The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley

With so much talk about teacher tenure in K-12 schools, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there’s another tenure debate going on in higher education. The traditional practice of granting lifelong job security to professors after seven or so years is being called into question by many, including Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer.

Riley’s new book, The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, explores the consequences of tenure, concluding: “Even in areas of study where one might not expect it, tenure is preventing institutions from living up to their highest potential. It is stifling the most innovative professors and preventing students from getting the education they deserve.”

I recently spoke with Riley to find out more.

You spend a fair amount of time in the book on this tension between tenure and academic freedom, which as you point out isn’t really defined anywhere but it is what people turn to in defense of tenure. Is there a way to still protect this notion of academic freedom, whatever it may be, if tenure is eliminated?

I think the question you have to answer first is, Does tenure do a good job of protecting academic freedom? And I don’t think it does. I think very few university professors really feel like they can speak out their true beliefs on a variety of subjects. Part of that, of course, is that many people in the university don’t have tenure, but many people are in the process of trying to get tenure, which is a seven-year process … it just trains you to keep your mouth shut.

For the people in the university who really do need academic freedom—that is, they need to be able to say controversial things as part of their job, which I think is a smaller and smaller portion of the academy—having multi-year renewable contracts … would allow people to feel like most of us do, which is that we come in every day expecting to do our job and we come in every day expecting to keep our job. It’s not that most people, even in this economy, walk around in fear of losing their job all day. And that’s how academics imagine the university would be if they didn’t have tenure.

You also spend a little bit of time on the idea that we’re not really evaluating professors in a productive way—students might not know which professors [are most effective] until years after the fact, and other professors might not know how to evaluate their peers. Are there any promising evaluation systems that you’ve seen?

You have to think about getting as much feedback as possible from different kinds of elements. I think student evaluations are part of that process, but they’re not the whole process. Having a colleague sit in on your class is important, and having administrators sit in on your class is important. A lot of professors would really balk at the notion that the college president should be in their class, but there’s a lot to be said for that. For senior people who have had some experience in the classroom, they can figure out whether you’re doing a good job engaging with your students and teaching them some serious material. The other thing that I really think would be a good idea—and a couple of universities are starting to do this—is young-alumni evaluations, where you ask people a few years out to reflect on who were the best professors they had and think about which classes have stayed with them into their careers.

There’s a whole chapter I devote to the emphasis on research over teaching, which I think is a huge problem in the academy, and I think tenure is really a system that is designed to reward research: “This is your paper. This is your field medal. This is your Nobel Prize. Congratulations, you are so valuable to the university that we’ll give you tenure.” I don’t think that’s what most undergraduates need or care about—or should care about.

You get at this idea that the students and parents are the consumers of higher education, but they don’t always know what they’re looking for. What advice would you give to people who are starting their college search?

The first thing I would say—and I know this may sound obvious—is visit colleges when classes are in session. The number of people who decide to go on their college tours over the summer always amazes me. The scenery on campus might be a nice perk but that should not be the most important thing for you.

The second thing I would say, obviously, after that, is to sit in on some classes and talk to some students about their contact with professors—how much they have, how many of their classes are taught by graduate students or adjuncts, how much access they have to professors, how the grading is done. Do they feel like somebody is actually paying attention to what they’re writing, or is it just “Great job, A, congratulations”? Most people would agree if they look back on the classes that are most important to them, it’s the engagement with the professors on a fairly regular basis—not just in terms of going to their office and chatting—in terms of going through a real learning process with the material and getting real feedback from professors about it.

The last piece I wanted to talk to you about is adjuncts. I know they get a chapter as the “underclass” in your book. What impact does that have on student learning?

It seems to me that universities are creating for themselves this false dichotomy: Either we have someone we can tell a week before classes whether they have a job or not, or we give someone a job for life. That’s just not the way the rest of the world works, and I don’t see any reason why the academy has to work that way.

There are some studies that suggest that when schools add a certain number of adjuncts to their faculty, the graduation rates actually fall. There are also some studies that suggest grade inflation actually goes up. It’s interesting that both of those things happen at the same time. But first of all, going back to what we were talking about before about evaluations: Adjuncts are almost entirely evaluated with student evaluations. So adjuncts have every incentive to use grade inflation because that is the only way they know they will be able to get their job next semester. Adjuncts are often employed on multiple campuses. They don’t have time to spend with students. They don’t have time for office hours. They often don’t have offices at all … Some of the adjuncts are great teachers, but some of them are doing a lot of teaching because they’re at the bottom of the totem pole.

It should be the most-senior lecturers that are in front of large numbers of young, introductory classes because they’re the ones who really know how to teach and have the experience. And instead it’s the most inexperienced people that we put in front of the classrooms, while the senior people are off either teaching small numbers of people who are already interested in the subjects, or the senior people are just doing research. The whole system has gotten somehow turned upside down in a way that I find disappointing.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *