of very smart people, very few of whom have the slightest idea how to convey that miraculous intelligence to another scientists, much less a lay-person.

As it exists now there is no incentive to teach well after you receive tenure. Teaching duties are often inflicted on faculty members who have no real interest in them.

While this is true as far as it goes, I'm not sure how this is related to tenure. The crucial mistake here is assuming that these people were once good, and just went to hell after getting tenure. That's the popular myth, but it's nowhere near as common as you might think. The real problem here is that teaching just isn't valued on an institutional level-- there are lots of bad teachers with tenure because they were hired and promoted based on things other than teaching.

My undergraduate alma mater is a small college, and as such puts a higher priority on teaching than most research universities. During my undergraduate career, I can think of exactly two faculty members that I thought did a genuinely bad job teaching a class I took with them. Out of 36 classes with probably 25 different faculty, that's not too shabby.

Of those two, only one had tenure, and he had been hired with tenure from some sort of think-tank job. The other was an assistant professor, who was denied tenure a few years later, in large part because he did a lousy job teaching introductory classes.

I can think of two faculty on campus who were widely believed (by students) to be totally incompetent and hanging onto their jobs only because of tenure. At the same time, though, one of the most sought-after professors on campus was a tenured full professor who had been teaching there since the 1930's.

If you value teaching on an institutional level, and hire and tenure people who are good at it, you don't end up with a faculty full of people who are just playing out the string waiting for retirement. If you don't value teaching on an institutional level, and make tenure decisions based solely on research productivity, you end up with classes being taught by people who don't have any interest in teaching, and the results are bad.

This has nothing to do with tenure per se. It's a question of insttutional values, not how easy it is to fire people once they've been around a while. The tenured faculty who are lousy teachers were probably lousy teachers before they had tenure-- they weren't hired to teach, and they weren't promoted for their skill in teaching. Taking their tenure away isn't going to make them good teachers, unless the university suddenly starts putting a higher value on teaching, and what makes you think that's going to happen?

This does, I think, point to one of the reasons why the whole tenure argument has such staying power. Everybody who's been to college has had at least one class with a professor that they just hated, and wondered "Why don't they just fire this jackass?" The usual answer given is "Tenure," and thus it becomes associated with protecting bad professors, at least in the minds of students. Add in the fact that most students don't get to see a significant fraction of a faculty career, and you get the myth of post-tenure collapse-- the idea that people are hired as good teachers, and become terrible about ten minutes after they get tenure, and then stick around for thirty years doing a lousy job.

Like many student beliefs (such as "If your roommate commits suicide, you get A's in all your classes"), I think this has only a tenuous connection to reality. Yes, every campus has a few examples of the old professor who has totally lost it, and is just hanging around because they can't think of anything else to do. Every campus also has a few professors who have been around for forty years and are still among the best-loved teachers on the campus.

The fact is, the vast majority of tenured faculty are very good at what they were hired to do. At places where teaching is valued highly, they're excellent teachers, by and large. The problem isn't with the tenure system, it's with the values of the institution granting tenure, and making it easier to fire bad teachers doesn't mean a thing if the university isn't interested in teaching in the first place.


More like this

Throwing my anecdotal evidence behind yours. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad. Most of the faculty taught well. Those that did not were usually new junior faculty. The ones who improved got tenure those that did not did not. The one tenure faculty member I had that was a "poor" teacher was put out to pasture by the department, and really that professor was a bad teacher compared to the rest. Where I did my graduate work, he/she would have been one of the better teachers. At that university, one professor in the department recently got tenure. He/she is a horrible teacher. Year after year this is the sentiment of those who take his courses but this faculty member works in a research area the department wants to have, publishes alright and is willing to do the committee work that most faculty members run away from. Other junior faculty members seeing this have realized they can't be spending time developing their craft as teachers. It is energy that could be better spent doing other things to get tenure.

If there isn't selection for quality teaching then on average the quality of the teaching is going to be mediocre. Select for good teaching and that is what you will get.

At most research universities it is research that is getting selected for (especially as it relates to grants) even after a faculty member gets tenure. Quality research does get churned out. As long as the quality of the educational environment is not too poor, quality grad students will follow where the grant money/connections are, keeping the cycle going.

