Academic tenure outdated, puts students’ education at risk

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Illustration by Tennery Carttar

Academic
tenure is putting students at a disadvantage. While the benefits of
tenure for professors are very real, the damages to the university and
the student body simply can’t justify it.


This
is partially because tenure doesn’t work the same way it used to. What once functioned to protect professors from being fired on the basis of
personal beliefs has turned into a checklist of research and publishing
requirements that grants professors tenure based on the number of
requirements met. This doesn’t really take into account the teaching
abilities of the professor.


It
seems reasonable to think that an academic institution with the goal of
teaching students and helping them work their way toward new ideas
might want to have people who are skilled at teaching. With tenure in the way, that’s just not how things are
working.


We’ve
all heard the classic tales of woefully confused students with
professors who are terrible at teaching or explaining anything in a
worthwhile manner. Despite semester after semester of negative teaching
evaluations, these professors reappear to confuse yet another
set of unwitting students. Why? Perhaps that particular professor,
while lacking any talent at instruction, is a really good researcher and
is making money for the university by publishing essays, studies and
books.


Making
money for the university isn’t a bad thing. After all, with more money the quality of the university should improve, at least in theory. The
problem is that this money rarely makes improvements that students
actually see. It goes straight back into the research departments, where
more professors are hired into tenured positions and continue to teach
poorly.


This
isn’t to say that all tenured professors are bad teachers. In fact,
there’s a multitude of tenured professors who are
excellent instructors and genuinely care about their students. One
problem with tenure, though, is that it forces professors into
obligations to the university. Even a good instructor can fail to
conduct a class well if overwhelmed by other commitments, commitments
like the research and publishing work required of tenured professors.


The
negative consequences of poor teaching at universities are twofold.
First, bad instruction leads to a lack of student satisfaction
with the university. Universities want to increase enrollment, but they
can’t if students aren’t happy about being there and prospective
students hear bad things about the university. Decreased enrollment
rates reflects poorly on a university.


Second,
the longterm effects are actually quite frightening when carefully
considered. If a professor isn’t teaching a class well, then the
students aren’t learning well. Current students are the ones who go on
to become educators to fill the shoes of current professors when they
retire. If students aren’t receiving proper instruction, they will have
difficulty becoming the best teachers they can be, and the whole cycle
begins again. This results in increasingly ineffective teaching over time.
The results could be devastating.


Eliminating
tenure eliminates these problems. Professors who are good instructors
should have no reason to fear being fired, because they are doing their
jobs well. Good professors lead to satisfied students and increased
enrollment, earning the university more money and allowing it to
improve. Professors who invest in their students will create future
generations of good professors who continue to build on the knowledge of past generations.


According
to an April 2009 Washington Post article by Francis Fukuyama, who served as a tenured economics professor at
Johns Hopkins University, even some professors want to get rid of tenure. Fukuyama says that not only is tenure a financial burden on
universities, but it also “hamstrings younger untenured professors, making
them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in
jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline.”


Perhaps
in lieu of tenure, a better review process should be adopted, a
firing process that ensures instructors are not
wrongfully terminated.


To
solve the problem of researchers versus instructors, there may be a
simple solution: researchers should research and instructors should
teach. This way researchers aren’t hampered by the tasks of grading and
keeping track of a class, and instructors aren’t influenced by the
overhanging stresses of conducting research.


Melanie Thomas is a senior in print journalism. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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