The future of higher education in America

Mark C. Taylor, the chair of the religion department at Columbia, had an interesting editorial in the New York Times yesterday on what he perceives as the need to completely remake higher education in the United States. Among other things, he suggested that we jettison the concept of tenure, and completely restructure our graduate degree programs so that, instead of being discipline-centric, they’re build around specific problem areas, which are reevaluated at 7-year intervals. I don’t agree with much of what Taylor says, but I did find the concept of reorganizing programs of study around specific issues facing humanity to be worth consideration… Here, for what it’s worth, is a clip:

…If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge…

And, just because I know it’ll get a response out of my friends currently seeking tenure around the country, here’s what Taylor has to say about that venerable institution:

…Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills…

And, while we’re on the subject, it’s probably also worth mentioning the new piece in Time on how some public universities, facing ever-deepening funding cuts from their states, may be forced to consider going private.

Clearly change of some kind is afoot… I’m curious to hear what those of you in academia think.

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  1. Ol' E Cross
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Tenure has to be protected. But tenure has to go.

    Q: Why must we protect tenure? A: For intellectual freedom.
    Q: Why must it go? A: See Taylor above.

    So, let’s separate wheat from chaff. Let’s disassociate tenure from financial gain. Currently, I dare suggest, the motivation for many people to achieve tenure is job stability and pay scale. The concept behind tenure is intellectual freedom. That is what ,and all, tenure should protect.

  2. Posted April 28, 2009 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Well said.

  3. TeacherPatti
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    My silly school browser won’t let me open the article (it is very picky about what it likes to open; fortunately, it seems to love you, Mark!), so I can’t read it. Thus, I hope that my comments don’t sound idiotic…or any more idiotic than usual. :)

    I teach in the K-12 system, where “tenure” is pretty much automatic after 4 years of teaching in a district. I put that word in quotes b/c it really isn’t “tenure” so much as “due process”. That is, we can’t be fired unless we get due process. There is no “lifetime guarantee” of a job for us, b/c people with 10+ years are now finding themselves laid off (in certain subjects…social studies, English, electives). I have seen the “dark side” of tenure, both as a teacher and as a student. It sounds like a stereotype, but it is true…teachers who won’t differentiate curriculum, teachers refusing to take “certain” (read: special ed) students, teachers who use the same lesson plan year after year after year (hell, in law school, this dude had been teaching since 1957 and used the same laminated notes from the 70s…fellow classmates’ parents confirmed this; granted, contracts law doesn’t change all that much, but still). Ol E. Cross’ idea is probably the most sane idea that I’ve heard on the, how to get institutions to change???

    From what I read in your post, Mark, I kind of like the restructuring of departments idea. I teach middle schoolers and we were talking about realistic careers for people with visual impairments. The kids asked me about different majors. Please please please know that I don’t mean ANY disrespect to certain majors, but I had a hard time describing what to do with certain majors. There isn’t a “Cubicle Farm major”, and that’s what so many folks end up doing. I had to be honest and realistic and say that in all likelihood, they will probably end up with a desk job and, in many cases, it won’t really much matter what you majored in. (They would rather die than be teachers, so the education major is out :) And they know better than to be lawyers…they’ve heard me talk about it enough :)). Why DO we have the majors that we do: History, English, Philosophy, Math, Political Science…I’m not dissing on them, but how did we arrive at those, especially since many don’t have a clear career path (I majored in Poli Sci and Communications in undergrad, but I was planning on law school…otherwise, I’m not sure what I could have done)

    And this usually causes a ruckus (a ruckus? could you describe the ruckus, sir?), but I’ll say it anyway…is anyone talking about higher ed salaries and the new trend of hiring low paid adjuncts? I’ve gone to two schools that didn’t have strict publish or perish rules, professors taught maybe 20 hours a week, yet made close to $100k. I’m sure they had other stuff to do, but from the outside, it looked fairly cushy. (Yes, I know we have to “pay more” to “attract good people to teaching”…this line may have worked in the very late 90s, but I think A LOT of people would take a higher ed job at less pay). Given the high salaries commanded by full professors, colleges are now hiring adjuncts who get no benefits and are paid a couple grand per class. Personally, I’ve had awesome adjunct teachers, but you can’t live on two grand a semester (most people can’t).

