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Teaching Tenure Track



Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth have a very solid proposal for create tenure-track teaching positions for what would now be contingent faculty. In part:

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

I think this is a solid way forward. I don’t know that administrations would buy into it since they are turning to cheap contingent faculty in order to save money. Providing an alternative tenure track would give those faculty power, which is probably not what the average provost wants. But as far as a just yet realistic proposal from faculty on how to create better lives for contingent colleagues, I think this is a good way forward. As far as some of the professionalization questions some faculty have risen, I basically agree with Bérubé and Ruth up and down the line on how this would improve faculty lives.

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  • Srsly Dad Y

    Interesting pushback in the CHE comments against limiting this to instructors with Ph.Ds. Berube and Ruth say they want to make sure their Ph.D students don’t view the Ph.D as a “tragic mistake.” That’s kind of an odd, non-pedagogical reason.

    • Murc

      Yeah, I don’t understand gatekeeping it that way at all.

      Frankly, if you’re making a career out of teaching, a Ph.D is a mistake. My understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that most Ph.D programs are structured around finalizing a persons education with regard to how to conduct research; that is, the process of earning a Ph.D functions as “proof” that they’re ready to work independently doing research in their chosen field.

      That seems wholly unnecessary if your career path is going to be primarily instructional, because the requirements to be an effective pedagogue are very different than the requirements to be an effective researcher.

      Also, from a pure labor rights and social justice standpoint, you want all teachers to have tenure because everybody deserves to have tenure, not just people doing research. It is unfair that the person with a masters degree who spends twenty years educating young minds is less protected in their employment and academic freedoms than the person with a Ph.D who spends all their time doing research. Both are important, vital jobs, so why is the one privileged over the other?

      • NewishLawyer

        How about the small liberal-arts colleges? These are generally focused on teaching (whether elite or not elite) and I am sure that they want most of their professors to have PhDs.

        • wca

          I am sure that they want most of their professors to have PhDs.

          But is this desire related to any evidence that Ph.Ds are better instructors, or is it related to the perceived prestige of having more Ph.Ds on the faculty?

          • JL

            Well, some of it is that they expect their faculty to do research that involves the undergrads as assistants, and that this emphasis on undergrads in the research enterprise is part of the undergrad-teaching mission.

            • Murc

              That sounds like it could be a very good reason to have someone who is both a researcher themselves and a trained pedagogue on faculty, yes.

              It doesn’t sound like a good reason to deny people who are just trained pedagogues tenure solely because they aren’t trained researchers.

      • carolannie

        Just FYI, as a grad student it was made clear to me that the PhD wasn’t just to do research, but the expectation was that you would “teach” too. The more research you got funded, of course, the less you had to teach and the more you could push off on grad students. But a PhD was expected to be a teacher first, either through students working on research projects or actually standing in front of a class and pedagoguing. None of my advisers and research leaders had a no teach option

        • Murc

          But a PhD was expected to be a teacher first,

          Er. If this is true, aren’t most Ph.D programs structured rather badly? As my understanding is that you spend the vast bulk of your time working on your thesis, and while you do spend time teaching, you don’t receive much formal training in pedagogy and that said time in front of a class is regarded as an irritant by the Ph.D candidates and as a convenient form of dirt-cheap labor by the university.

          If you’re going to be a teacher first, it seems like a ton of time should be spent on pedagogical training.

        • wca

          The more research you got funded, of course, the less you had to teach and the more you could push off on grad students. But a PhD was expected to be a teacher first,

          Reread that. “The more research you get funded, the less you teach and the more [teaching] you could push off” and “expected to be a teacher first” are not compatible. If that were the case, research would be the thing you’d be trying to push off onto grad students by doing more teaching.

          Murc’s right up above – getting a Ph.D in a discipline is typically a pretty lousy way to learn effective teaching techniques. And (certainly in the STEM fields where I’m from) that teaching is seen as a distraction from the more important work. TAing pays the bills until the grant’s approved and you can be an RA.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        Of course this is all fantasy anyway, but I would flip it around and say, make the qualifications for the teaching job whatever you want them to be. If you want to require a Ph.D, or not, whatever. But once somebody had the job in which people could get tenure, it seems like making their tenure eligibility dependent on whether they had a Ph.D would just be a status hierarchy game.

  • drwormphd

    I like to think that as college professors are more and more actually required to be good teachers, that administrators will realize that adjuncts teaching 7 classes a semester do not offer quality instruction, and endorse plans like this. Ultimately I’m not optimistic.

    • Pat

      I would like to think that a federal reporting requirement that forces universities to send a chart to parents of students detailing where their thousands of dollars go: what percent goes to pay for grounds and building maintenance, to pay for teaching salaries, to pay for administration overhead, etc.

