The point of tenure originated as a means to ensure academic freedom, in addition to making professorship attractive from an economic security standpoint. But such security over the years has lead some to question whether tenured positions -- from which a person could only be fired for adequate cause and after a hearing -- are the best system for the students.
A study found students performed better when taught by an untenured professor, but some this won't be the case at all universities. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that students learned more from non-tenured professors than those on a tenured track -- at least at one university.
Looking at eight different groups of first-year students at Northwestern University, researchers found "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," the abstract of the study stated.
To account for different variables, the researchers wrote that they used a "unique identification strategy" to control "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 tried every possible thing we could to see if this result was fragile," the study's lead author David Figlio, Director of Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "In every single specification we tried, this result came up."
Of the results more specifically, they found students taught by an untenured professor were more likely to take a second course in the subject as well as get a better grade in the next course.
"A nontenure-track faculty member increases the likelihood that a student will take another class in the subject by 7.3 percentage points and increases the grade earned in that subsequent class by slightly more than one-tenth of a grade point," the Chronicles noted of the study.
Still, the Chronicles pointed out that given the research was limited to Northwestern students, its conclusions are therefore not widely applicable. The education publication also reported another study at a different academic institution found the opposite result -- being taught by full-time professors ended up resulting in higher grades for students.
Figlio noted that untenured faculty at Northwestern might not be representative of those at other colleges and universities as well.
"This is not someone we're hiring once to fill a gap and then getting rid of," he said, since a strong majority of adjunct professors have been with the university for at least six quarters.
Instead of using the conclusions to suggest tenure should be reconsidered, Figlio said it might reaffirm a practice of hiring tenure-track professors to focus on research and adjunct, non-permanent, professors to focus on classroom teaching.
"...the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure-track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university's multitasking problem," the study stated.
Featured image via Shutterstock.com.