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September 10 2013

Groves of Academe: Does Tenure Promote Laziness?

Charlotte Hays

Is it time for colleges and universities to abolish tenure?

Faculty Lounges author Naomi Schaefer Riley once called tenure “one of the most antiquated and counterproductive employment policies in the American economy.”

She argued that tenure promotes laziness and described the bracing intellectual atmosphere at Olin College, which does not provide tenure.

Now a new study conducted at Northwestern University by the National Bureau of Economic Research has more bad news for tenure supporters.

The title of the study is “Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?”

The answer seems to be "no." Students, according to the study, learn more from adjunct professors who aren’t on the tenure track. Indeed, the study found “strong and consistent evidence” that professors who aren’t on the tenure track perform better than those who are. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

[The study] also found that stu­dents who were rel­a­tive­ly less qual­i­fied ac­a­demi­cal­ly fared par­tic­u­lar­ly well when they were taught by fac­ul­ty members out­side the tenure sys­tem, es­pe­cial­ly in courses where high grades were gen­er­al­ly tough­er to earn.

"We tried ev­ery pos­si­ble thing we could to see if this re­sult was frag­ile," Mr. Figlio said in an in­ter­view. "In ev­ery sin­gle speci­fi­ca­tion we tried, this re­sult came up."

Students were also more likely to take a second course in a discipline if their first one was taught by an adjunct. The sample was impressive: data from more than 15,000 Northwestern freshmen.

Tenure was designed to allow professors to think and write freely, but nowadays tenure  often just makes it harder to fire people such as Ward Churchill, the former Colorado ethnic studies professor who asserted that the people killed September 11, 2001 had it coming because they were “little Eichmanns.”

There’s also the financial issue surrounding tenure. Nobody who respects learning would want to turn academia into a Dickensian sweat shop with low salaries, but it is nevertheless worth noting that adjunct professors earn a lot less than tenured professors. At a time when all too many students emerge from college saddled with crippling college loan debt, this merits serious discussion. 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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