      Better would be for the feds to put a cap on the amount of money universities accepting federal dollars can spend on administration overhead, much like the ACA did for insurance companies.

      • drwormphd

        As faculty I’d love to have access to this info myself. The admin cap as a condition for federal funding is an interesting idea.

        • Pat

          I think it’s going to have to happen. Federal guarantees of student loans have basically turned higher education into a new way for a small group of people to loot the economy. There will have to be new regulations to limit this phenomenon. I like the admin cap because it’s similar to what’s done in other necessary, universal services like utilities or insurance. It would help make universal higher education more affordable.

    • wca

      administrators will realize that adjuncts teaching 7 classes a semester do not offer quality instruction

      The bolded portion is the problem. Administrators are not paid to ensure that quality instruction is happening. Administrators are paid to ensure that butts are in seats, and I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that quality of instruction and butts are in any way connected.[1]

      Adjuncts are merely a cheap way for administrators to ensure that the owners of the butts in the seats have something to look at.

      [1]Well, for disciplines that are not proctology.

  • Orphos

    I’d be interested to see what having tenure as a teacher would do to grade inflation. There’s certainly an argument (see, for example, Gin and Tacos) that giving out high grades is easier, and faculty aren’t incentivized to give out deserved grade. Adjuncts certainly aren’t! Would this change it all?

    • matt w

      That assumes that there’s some Platonically deserved grade, though.

      • Orphos

        Well, they’d be mere reflections on the wall of the true grade, I’m sure.

    • NewishLawyer

      I think the factors for grade inflation are too high. The only places that can seemingly avoid grade inflation are those that grade on a curve which has its own problems and issues with fairness.

      The big way to end grade inflation is to make employers care less about grades. I have seen jobs advertising for mid-level people and still asking for transcripts. So that C you got in Property five years ago can haunt you I guess…..

      Google famously asks for transcripts for everyone….

      • NewishLawyer

        And yes I just revealed I got a C in Property. The HR decision making mind seems to think “OMG so and so got a B minus in Chemistry! We can’t hire them!!” Never mind that the job has nothing to do with Chemistry and the person finished undergrad 10 years ago.

      • wca

        The big way to end grade inflation is to make employers care less about grades.

        No, because grade inflation is really caused by the retention/completion agenda. Admins don’t care about whether Google looks at a potential hire’s transcripts, but they DO care that a student who fails will drop out and not continue paying to take classes.

        • Orphos

          This was my experience – lower admission standards that still allow the university to claim a ‘selective’ status based on % accepted, but that involve admitting a lot of in international students* who pay full freight out-of-state or even more. Failing those students because they don’t have the language skills to complete a class at the same level as other students – because they were admitted based on TOEFL scores rather than their ability to complete a college course with grades based on essays – well, it’s not an option.

          How did I know it wasn’t an option? I knew. All the PhD instructors and adjuncts knew. If you had a single student failing, you had to report it ahead of time to the director of the program you taught it, plus have a clear paper trail of emails reminding the student (for example) to show up and do their work, as well as other emails warning them that they were failing.

          I only actually failed students who didn’t turn in assignments. Failing those who turned something in that was clearly, obviously not up to standard, say with 50% of the essay with ungrammatical sentences or incomprehensible arguments, wasn’t a fight I could win, even if I wanted to stake my spot on it.

          And it’s the “stake my spot in the program on it” that I was thinking about. Having something that looked like tenure might (might!) make a person more willing to take that risk.

          *and others! But full tuition, all of them.

    • NewishLawyer

      This just raises a bunch of big questions:

      1. Why do grades matter?

      2. How long should grades matter for?

      • Ahuitzotl

        Grades are the only thing that ever matters, because … grades. And they matter forever, or at least until you’re 56 (seriously, I was jobhunting this year at that age, and at least half the jobs I applied for wanted to see my grades from 1975-8)

  • elm

    Some places have something similar in place already. Where I currently work, “Instructors” are considered full-time faculty with voting rights in the department and faculty senate. When first appointed, they have 1-year contracts. They can then be promoted to the second level and have 2-year contracts. The third level has 4-year contracts. It’s not tenure, and they generally get paid less than tenured and tenure-track faculty, but it is some measure of security and the pay isn’t bad and the benefits are the same as the tenured folk.

    The promotion process is tenure-like, as they get evaluated on their overall job performance and the promotion is voted on within the department, college, and then University by the faculty before being approved by the provost, president, and regents.

