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Confirming My Bias

This was “only” at Northwestern of course – results probably not generalizeable:

Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?
NBER Working Paper #19406 by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, Kevin B. Soter 

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning.  We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both
student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty.  We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses.  These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and
are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.

6 Responses to “Confirming My Bias”

  1. Harry says:

    So what is the justification for tenure at any level? It was once explained to me that it was about academic freedom, going back to the University of Salamanca and the Spanish Inquisition, where Deniers might have been literally fired from their jobs,

    But, with forty years of PC speech codes behind us, the academic freedom argument has evaporated, and has been replaced with posters in toilet stalls with inspirational messages to think green, and conserve toilet paper. For such foolishness are we to protect the tenured professors?

    How does university management tolerate this? Well, what university president has not himself or herself not been a member of the guild, except for Eisenhower, president of Columbia, having defeated the Germans?

    Seriously, what are the good arguments for tenure? I would like to hear any.

    • RIT_Rich says:

      No arguments are necessary. Realistically, they don’t have to have a justification for this policy, any more than a company like Xerox or Kodak or Boeing has to justify why no one ever gets fired from their companies.

      But, thinking why, I would say it is because it is a job perk. It is a means of attracting people into the career. Someone who just put in 5 or 10 years of their life into getting a PhD, is looking for long-term security to “pay back” their investment (not literally pay back, since the PhD was free, but to recoup the lost years of low income).

      Second, research is tricky and has uncertain payoffs, no matter what field you’re in. When there is such high uncertainty, and when your career rides on the back of 1 or 2 projects, you want certainty from some other source. Tenure is it.

      Third, tenure doesn’t come “automatically” due to seniority (not at universities). It comes after demonstrating research potential. It incentivizes people to be highly productive, in order to GET tenure.

      Fourth, people with tenure don’t necessarily get paid more than people without it. Wages seem to stagnate after tenure, precisely because of the added benefit of the perk. In fact, it is quite common that assistant professors may get paid more than full professors (mainly because the full professor would have slowed down both in research and teaching)

  2. Andrew says:

    Would like to see this methodology carried out at a variety of schools.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    Well, the devil is in the details. This is talking about “introductory courses”. Also, how “learns more” is measured is important.

    But more to the point, intro courses are useless to begin with, which is why it is usually nontenured profs that get the privilege of teaching them. If you are a tenured prof teaching them, it is because you either like them, or you’re out of luck, particularly at places like Northwestern (or any major research university).

    Second, why is “teaching” of such concern when it comes to professors? There are teaching schools, and research schools for a reason. The value of the research professors do, depending on the field, may be far more valuable than what they “teach” to students (at least the people who pay them seem to think so). So I’m not too crazy about the argument that somehow “teaching” is what matters when it comes to the quality or value of a professor. These are researchers, first and foremost. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    PS: That being said, my opinion is obviously tainted by my conflict of interest, being a PhD student and all.

  4. wintercow20 says:

    I’m pretty sure that if you tracked my students, you could conclude that I am the worst professor in human history. But of course, my intention is not to turn my intro students into Econ PhDs, my explicit focus is on the large majority who are not headed in that direction. And suppose the thing I most emphasize in class is, “try to get kids excited about learning and reading, and to not be a purveyor of poppycock,” how would one even start thinking about measuring how effective I am?

    • RIT_Rich says:

      Well, its an interesting paper (I just skimmed it), but obviously one shouldn’t read too much into it. As the paper itself points out, “tenured” professors represent the minority of total facility at universities today, so the arguments some make that “tenure” is causing some sort of problems in academia, doesn’t seem justifiable to me.

      From my experience so far in a PhD program, and one where there is only 1 non-tenured professor (but tenure track) in the entire faculty; measuring teaching at the undergrad level would be pretty meaningless for these people. They don’t specialize in that. But one has to ask, where does the value of such schools/programs/profs come from, if not undergrad? Well, I have no idea how much my school charges for an MBA, but I’m assuming its a LOT. Clearly there’s value being delivered there, otherwise people wouldn’t be running over each other to get in (same for Simon, for example).

      What I see happening is what we should expect to happen: more specialization in academia between teaching and research profs, and more specialization between the different levels of teaching as well. Which is good, I think.

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