    (Sorry to ramble on…the kids are in music and I’m all prepped up for today and I’m lonely :))

  4. Posted April 28, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    An admirable academic effort, but unreasonably esoteric, likely incredibly costly, and impossible to achieve on a wide scale at a large institution.

    The only people complaining about tenure are the people who don’t have it.

  5. Posted April 28, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    “Given the high salaries commanded by full professors, colleges are now hiring adjuncts who get no benefits and are paid a couple grand per class. Personally, I’ve had awesome adjunct teachers, but you can’t live on two grand a semester (most people can’t).”

    I disagree. Adjuncts are like outsourcing, if unversities could pay everybody that wage, they would. Unfortunately, like whores that will give $2 blowjobs, there are armies of people willing to work for nothing, bringing down the wage for everyone.

    Tenure and contracts for professors provides them with a fair wage that the unversities would not pay, given a choice. This is like blaming the illegal immigrant situation on the unions.

  6. E. G. Penet
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Do not change the wide array of curriculum … simply be ready to meet students demands for programs that attract them for personal, academic or issue-related reasons. Aside: Although we now have an entire generation of unemployable MBAs who weree taught wrong about how markets work, I think we let the students gravitate to programs that attract them, and fight to keep other academic programs going.

    Tenure, schmenure, who cares. As long as the classrooms are filled and alive and have a qualified teacher controlling the chalk.

  7. Swartzman
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Tenure is hard to come by these days. Some universities run almost exclusively on poorly paid graduate assistants and adjuncts. I’d liken them to slaves more than I would $2 prostitutes. They likely went into their fields thinking that they would one day get professorships of their own, only to find that such jobs didn’t exist.

  8. Lecturer
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    As a lecturer at EMU, I take great offense at being compared to a 2 dollar whore. And the idea that my pay is “bringing down the wage for everyone” is idiotic.

    Faculty wages at EMU outpace every other employee group. If they get a 3.5 percent raise, it drops from 3 to 2 for other groups. Everyone else pays a share of health care, even low paid hourly workers. Faculty does not. Everyone else is forced to pay for a parking pass. Faculty are not. Recently, some (I’m not sure if it is all) departments dropped lecturer pay from $1000 per credit hour to $900 while faculty pay rates increase more than any other group.

    I’ve been teaching longer than half the faculty in my department. I revise my curriculum every semester because I want to and because I have to. I work on two year contracts. Mine is up soon which is why I’m posting anonymously. If I had tenure, I’d give my name. I have two year increments of relative job security. The excellent adjuncts I work with have four months. None of us have “intellectual freedom.” This doesn’t seem to concern any faculty member.

    Dude, it’s like you’re blaming immigrants for lowering executive pay packages, except they aren’t, are they? They’re doing the opposite.

  9. Posted April 29, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Whatever, the universities take advantage of your dedication to the profession and the people with tenure (or the ones on the way) are the only ones with leverage to complain.

    I’ve seen good teachers walk away from teaching because the pay was so bad, and seen 3rd rate, out of work losers walk in to take their place. That, to me, is a problem and the unversities don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it.

    You are at EMU, which is by nature corrupt and more willing to build up its president’s house and fatten the administration’s paychecks than it is to raise the pay for adjuncts. It’s misplaced to blame bad pay for adjuncts on the professors. I believe that the profs are getting a fair wage. Without them, the university wouldn’t exist.

  10. Kevin
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Well, as someone looking down the barrel of the tenure shotgun, I can say that I can’t really imagine doing this job without tenure as a goal/reward. Given that, I don’t really have the time to respond to this guy point by point, since I have 500 things I have to do. I’m amazed that someone at Columbia could have such a warped and twisted view of what gradaute students and professors in the sciences actually do. All he has to do is walk across the courtyard and talk to one of his colleagues. Graduate students are not slaves–they are hard-working, creative, vibrant researchers who still need some guidance to develop. In the sciences, they do not need to incur debt. The starting stipend for my department at the UM next fall will the the rate negotiated with Graduate Employees Organization (keep in mind most private universities do not have unionized graduate students). It is livable for people in their early to mid 20s in a place like Ann Arbor/Ypsi. Of course, outside of the sciences there is a bigger problem since research is not funded at anywhere near the same levels as it is in science and engineering. On the other hand, there are not too many companies that rely on humanities PhDs, but there are lots of businesses that take advantage of the technical abilities and problem solving skills of science/engineering PhDs. As a matter of principle, I strongly oppose any attempt to limit, reduce or subjugate non-science just because there is less funding.

