A Solution for Bad Teaching: Tweaking tenure could help students and researchers

A Solution for Bad Teaching

By ADAM GRANT

FEB. 5, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — IT’S no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities. Some choose to rest on their laurels, allowing their productivity to dwindle. Others develop tunnel vision about research, inflicting misery on students who suffer through their classes.

Despite these costs, tenure may be a necessary evil: It offers job security and intellectual freedom in exchange for lower pay than other occupations that require advanced degrees.

Instead of abolishing tenure, what if we restructured it? The heart of the problem is that we’ve combined two separate skill sets into a single job. We ask researchers to teach, and teachers to do research, even though these two capabilities have surprisingly little to do with each other. In a comprehensive analysis of dataon more than half a million professors, the education experts John Hattie and Herbert Marshfound that “the relationship between teaching and research is zero.” In all fields and all kinds of colleges, there was little connection between research productivity and teaching ratings by students and peers.

Currently, research universities base tenure decisions primarily on research productivity and quality. Teaching matters only after you have cleared the research bar: It is a bonus to teach well.

In my field of organizational psychology, there is a rich body of evidence on designing jobs to promote motivation and productivity. The design of the professor job violates one of the core principles: Tasks should be grouped together based on the skill sets of the individuals who hold them.

If we created three kinds of tenure rather than one, we might see net gains in both research and teaching.

A research-only tenure track would be for professors who have the passion and talent for discovering knowledge, but lack the motivation or ability to teach well. This would allow them to do more groundbreaking studies and produce more patents, while sparing students the sorrow of shoddy courses.

Creating more full-time research professorships could combat the decline of research productivity post-tenure, as many productive professors see their nonteaching time consumed by administrative responsibilities. If research professors didn’t teach, administrative duties wouldn’t impede their work.

A teaching-only tenure track would be for professors who excel in communicating knowledge. Granting tenure on the basis of exemplary teaching would be a radical step for research universities but it might improvestudent learning. In a recent landmark study at Northwestern, students learned more from professors who weren’t on the tenure track. When students took their first course in a subject with a professor who didn’t do research, they got significantly better grades in their next class in that subject.

Currently, universities pay adjunct instructors below the rate of tenure-track faculty and give them short-term contracts. If tenure were available for teaching excellence, with pay and prestige comparable to tenure for research, we could attract and retain more exceptional educators. Replacing adjuncts with tenured teachers would cost more, but there are ways to offset that, perhaps by funding more research with grants.

The third tenure track would be for research and teaching. Professors who succeed in both could maintain this dual role, whereas those who struggle in research could eventually shift to the teaching track, and vice versa.

Of course, this model is not without challenges. Universities have clear criteria for evaluating research productivity and impact, but typically falter by assessing teaching quality solely through student ratings. That said, Dr. Marsh and his colleagues find that student ratings are less biased than many people assume: Contrary to popular belief, students rarely favor teachers who grade leniently — and give higher ratings to teachers who assign heavier workloads.

Still, students can rate professors as great teachers even if they teach information that is wrong. To support tenure on the basis of teaching alone, we need new metrics for evaluating the quality of the knowledge that teachers disseminate in the classroom. For example, research professors could provide updates on discoveries and vet the accuracy of information taught, while teaching professors could curate questions back from the classroom to help researchers pursue meaningful projects.

I have watched skilled researchers burn out after failing in the classroom and gifted teachers lose their positions because university policies limited the number of courses that adjunct professors could teach. Dividing tenure tracks may be what economists call a Pareto improvement: It benefits one group without hurting another. Let’s reserve teaching for professors with the relevant passion and skill — and reward it. Sharing knowledge with students should be a privilege of tenure, not an obligation.

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.”

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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