The Unexamined Veil of Tenure

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 12, 2011

"How bad does bad have to get before they do something?"

The question was asked by "Sam," a young friend who was a graduate student in a well-known professional program. His classmates stood there with midevening cups of coffee, nodding in agreement. They were all in their 30s and worked full time during the day. Their second course of the night was about to begin, and they were commiserating about their professor. "They know he can't teach. The course evaluations consistently rank him lowest in the entire school. But they won't do anything."

"That's because he has tenure."

I was skeptical. As a long-time adjunct professor in some good graduate programs, I had heard my share of student moaning. But I knew this group of graduate students to be particularly bright, hard-working, and generally forgiving. So I decided to see for myself, and I sat in on several of the professor's classes. Pretty soon I was moaning, too.

For 75 minutes, Professor "Evans" read from his notes, rarely looked up, and never invited participation or questions. He seemed to be reading from a professional journal, or, more accurately, a draft article desperately in need of an editor. I was familiar with the subject and had done the assigned reading for the class. And yet I could understand less than half of what he said.

As he droned on, he flashed PowerPoint slides on a screen. They did not help. They were either rudimentary drawings or text-heavy transcriptions of his unintelligible prose. And to further torture his captive audience—this was a required course—he told them they would be tested on his "exact words." But he refused to leave the slides up long enough for anyone to copy them, and he refused to provide hard-copy printouts.

To compare Professor Evans with his peers, I sat in on several daytime sections of the same course taught by other professors. The difference was startling. His colleagues explained complex material clearly and engaged their students. There was a dialogue: Students asked thoughtful questions, and the professors responded equally thoughtfully—something that was noticeably missing in Professor Evans's classes. The evening students were right: He was a disaster.

If anything, the students in his course had understated the magnitude of the problem. Professor Evans was not just bad; he was horrible. He failed to do the two most important things any good teacher does: explain and inspire. In fact, he did just the opposite: He confused and discouraged them.

Why should I care about an ineffective graduate-school professor? After all, this wasn't K-12 education, where it is widely agreed that the impact of ineffective teaching can be devastating on a student's life. Here, no more than a few hundred graduate students were affected annually. Why was I finding this so disturbing?

Because evening students have earned my respect. As an adjunct and guest lecturer who has taught graduate courses during the day and at night, I am continually moved by evening students' dedication—especially since they are often treated like second-class citizens by campus administrators. Many evening programs are cash cows, in which resources and opportunities rarely match their daytime counterparts. Moreover, evening students rarely have the time or energy to complain.

With my visits to Professor Evans's classroom fresh in my mind, I asked several tenured friends how their institutions evaluated teaching by tenured professors. Specifically, I wanted to know how they handled the ones who were bad teachers.

They looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "Tenure? Evaluate? In the same sentence? That's an oxymoron," said one. Institutions may talk a lot about post-tenure review, but they don't actually do much with it. Clearly, tenure precluded any credible continuing evaluation, although one professor did claim that "we take the student evaluations very seriously."

I passed that claim on to my student friend, Sam, who decided to put it to the test.

Over the next few weeks, Sam analyzed teacher-and-course evaluations at his institution. (Every student is asked to complete such an evaluation in the last week of every course, and the scores are published on an internal portal that students can access.) He also compared those scores with evaluations of professors from 10 competitive graduate programs, using data on RateMyProfessor. And he conducted a survey among his classmates. (In his day job, Sam ran consumer research for a Fortune 500 company.) Armed with his findings, he secured a meeting with the dean and assistant dean.

Sam said the discussion began civilly. He laid out graphs that showed Professor Evans's evaluation scores compared with those of other members of his department and throughout the school. He ranked dead last in his department and in the bottom 5 percent of the school.

"Well, he has his supporters," said the assistant dean.

"I'm sure he does," said Sam. "But 75 percent of his students say they would never take another course with him. And look at the verbatim comments: They uniformly call him arrogant, confusing, and uninterested in students' comments."

"He's not everyone's cup of tea," said the dean. "The reviews are mixed."

"Fifty-fifty would be mixed," said Sam. "This is three-to-one against. In politics that would be called a landslide. And look how he compares with teachers from our 10 top competitors. He's in the bottom 5 percent."

"RateMyProfessor is worthless," said the assistant dean. "The methodology is flawed."

"We can disagree about whether the methodology is flawed," said Sam. "But you cannot ignore the site. Prospective students look at it."

Sam's analysis continued. He had also collected public data from the university showing the grade distribution on final exams given by professors teaching the same course in the department. "Professor Evans's students do noticeably worse on final exams than students taking the course from any other teacher in the department," Sam said. "That could mean that he was a tougher grader, which is his prerogative. Or it could mean that his students did not understand the material."

Silence from the two administrators.