    Then there are the adjunct faculty, who are former grad students who haven’t gotten a job yet or are professionals teaching on the side. They have semester-length contracts, are paid a few thousand a class, receive essentially no benefits, and have no voting rights. It’s not a bad deal for the professionals; it sucks for the recent PhDs who are trying to live on the money.

  • dilan

    Here in California, this already exists as a practical matter, at community colleges and CSU’s with light research loads.

  • bratschewurst

    It might be worth thinking of this less as “tenure” and more as enhanced job security. Or, in other words, this is less about the protection of free speech by academics and more about fairness and due process in termination decisions.

    Orchestra musicians in the US have developed a process of peer review that historically has worked very well. Management can propose terminations for “artistic inadequacy” (after a 2-year probationary period) but the terminations are reviewed by an elected peer review panel, which can affirm or veto the termination. It’s a relatively quick process (ie weeks rather than months or years) and one usually not subject to further arbitration. In some orchestras, the election of the committee is done annually without knowledge of who might be terminated, which somewhat de-politicizes the election.

    There are very few proposed terminations in orchestras (in part because there is also a very rigorous hiring process and lots of competition for jobs), but the terminations that are proposed are often affirmed by the committee. The existence of binding peer review serves as a disincentive for management to propose terminations for bullshit reasons, but the affirmations of the ones for real job performance issues incentivizes the musicians to keep the standard of their performance up.

    There is generally a separate process for “just cause” terminations; ie for personal behavior issues (theft, showing up drunk, threatening the conductor, etc.)

  • nacorwin

    Long time reader, first time commenter (in fact registered to comment here.)

    I am a mathematician. The idea quoted above has been floating around in the math world for 5 years or longer. I currently am at Rutgers University with a teaching position. The most recent union contract at Rutgers actually implements this idea. There are now ranks and promotion for the teaching faculty and a path for tenure. The department will most likely give tenure to a teaching faculty member this academic year. Both promotion and tenure are tied to teaching and to service to the department (course coordinator or designing a new class).

    I am sorry to hear that some places have a fight between research faculty and teaching faculty. I would have thought that Rutgers is more regressive than other places so it is nice to hear that it is actually progressive. I am already encouraged to attend department meetings. Senior faculty talk to me about teaching regularly (and also about my research.) The senior faculty actually directed the union to spend most of their effort negotiating for people in my position and got a contract that significantly improves the jobs of people with (what were) non-tenure-track jobs. (I’m not sure what to call them now.) We now will get new contract offers sooner, have an opportunity to have multiyear contracts after a few years of service, and a path to tenure.

    • Murc

      Quality first-time comment, friend. I think my first comment on the site involved a Simpsons quote and an insult.

      • Pat

        Mine was gibberish. Of course, several since then have been gibberish too.

      • nacorwin

        Thanks Murc, although it turns out my post did have a small flaw, namely it might be slightly factually wrong. Upon rereading of the final deal, I can’t find the part about eventual tenure. Instructor positions will have stated criteria for reappointment and have a year of employment after not getting reappointed (after a few years of working). I misremembered the department wishes as the final deal. Whoops.

        Reading below, I think we have something very similar to what solidcitizen describes Oregon as having.
        In hindsight, I wish I had gone with the Simpson’s quote.

    • solidcitizen

      We have a similar situation here at the recently-unionized University of Oregon. We don’t yet have tenure for our Career Non-Tenure Track, but we did secure department governance rights, longer-term contracts, and a regularized (and written!) promotion process.

      Our contingent faculty are broken into two camps, Career Non-Tenure Track and Adjunct. The titles actually depend more on the type of position than the status or nature of the faculty member. “Adjunct” means “temporary” and an Adjunct position (or person) cannot last longer than three years without special permission. Career, on the other hand, is seen as an indefinite position that a faculty member should expect to hold if they pass their reviews, there is funding, and programmatic need (we’re finalizing these details in our second CBA). Through the first CBA over 250 Adjunct positions were reclassified as Career and the faculty we (mostly) given longer-term contracts and a path to promotion.

      We do run into some resistance around the notion that we are trying to get “de facto tenure” and there is push back on that. There are some deans who have no idea how you “fairly” evaluate a teaching-only position in that there is some recognition that student evals are not an accurate measure of teaching, but neither are surprise or planned peer teaching evaluations. We’re working on it university wide, crafting department workload and review policies with faculty input (not as much as there should be, as belatedly deans realized that the first CBA gave away a lot of their discretionary power and they are fighting back, but some is better than none).

      I’d be interested to hear more about your NTTF tenure (yes, what will you call them?) policy. Is it clear in your CBA or is it one of those things you have to know what it means to know what it means?