My personal feeling is that tenure is neither as horrible nor as essential as people say. It's around at the moment and the sky has yet to fall; if it goes, I doubt that it'll make as big a difference as some of its supporters say, either. So in that sense, it's something of a matter of taste, depending on your favoured priorities.

I don't know whether reasonable teachers become bad at Universities. I'd say that it certainly happens at schools, although it's hardly as if it's most of them (the best and worst teachers I worked with and observed were all quite a few years in).

What I would say about University teachers is that in my experience, many of them neglect to do simple things that would significantly improve their performance as teachers and it's true of the good and bad teachers. They are the sorts of things that you either pick up from getting a smallish amount of training in a few essential areas relating to teaching or else can work out from honest and continual self-evaluation. Honest self-evaluation is often pretty damned uncomfortable, however.

As you said, it depends greatly on what the institution values. Serious complications arise when administrative changes take place and the institution begins to value things differently. At our school years ago the standard was "pick what you want to excel at." Professors could excel at either the teaching or research aspects of their jobs, and were largely not judged on their ability in the other. Now, faculty are expected to put forth great effort in both. You can imagine where this puts faculty who were hired under the old approach.

I do think that the pro-tenure folks have a case to make to the public and at least a significant part of that would be best coming from people that aren't either tenured or seeking tenure (whose impartiality some won't entirely trust). Of course, the anti-tenure folks need a lot better than the likes of populist rabblerousers like Coulter to make their case, too.

At one institution of higher education, a land grant university, the teaching award was informally known as the "kiss of death." Junior faculty who won it were consistently denied tenure by the dean, not by their departments, because if they were good teaching they were obviously not spending enough time doing research.

Obviously, tenure is the problem. If these people could be fired at will, like in a business, the dean would have let go of them much sooner.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

Similar to Brad Holden's point, I have seen good teaching at a major academic medical center be treated as no more than a neutral factor in tenure decisions. Bad teaching will hurt you but lukewarm evals plus large research grants equaled tenure in the cases to which I was privy. In contrast, my own undergrad education was like yours (in a small college) where teaching was valued highly as a scholarly activity and highly considered in tenure decisions.

Again, from the academic medical center experience, the value of tenure is that you don't get fired if (as now) research funding percentages take a nosedive. Being in the top 15-20% of NIH/NSF-competing scientists is no longer good enough. I have gotten calls from long-time, "soft-money" colleagues who brought in plenty of funds (and indirect costs) over the years. Now that hard times have hit, these senior people unprotected by tenure are being shown the door, despite all the indirect costs they brought in during the gravy years.

Tenure as 'Job security in times of economic adversity' won't win many enthusiastic votes (other than from those with tenure, natch).

Adam, I see your point, but these soft-money scientists do a lot more university service than simply operate their own research programs. They teach students and fellows, they serve on institutional committees, they sometimes provide core services for tenured faculty, etc. Such faculty support the mission of these universities, often at their own peril, and the journeyman nature of such positions would be detrimental to programmatic continuity and institutional memory if this were the situation for all faculty.


Having been on the tenure-track at an institution where tenure was hard to achieve, I can attest to the fact that assistant professors were in general more diligent and caring in teaching and all other responsibilities, even
though the institution made it clear that research was
what really mattered. The impression was that
one's tenure case had to be strong and not have holes, even in the less valued areas of teaching and service, just in case questions were raised about one's research.


By Gordon Pasha (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

1) I take your point that the issue of tenure and teaching are not the same, but here is why I think they are related.

I can certainly visualize how a tenure system would support good teaching if that was already an institutional value. However, that is not the system we have. We have a system that does not support teaching AND has tenure. Thus, the tenure serves as a force-multiplier for whatever institutional values the place already has. It delays any positive changes that could be made to rectify that by preventing faculty turn-over.

Say we were to this instant change the values of a institution to value teaching. Well it would take 30 years for that change to actually take effect because you can't fire professors for bad teaching.

2) I don't think that the quality of professors with respect to teaching changes when they get tenure. I never got the impression that good teachers were just saying the hell with it.

I don't really think that is at the core of my argument, though. If that isn't why they are being hired, and the tenure system keeps them there, it doesn't really matter whether they would good before or not.

3) It may very well be that at liberal arts or smaller colleges the emphasis is on teaching. If it is then good -- those professors should stick around. (I would argue that ending tenure will in no way change how long they would stay around.)