"Have you sat in on any of his classes?" Sam asked. The dean and the assistant dean remained silent, and the chill in the room got noticeably worse.

Sam finished his pitch: "I know that teaching isn't the only criterion used to assess a professor's value to the college, and I'm not qualified to judge his scholarship. All I'm asking is that you give us a choice of professors for the spring semester. We are scheduled to take a second required course then, and he is the only professor teaching it. Just give us a choice like the day students get. Those who like Professor Evans will stay in his section; those who don't will vote with their feet."

The dean stood up; the meeting was over. As he shook Sam's hand, the dean said, "I can't. He'll lose face. But I will talk with him."

Sam left the office unsatisfied, but not surprised.

Several weeks later, on the last day of class, Professor Evans ended his lecture a bit early. "I'm required to hand out these evaluation forms. I understand you've gotten pretty good at filling out evaluations." He then went on a 15-minute tirade about how he was the best judge of how to teach; how the brighter students in the class would appreciate his teaching methods in the years to come; and how evening students really weren't as bright as day students. Professor Evans then handed the evaluation forms to the nearest student and stormed out.

So much for the effect of the dean's chat with the professor.

When the spring semester began, Professor Evans was again at the podium, droning on, largely incomprehensibly, and Sam and his classmates were as discouraged as ever. One day he ran into an associate dean whom Sam had always considered a friend. "I hear you've been a very bad boy," said the associate dean. He echoed what had become the party line: We know best; you'll come to appreciate Professor Evans years from now.

As experienced "consumers" of higher education, do graduate students have opinions that count? If so, how should college administrators use them? If not, why go through the charade of collecting and publishing teaching evaluations?

It is doubtful that the evaluation process exists for the purpose of weeding out bad teachers. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 37 colleges and universities had established some formal system of post-tenure review by 2000, the last year in which the AAUP did a survey on the issue. More telling, according to Greg Scholtz, director of the AAUP's department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, he has seen approximately 10 faculty dismissals over the past two years, only two or three of which were related to post-tenure review. That is out of some 600,000 tenured professors in the United States.

At least the AAUP doesn't pretend to support post-tenure review: "The association believes that periodic formal institutional evaluation of each postprobationary faculty member would bring scant benefit, would incur unacceptable costs, not only in money and time but also in dampening of creativity and of collegial relationships, and would threaten academic freedom."

Notice what is missing from this debate: Any thoughtful examination of the true worth of tenure to students or universities. The primary argument for tenure, in the AAUP and among other scholarly associations, seems to be one of "academic freedom." Without the protection of tenure, they claim, diversity of debate and thought in academe would disappear. Oddly (or ironically), such debate has vanished anyway.

The question that goes unanswered here is one of honest intellectual inquiry: Might it not be time to put the whole idea of tenure to some objective and measurable test to discern its true impact on the academic community instead of citing a knee-jerk rallying cry left over from the 60s?

Big-budget research notwithstanding, students are the reason universities exist. That is as true today as it was in medieval Bologna. And, as among the Bolognese, it is students who largely pay for the whole enterprise (and who, in medieval times, were said to douse incompetent professors with buckets of offal before running them off campus). But today Sam and his night-school cohort have no such recourse when they are forced to both endure and pay for the "services" of an incomprehensible professor who is granted immunity for his incompetence by the unexamined veil of tenure.

This past January, college and school faculty unions met jointly to combat growing public opposition to tenure. With the parental outcry against last-in-first-out union dismissal policies—lately supported by a few high-visibility state governors dealing with budget shortfalls—this first-ever meeting of unions representing schoolteachers and college professors brought me back full circle to Sam's situation.

When I thought it was just a few hundred graduate students who were being mistreated by an unresponsive college administration, I shook my head sadly and bought the next round of drinks for Sam and his friends. But when I learned that more than 20 unions had joined forces to combat change—and, in particular, to thwart efforts at tenure reform—I realized the stakes had changed. Sam and his friends were no longer merely second-class citizens unfortunate to have pulled the short straw of Professor Evans. They were frontline troops in an important skirmish.

If Sam couldn't get a dean to offer an alternative choice to a bottom-ranked professor, how will governors or mayors be able to replace ineffective schoolteachers where there is no effective evaluation system in place?

For Sam and his classmates, there is probably not much more they can do. They're stuck with Professor Evans—and the handful of similarly awful professors on any campus who remain off-limits thanks to tenure and the unwillingness of deans to take them on. As Sam put it, he can't wait for that first letter to arrive after he graduates, asking him to contribute to his alma mater. He won't be sending a bucket of offal. But he does plan to stuff the donation envelope with a printout of Professor Evans' evaluations.

Steve Cohen is a New York-based business consultant and an adjunct at an unnamed university.