    One last point–since I am not going to debate his, in my view, non-debatable positions–although the specific subject matter of academic research in science is specialized and sometime parochial, the best scientists in the best departments are almost always integrative and cross-disciplinary. In fact his very suggestion that we teach “water” is diametrically opposed to his thesis: why only water? If I understand something about all molecules, or all liquids, why do I have to specialize in just one? Indeed water is special, and is a very hot topic in current research in many contexts–from the search for extraterrestrial life to designing better drugs–but the scientists who study water also study other things, and are fully aware that water alone is not the whole story. What makes water itself so amazing (ice floats!) is precisely the interactions between the molecules. And what makes modern vibrant university research so exciting are the interactions between colleagues, including in that number the graduate (and undergraduate!) students, the postdocs, other faculty, and, I hope more so, the community at large.

    I just finished grading my students’ final exam. When I reflect on the term, I try to think about the ah ha moments, and the unexpected smiles that come from a student “getting it” and realizing why getting it is important for whatever they are interested in outside of my class. Almost without fail the students respond to examples that draw from current research results. It makes them see that what we are doing is alive and part of the community of ideas.

    For example, wouldn’t you like to know why soda water makes your tongue hurt? Even better, wouldn’t you like to know that has anything to do with global warming and shellfish?

  11. Kevin
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I’ll revise my comment since I edited too hastily as I was distracted (by meeting with an undergraduate who wants to do research in my lab next fall):

    “Even better, wouldn’t you like to know why that [tongue hurting from soda water] has anything to do with global warming and shellfish?”

    We regret the error…

  12. Posted April 29, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who though this article was stupid as shit.

  13. Posted April 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your comments.

    And, according to UM President Mary Sue Coleman, the University isn’t going private.

  14. Ol' E Cross
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink


    What do you see as the potential reward of tenure? I.e., what is it about tenure that motivates you to do what you’re doing more than any other motivation?

  15. Mark H.
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    I think this Columbia religion prof has a few good ideas, not original with him but hey he got them into the NYTIMES, but he’s mostly too isolated in his ivory tower to have a clue as to what’s right and wrong in higher education. I got my PhD at Columbia, and know those ivy grounds fairly well, but both there and at more typical universities (which means regional state universities, which is where most American college students attend), it’s absurd to claim that a professor is autonomous and as removed from real life responsibilities as he imagines. Of course, there are horror stories — which is true of every profession. (Hear of the surgeon who cut off the wrong arm? Let’s abolish surgery teams!)

    The ending of tenure idea is an old idea, and a stupid one. Tenure protects academic freedom, it’s hard to earn, and it’s not as absolute as he imagines (I’ve participated in firing a tenured professor for failure to meet professional obligations: a rare thing, but it happens). Further, as Kevin notes, without tenure, what’s the incentive for highly talented people to pursue lengthy and very specialized educations to enter a profession with relatively low pay compared to the entrance requirements? Nobody goes into college teaching, OEC, for the money, but the prospect of say, a biologist being at the whim of an administrator or Trustee or governor who doesn’t want evolution taught — or of a historian who’s professional grasp of say how slavery caused the Civil War conflicts with a powerful university funder — would be extraordinarily chilling. American universities are far from perfect — see my favorite book, Derek Bok’s OUR UNDERACHIEVING COLLEGES — but they are the greatest source of knowledge in the world. They are key to American and global hopes. And their achievements rest on academic freedom, which doesn’t exist without tenure.

    Let’s reform higher ed, but let’s start with reasonable ideas rather than radical right wing ideas. That some tenured profs are substandard is true, and there should be effective monitoring of professional standards in the profession; but to attack tenure is to attack higher education instruction.

    Tenure actually protects accountability overall rather than minimizing it. Without tenure academics would be judged solely by outsiders from their disciplines, rather than protected by their right to earn and maintain tenure.

    Sorry to rush.

  16. Posted April 30, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Lecturer said:
    “Everyone else pays a share of health care, even low paid hourly workers. Faculty does not. Everyone else is forced to pay for a parking pass. Faculty are not.”