But you have to understand that the problem is much worse at so-called top-tier universities.

Teaching at Stanford was so categorically poor that a great many of us just stopped going to class and read the book instead. That's sad. I was quite happy at Stanford, but in hindsight I think I would have received a better education at a liberal arts college.


I have been a soft-money scientist myself, I guess. And I, at least, am totally great. I mean, really.

As I say, I'm not against tenure (I lean in favour of it, for researchers, at least, if not for people that are primarily teachers, where I don't really see the need for it as I have said in other threads). I don't think that the case for is made particularly well, or at least not often, and then mostly by people that have tenure or are working toward it, in which case it rather looks like rich people crusading against progressive tax.

Thus, the tenure serves as a force-multiplier for whatever institutional values the place already has.

But if those institutional values don't change, why is there any reason to expect that firing and hiring will bring in better teachers? What's the point of eliminating tenure if you're not going to address the underlying issue? What's the obstacle to altering institutional values even if tenure still exists, and simply applying them to new hires?

(I would argue that ending tenure will in no way change how long they would stay around.)

Additionally, I have to disagree with this statement. Speaking as someone searching for tenure-track employment at a liberal arts university (and on the verge of giving up said search), tenure is a big reason I'm willing to overlook the fact that academia has significantly lower pay than industry.

But you have to understand that the problem is much worse at so-called top-tier universities.

Of course -- their main focus is high-quality research. Eliminating tenure at Stanford probably wouldn't change much in that regard, and certainly wouldn't do a whole lot to bring in good teachers.

It seems to me the big problem is that academia is set up so that we expect teaching and research from the same people. There are certainly people out there who can contribute to both; however, some researchers should really just be kept away from classrooms.

Teaching at Stanford was so categorically poor that a great many of us just stopped going to class and read the book instead. That's sad. I was quite happy at Stanford, but in hindsight I think I would have received a better education at a liberal arts college.

Amusingly, I was told this by a professor from Stanford when I was looking at colleges, lo these many years ago...

As for the "force multiplier" thing, I don't buy it. The threat of firing isn't the only way to get people to change their behavior, and many university professors could be much better teachers than they are, if they had an incentive to put the effort in.

It's sort of a moot point, as the insitutional incentives are unlikely to change in such a way as to make large research universities start to make teaching a priority. But in the extremely unlikely event that they were to change, I doubt tenure would be a huge obstacle.

(Of course, in the limit where you imagine that the priorities change that much, I don't think the second law of thermodynamics would be an obstacle...)

At research universities, research pays your Summer salary. That's up to a 33% increase in your base salary, so the incentive to be a better teacher would have to either be very large or else require little effort. As I said above, there are many simple changes that professors that I've observed could put into place to achieve better outcomes, but if the answer was 'spend 5 more hours a week in teaching preparation to remedy your teaching deficiencies' then that's going to be a hard sell against the extra Summer money.

I guess that at some places you can get 3 months' extra salary by teaching through Summer, although I'm not sure if that is universally available.

One thing that always escapes these discussions - and I think is sort of glossed over in this one in particular - is that it 's actually pretty difficult to reward good teachers. The problem is that there aren't really very many (if any) good metrics to evaluate teaching: student evaluations often (it is my understanding) correlate with grades, what sort of consequences should follow teaching an intentionally less ambitious syllabus, how do you think about 'good' teaching in an introductory v. upper level context...

This is in stark comparison to research where the usual # of papers, # of grants criterion take seconds to evaluate from a quick look at a persons CV. You can, of course, dispute whether these are really metrics of 'good' research, perhaps the person who has a lot of grants is just turning out a lot of relatively pedestrian work that is fated to have little lasting importance, but it seems fairly clear that there metrics are at least suggestive of research activity and probably imply that at least a minimum of your scientific peers think you're doing a good job.

The issue of the difficulty in assessing teachers in schools was discussed in another thread. It's easier at schools in some way, because you can do value-added statistics if the school has a suitable testing regime. At college level, on the other hand, you do have student feedback which isn't entirely worthless (the problem there, of course, is that you can buy good feedback by giving good grades, to some extent; that illustates what in my opinion is a bigger problem at universities, that of the awarding of grades).

