Get Ready to Move and Academic Tenure

This blog will be moving pretty soon, I’ll let you know.

Meantime, I wanted to comment on an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Squaring Off on Education. Now – how does this square with physics? You get most of it in college – right?

It broaches six critical college education issues with advocates making their cases on both sides (yes/no). I’ll just deal with the subject of tenure; a thorny issue for a number of years as it carries connotations such as ‘gilded cage for has beens’, ‘ a means to guarantee poor teaching skills’ and ”provides a means for scummy graduate professors to hit on their female grad students”. I have witnessed these three conditions so to speak, though I can’t say how prevalent it really is. I can say that for a long time obtaining academic tenure in the US is based mostly on number of publications followed closely by grant $.

It is my belief  tenure is bad for students in the several conditions I mention above. This is in agreement with Naomi Schaefer Riley- the article’s advocate for abolishing tenure. Ms. Riley  states that some professors claim  publications provide a means of quantitative measurement as opposed to  teaching ability which can’t be quantitifed. This is not really true as there are teaching evaluations by students and then peer evaluations that can be added. Within many large university departments, the teaching load is mostly covered by underpaid and overworked adjuncts, relieving professors to focus nearly a hundred percent to research.

Successful publications and research are always followed by grants, larger endowments and  monetary gifts. This also lifts the onus of high teaching professionalism from a professor’s shoulders so it’s reasonable to place a heavy emphasis on it.  But has it been too heavy an emphasis all along?

The ‘for tenure’ advocate Gary Nelson, Professor of English at University of Illlinois, claims that tenure protects those professors who make creative jumps; the risk takers. He believes that due to  the shortage of academic positions available to researchers/new professors, colleges can be choosy about whom they hire and as such can hire the best teachers. My answer to that – colleges don’t really look at teaching ability in the hiring process – it’s the last thing – it has to do with $$$ – period.

Many years ago, I was part of a committee evaluating candidates for a tenure track position. I was not  tenured professor myself so being exempt from the final vote – I had no say in final outcome. The person the physics department eventually hired had also interviewed at another institution about 30 minutes away. He was rejected there. We interviewed him, observing his teaching style in several classes. It was amazing – no teaching skills at all and what was worse he seemed extremely uncomfortable in the classroom, often having problems explaining the two equations he managed to get onto the board. He was a tenured professor trying to leave a university in Alabama.

Dead weight in a 21st century university physics department? You bet.

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About Deborah Leddon

Vegetarian Mother and Wife, Scientist at UTD CSS, passionate about my family, animal rights, the outdoors and my violin.
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