    Why is this, I wonder? Don’t other workers have unions, too?
    And I could be wrong, but don’t some faculty members have the 4 month summer break? So would that mean that they are working fewer hours than others? (I know that many have to do research during “off” time though). Hey, do they get paid during the summer months if they don’t teach?

    [I’d like to dispel a rumor about K-12 teachers…we DO NOT get paid for summer months. The only way you get $ is if you take 26 pays instead of 22. (I take the latter, given my district!!!!) In other words, it’s the same $xxxx, just spread out over the whole year instead of 9.5 months.]

  17. Lecturer
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink


    All non-management full time employees are unionized (graduate students and adjuncts are not). The faculty union has close to 700 members. Lecturers have about 130, scattered and often isolated across departments. They operate on short, temporary contracts. The other employee groups are fragmented into individual unions. I believe the union for office administrators is the next largest, with over 300 members. The striking power of faculty is immense compared to other groups.

    And yes, faculty work on a 8 month contract, as do most lecturers. Spring/summer courses are added income.

  18. Kevin
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    To Ed’s question: Why tenure for me? It’s a tough question, and I understand the arguments against it. First of all, post-tenure does not mean “long vacation”. If anything the pressure increases because with tenure comes the expectation of leadership. Anyway…Assistant professors are trying to build a lab (I make no claims to understand non-science), carve out a niche (but interesting and fundable) research area, train graduate students, mentor postdocs, recruit new graduate students, review other scientists’ papers and grants, write your own papers and grants, serve on multiple committees, invite outside speakers and host them, attend meetings to learn what others are doing while selling the significance of your own work, fix crap in the lab when you’re the only one who can, and……………teach (as if most of the other stuff isn’t teaching too). So whatever, everyone has a lot to do, I usually work a minimum of 12 hours a day, and I actually really enjoy it. The theme of the above duties, however, is that they are largely personal. My job is to make “my” mark and get it recognized by my senior colleagues at peer institutions so that they will write favorable letters to my tenure committee. Now, I’m definitely not that full of myself that I actually see it like that, if I did this would be torture. Instead I look at my l job like this: interact with an exceptional group of young scientists, with diverse backgrounds and future goals, share with them my enthusiasm for unlocking nature’s mysteries, be critical of their data, skeptical of their conclusions, but supportive of them as thinkers so they will have the guts to come up with their own ideas. I try to provide a safe and fertile intellectual environment, with enough experience that they don’t end up down too many garden paths, but not to shut off all garden paths. They work in the physical lab, and I try to foster a “lab of ideas” with them as coworkers. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?

    Now here’s the thing. There is not infinite time. I need to prove “myself” by about year 5 or 6, which means we can’t just lounge around in a beanbag chair of thoughtful bliss forever. We need to produce results so that when the “letter writers” get my package they will say I will continue to be successful. What are the inevitable consequences of this? First, we try to publish our results as soon as we can, and often it is too soon. Fortunately the peer review process (much faster in science than non-science) allows some correction, but often reviewers do not catch problems that we catch ourselves. Second, we must tackle manageable problems that will lead to publishable results in a short, < 6 month, timescale (per student, for example). That leads to about 2 publications per year per student, and with 3-4 students (typical for my area) I would have enough papers for an open-and-shut tenure case. Also, that publishing rate only really happens in years 3+, since we have to first build a ridiculously complicated lab from scratch.

    Tenure enables this: risk. Doesn’t that surprise you? Most people think tenure is about security. It is: job security that enables intellectual risk. I think “academic freedom” is an old-fashioned term. It might mean something t0 those who say “controversial” things, but rarely are scientists really worried about that. What we are worried about is, can I start this potentially paradigm-defining research project even though I might not get tangeable results for 3-5 years? Now, the realities are that somehow I am going to have to find funding for my research group from folks like the NSF, NIH, Navy, DOE, etc.. But some of those funding agencies are more long-term focused than the 7-year time horizon proposed by the Columbia professor.

    The senior tenured faculty have analogous pressures. Rather than build their own “names” they have to advance the position of the department on the national stage. They are expected to spearhead bold initiatives, and to coordinate large proposals for research centers, large equipment, often needing to bring together researchers from varied disciplines that don’t necessarily share the same culture or speak the same language (figuratively, usually). They are chairs of the committees, serve on external panels, edit journals, consult, start spin-offs, organize meetings and travel to other schools often since they are so famous (they hope). Each and every one of these duties deprives them of precious deep thinking time and opportunities to directly interact with their grad students and postdocs. Oh, and they also “teach”.