So the students at schools like Stanford get a shitty education compared to many at small schools but because it is Standford they get opportunities that the rest of us will never see. That is the American way. Go to Wharton and start with a 6 figure income on Wall Street with no experience. Go to 100's of other schools, learn the same stuff and you will be lucky to get a job as an assistant manager at a drug store making 30k.

I think that quite often, you aren't getting hired for particular skills you learnt (you'll pick those up quickly enough with your high-pressure 16 hour days) but a degree from certain schools is a badge saying that you're smart.

As an aside, smarter people need less good teaching to achieve the same end quality, in my experience. However, they might do even better with good teaching, so it's not exactly a win for bad teaching.

Volume 54, Number 5 · March 29, 2007
Scandals of Higher Education
By Andrew Delbanco
The New York Review of Books

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education
by William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, in collaboration with Susanne C. Pichler

University of Virginia Press, 453 pp., $18.95 (paper)
The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
by Daniel Golden

Crown, 323 pp., $25.95
The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality
by Walter Benn Michaels

Metropolitan, 241 pp., $23.00
Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education
by Harry R. Lewis

PublicAffairs, 305 pp., $26.00
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More
by Derek Bok

Princeton University Press, 413 pp., $29.95
Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America
by Donald N. Levine

University of Chicago Press,299 pp., $39.00

On the Tuesday before last Thanksgiving, The Harvard Crimson ran a protest article by a sophomore majoring in economics. His cause was the abolition of classes for the whole of Thanksgiving week. Since few students like to stick around past the weekend before the holiday, he wrote, Harvard ought to follow Yale in ending its "anti-family-friendly policy" of remaining officially in session through Wednesday. It did not occur to him that making a round-trip home shortly before leaving campus again for Christmas break might pose a financial hardship for some of his classmates.[1]

The facts bear him out. Ninety percent of Harvard students come from families earning more than the median national income of $55,000, and Harvard's dean of admissions was quoted in the Crimson a few months earlier defining "middle-income" Harvard families as those earning between $110,000 and $200,000. For these students, and certainly for their many wealthier classmates, it should be no problem to fly home, or, better yet, to hop over to Cancun or Barbados.

It is hardly surprising that lots of rich kids go to America's richest colleges. It has always been so. But today's students are richer on average than their predecessors. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, in a sample of eleven prestigious colleges, the percentage of students from families in the bottom quartile of national family income remained roughly steady-- around 10 percent. During the same period the percentage of students from the top quartile rose sharply, from a little more than one third to fully half. If the upscale shops and restaurants near campus are any indication, the trend has continued if not accelerated. And if the sample is broadened to include the top 150 colleges, the percentage of students from the bottom quartile drops to 3 percent.[2] In short, there are very few poor students at America's top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.
NYRB Winter Sale

All this may seem at odds with the stated commitment of Ivy League and other elite colleges to the high-sounding principle of "need-blind" admissions. To be "need-blind" means to take no account of a candidate's ability to pay in deciding the case for admission. And since this policy is usually accompanied by a pledge to provide sufficient scholarship funds to admitted applicants who cannot afford the full cost (around $45,000 in the Ivy League today), it is an expensive policy. It depends on a system of discount pricing by which students paying the published tuition and fees subsidize those who cannot pay, and it requires large institutional investments to sustain the scholarship fund.

These are worthy commitments--a residual form of redistributive liberalism in a society broadly hostile to liberalism. Yet as a matter of practice, "need-blind" is a slogan that does not mean much except in relation to the needs of the applicant pool. If most applicants come from places like Greenwich or Grosse Point, a college can be "need-blind" without having to dispense much aid.

What explains the scarcity of low-income students at America's selective colleges? The short answer is that very few apply. As William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin write in their book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, students from low-income families tend early in life to fall behind in "cognitive skills, motivation, expectations...and practical knowledge about the college admissions process."[3] Most lose hope of attending a top college long before the competition formally begins....

I believe America is getting very good money for its spending on bio-medical research because a lot of people (phds and postdocs) are willing to work long hours with low pay for the hope of tenure in the distant future. These people could always apply at google or wall street.

Well, getting a PhD won't hurt your career outside science, so you could set out on one in order to do, afterwards, something outside of academia (quite a lot of the theoretical physicists I know did that). By postdoc, though, people are relatively committed, I think. By tenure track, even more so.