      • nacorwin

        To try to answer your question, I looked up the final deal and can’t find any mention of it. As mentioned above, I now think that I misremembered the conversation about what we wanted with the conversation about what actually happened. What we have seems to be a lot like what you describe at Oregon. The top level of promotion will have 5 year contracts.

        (It seems that the possibility for tenure for teaching positions got taken out before negotiation as it was not clear a majority of (tenure track) faculty were in favor.)

        The original plan was that people that did more than just teaching, or who taught long enough, should be promoted. People who do a lot more for long enough should be able to be tenured. I got the impression that even in a department as large as Math, with 60+ TT faculty, there might be one or two people tenured at a time.

        We call the career track people “instructors” and the temporary ones “lectures”. Adjunct seems to be reserved for the part time folks.

        I don’t think that just dean’s don’t know how to fairly evaluate teaching only positions. I don’t think I know how to evaluate my job. We have student evaluations, we have an observation where I know that it will happen sometime in the next 3 weeks, and for freshman calc classes we have have common finals that are common graded as well. How to turn that into anything useful is beyond me. Our contract tells each department to come up with something and tell the deans.

        Sorry for a rambling response, but I wonder how much different the internal politics of this are by department. In math, we teach the second most credits of any department in the university. The tenured faculty like having competent people in my roles because we teach most of the freshman classes and I also teach some upper level undergraduate classes. The senior faculty get to teach upper level undergraduate classes and graduate classes only. I make their jobs more enjoyable. Smaller departments might view teaching faculty as a threat to their jobs as there are not as many classes to go around.

  • Matt_L

    That is a great proposal, or at least standard to set for creating tenure track jobs for the contingent faculty doing the bulk of the teaching in this country. It could also have a nice effect of laying out more realistic expectations for both teaching and research for faculty already on the tenure track.

    The elephant in the room is that research requirements for tenure are a way for departments and administrators, to outsource the burden of evaluation for promotion onto some sort of outside body without paying for it. A list of peer reviewed publications on a CV is a way for the promotion committee and the dean to say, “Hey all these people thought professor X’s research is a great contribution to the discipline. We don’t have to read their work, because someone at a peer reviewed journal already did that. We will award them tenure so long as there are no complaints about their teaching or professional conduct.” A system where the faculty are supposed to evaluate each others teaching, service, and research, involves a lot more work for that department. This is work that is unlikely to be compensated in the form of money or a course release.

    Sure, research is important. Someone with a PhD and a university position should be doing some sort of research. Being an active researcher keeps your interest in the discipline fresh and serves as a role model for the students. While publication and research are important, the balance of that work should be different for professors working at an RI or at a regional comprehensive university. The balance should also be different for faculty who are busy teaching the survey and service courses at the university regardless of its size and mission.

    Finally, learning to teach at the university level is a discipline in and of itself. Ten or fifteen years ago in my PhD program, we did not approach pedagogy in a systematic manner. There was a one credit course for students TA-ing a global history class, a few workshops for TAs before the start of Fall semester, and occasionally your adviser would observe your work as an independent grad instructor. The PhD mostly taught us to become researchers. Gaining mastery of the subject matter is not the same as mastering the skills you need to teach it to others. It took me five years of teaching at my present institution to become an effective instructor. After ten years, I think of myself as working towards excellence. Occasionally, I achieve excellence in the classroom, but the struggle is now for consistency. A tenure track for teaching faculty would acknowledge how much work, research, and skill goes into becoming an outstanding university professor for undergraduates.

  • Jestak

    To anyone with experience in the community/technical college system, this makes perfect sense. 2-year colleges have been awarding tenure based on teaching for decades.

  • altofront

    The University of California has a job category called “Lecturer” that effectively achieves at least some of this. Lecturers have a heavy teaching load and no expectations for research; they’re evaluated on the same schedule as Senate faculty; and they have a kind of tenure-track equivalent, moving to “Security of Employment” and then “Senior Lecturer.” The problem is that in many departments they are treated as second class citizens, and not given any voice in departmental matters, although this is not always the case (this seems to be at the discretion of the department, which is a strange way to organize things).

  • bernard

    The various approaches to permanent employment, albeit non-tenured, to teachers strike me as reasonable. I have always – well, not always – been puzzled by the notion that someone must be either tenure-track or an adjunct. Why no ordinary middle path exists is a mystery.

    Professional employment outside academia generally involves full-time regular jobs, but without tenure protection. You have a full-time job. You get a paycheck, appropriate benefits, etc. Why can’t university teaching operate under that model as well?

    • Lee Rudolph

      Why shouldn’t employment (professional or otherwise) outside academia involve tenure protection?

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