    Another reason that tenure is beneficial to scholarly and pedagogical progress is that I think scientists are a lot like artists–they are never truly satisfied with what they have done, and they always see ways to improve or make more impactful their work. As a guitarist, I have never been an artist. Though technically proficient, I always saw playing guitar as fun, and I lacked the self-criticism that I came to know separated the artists from the players. It’s a cliche, but most scientists realize that as one advances in a career, one merely augments one’s awareness of one’s ignorance. This can be a fightening pursuit, and tenure is one security that we can count on.

  19. Ol' E Cross
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink


    Thank you for that very thoughtful reply. If you allow me to digress, it reminds of a minister I once knew. He worked six days a week, 50-70 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. He told me he had colleagues that changed churches every three years because they had three years of sermons in the can. He’d been at the same church 16 years and spent 30 hours a week researching and writing his sermons. Being a minister, he said, could be among the easiest or hardest jobs around, depending on how you approached it.

    Obviously, I’m drawing a parallel. I doubt my undergraduate experience was that different than others (for the record it was in liberal arts, although the science profs who seemed annoyed by having to deal with rudimentary students were among the worst). The difference among my profs in teaching ability and effort and care for the students was stark, to say the least. There were people that challenged and inspired me and people that were lecturing from yellowed notes who never learned our names and barely read our work.

    I respect the crucial role of the university for research, but your schedule seems to reflect how teaching is one of many demands and success in actually teaching can be (not suggesting in your case) a secondary, at best, concern in achieving tenure.

    Along those lines, I’d like to engage Mark H.

    You said, you had to participate in dismissing a tenured colleague forfailure to meet professional obligations. Were those obligations for lack of attendance of meetings, publications, and conferences, or were they failed obligations for performance in the classroom? Does anyone know of a tenured professor who was dismissed because they simply sucked at teaching?

    To be candid, my concerns are about power relationships. Many students are paying a great deal, personally and financially, because, according to universities and society, if you want a decent job, you have to graduate college. (It’s probably different in the Ivy Leauge; I want to a state school [not EMU] and worked to pay for it.) Students are told their future depends on their success in this institution and there profs hold ultimate power over their success. At some schools, these students are paying for daycare, taking on enormous loans, and risking their physical and mental health for this promise.

    Evaluations for tenure and its security and financial reward, I think, should measure the effectiveness of actually teaching and preparing these students.

    I find the power tenure provides the worst profs in abusing students to be equally as chilling as Mark H’s scenario. As I said, tenure is needed to protect intellectual freedom aka risk. Tenure should not be used to shield that and that alone. The academy needs to figure out how to protect the one without sacrificing students’ education.

    Profs like Kevin should be rewarded. The old fart never graded a paper and sexually harassed my friend, who was at the end of her graduate degree and felt powerless to report his “come over to my place to discuss your assignment” and pervasive leering, needs to be shown the door.

    Ideally, current faculty will distinguish between the two and start evaluating how teachers interact with students as a primary consideration for tenure and continued employment.

  20. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 2, 2009 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Did my typos above discourage any response? Dammit. Is it too late to correct them?

  21. Mark H.
    Posted May 2, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink


    Tenure should not be used to protect any faculty member who “abuses” students. Absolutely never should be. What’s needed in situations where such abuses are alleged is a fair investigation with due process.

    And yes, I know of tenured profs who’ve lost their jobs for failure to meet professional obligations, which most certainly include teaching responsibilities. Beyond that, I cannot speak of specifics I know of first hand, since I am not writing here anonymously in any real sense (Mark H means Mark Higbee, for anyone who doesn’t know that and still cares, and I work at EMU as a history professor).

    In contrast, I’ve never heard of a tenured prof being fired for not publishing enough. Denied a raise, yes; denied a promotion, yes. Tenure is not absolute, but it is not casually broken and should not be.

