Last week, I had a few people pass on an article to me about a study that suggested that non-tenure track faculty were better teachers than tenure-track faculty. You can read the article by clicking here. In short, the article reported that students at Northwestern who took introductory courses from non-tenure faculty were about 7% more likely to take another course in the same discipline and to score about one-tenth of a grade point higher on that second course than students who took their introductory course from a tenure-track faculty member.
For those of you who don’t know, tenure track faculty have teaching, research, and service activities. They are evaluated on all three dimensions. In most university settings very high standards apply, including having a national reputation for thought leadership in their chosen field of research. Non-tenure track faculty typically are evaluated almost solely on their teaching prowess. If they are not good at this, there is little reason to keep them.
I haven’t read the study, but based on the report I am unimpressed by such small differences in outcomes. Given non-tenure track faculty specialize in teaching and that introductory courses typically require more one-on-one interaction to help orient new students to the discipline, I would have expected the differences to be greater. If anything, the study may help discount the myth that only non-tenure track faculty care about their teaching.
But from where I sit, the article’s primary concern is misplaced. We have some very fine non-tenure track faculty in our college. Unlike most colleges, many of our non-tenure track faculty engage in some form of scholarly activity; they also make important contributions through sharing their practical experience with students. For a professional school such as business, there is more than enough room in the curriculum for some courses to be taught from a theoretical perspective and others to be taught through a more experienced-based approach.
The concern isn’t over who can best teach introductory undergraduate courses, but how the increasing use of non-tenure track faculty is impacting the very nature of the university. What separates universities from state and community colleges is the emphasis on discovery (basic research) and how this permeates the culture of the institution and makes it an incredibly dynamic place. Non-tenure track faculty, in contrast, are charged with communicating state-of-the-art practice. The concern is that the more we rely on non-tenure track faculty, the more we lose the opportunity to encourage discovery and a forward focus and the more we risk that our students will fail to see the future, practice will stagnate and society will stall. Let me put this a different way: if given the chance who would you rather sit on a log with — the person who is paid to explain an idea to you, or the person who came up with the idea in the first place and is working on new ideas to push us forward? I worry way more about putting thought leaders on logs than the average grade point average in introductory courses or how many people move on to a second course in business.