In the New York Times, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Adam Grant has proposed “A Solution for Bad Teaching.” It’s yet another intriguing, provocative blaming of tenure for poor teaching. It’s also a prime example of having something outlandish to say (which the Times loves) but not actually saying anything important, or for that matter, logical: it begins with a faulty premise, uses outdated data, and comes up with a solution that in fact, has already de facto been implemented, but in fact does not address the problem how he’s set it up. Maybe the easiest way to consider this is to go from the conclusion, and work our way backwards. For this post, let’s consider Grant’s solution: multiple tenure tracks.
Grant’s solution to what he characterizes as “bad teaching” (although he doesn’t define it) is to create two or three tenure tracks, rather than one. His point is that currently research prowess is the sina qua non of tenure, but there should also be a teaching tenure-track, and perhaps, as well, some sort of combo tenure track which would take both into account. Brilliant! Oh wait, it’s already here: Grant has a research-university view of the world, having gotten his degrees from Harvard and Michigan, and now teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. At these institutions, research does indeed come first. But let’s think about the overall distribution of tenured and tenure-track professors in the U.S. The kinds of institutions he’s talking about are research institutions. According to the Carnegie foundation classifications of institutions in the U.S., these institutions (if we count “very high research,” “high research,” and “research” institutions) constitute about 6.3% of all U.S institutions of higher learning. Because the big state universities fall under this category, they educate a disproportionate number of students (about 27.9%).
What about the rest of the country? The tenure requirements and expectations are in fact much different at other kinds of institutions, and even among departments at some institutions. At primarily teaching institutions, tenure is much more predicated on good teaching, and, amazingly enough, at institutions that value a mix of research and teaching, both are considered for tenure. Voila! What Grant suggested is in fact already the practice as a whole in higher education in the U.S. If this is the solution, I guess we’re already there.