    Further, OEC, I don’t think your perspective is entirely fair: To blame any abusive behavior or poor teaching that might take place on the tenure system is misplaced. Tenured faculty are required to stay professionally active; each institution defines that differently. But if a given institution has failed to ensure ethical misconduct, or even unlawful misconduct as in your example of sexual harassment, that is hardly the fault of tenure. Saying that tenure protects incompetence or abuse is like saying due process protects criminals: both statements are wrong. No tenure system is perfect, nor are due process requirements always clear; but they are both essential features of a civilized society.

    That university and college faculties are not always adept at teaching effectively is clearly true. No group has shown this to be so more effectively than the university faculty members engaged in the what’s called the “scholarship of teaching and learning” or SOTL — but poor teaching is a problem independent of tenure. To blame poor teaching on tenure is far too simple-minded, and it also risks eliminating experts from the classroom and replacing them with feel-good, fun teachers who may lack expertise. Higher ed does need, desperately need, to focus more on effective learning and teaching— and SOTL scholars are tackling that huge and complex problem.

    The former Harvard presidenet, Derek Bok, has a great book, OUR UNDERACHIEVING COLLEGES, that makes the case for the need for higher ed to do much to improve what college students learn. His critique is data-driven and looks at all types of higher education institutions in America, aside from the community colleges, which comprise a different situation.

    EMU next week is hosting a Scholarship of Learning and Teaching Academy, for professors from Eastern and many other schools. A very worthwhile effort, spearheaded by a couple of tenured EMU professors…..

    And if anyone thinks that eliminating tenure will somehow inspire experts in diverse and complex fields of learning to undertake the complex tasks of devising whys to change the curriculum and teaching methods to more effectively teach to the broad and diverse range of students in American college classrooms today….well, I’d like to read why such people think providing LESS incentives will induce experts to work HARDER in their fields to accomplish worthy goals. Since many foes of tenure dress up their arguments in free-market rhetoric, this is a striking contradiction, as free market advocates usually recognize that tangible rewards shape behavior.

  22. Mark H.
    Posted May 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    haste makes error: here’s the proper version of a sentence in my above post, with the previously omitted word in all CAPS: ” But if a given institution has failed to ensure THAT ethical misconduct or even unlawful misconduct as in your example of sexual harassment IS PROPERLY INVESTIGATED AND PUNISHMENT IMPOSED, that is hardly the fault of tenure. ” Sorry

  23. Posted May 2, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Amen. I get the impression that a lot of folks complaining about tenure know little about how academia works outside of their own undergraduate education. Thank you for your informative and correct post.

  24. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Permalink


    Ideally, current faculty will distinguish between the two and start evaluating how teachers interact with students as a primary consideration for tenure and continued employment.

    If you read above, I’ve never advocated eliminating tenure, like you, I’d like to strive to reform it towards that ideal. However…

    To blame any abusive behavior or poor teaching that might take place on the tenure system is misplaced. Tenure may not be to blame as a “cause,” i.e., tenure doesn’t create bad teaching it sure does seem to be an enabler, sometimes.

    I’m struggling to find any real points of departure, here. I think we’d like to strive towards the same ideal. But that striving can come from university administration (with lots of union resistance), market forces (with lots of detriment to the democratic education), state governments (since state institutions are just that), or from within (i.e., tenured profs self-critically examining tenure and pushing for reform).

    Personally, I’d like to see profs pushing for your stated ideal which I agree with, instead of viewing tenure, in its current form, as sacred and any alternatives simply “stupid ones.”

    This isn’t a threat on my part, at all; it’s a prediction. There’s enough folks out there with job insecurity, high taxes, and bad memories of the worst of profs that if a ballot initiative was started to abolish tenure it’d have a hell of a good chance at passing.

    Again, I’ve had great, great profs. I’m not anti prof. I’m not anti tenure. But someone in the system needs to press for the ideal.

    One idea for EMU AAUP. Conduct a survey of current students, lecturers and other staff. Get a sense of their experience with profs. Go from there.

  25. Lecturer
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been on a brief vacation, between semesters. I apologize if this has lost interest. But, having been called a “whore” previously I can’t help but wonder if I’ve since been called one of the “feel-good, fun teachers who may lack expertise.”

    Anyone who thinks that encouraging students to “feel good” about themselves and encourages “fun” can be somehow disassociated with expertise and learning is so far out of touch with empirical research in pedagogy that it makes me shudder. If you make students feel stupid, you will get stupid. Talk about a demonstrative lack of “expertise.”

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