Incentives are key to tenure

Universities’ tenure systems could be reformed to reward excellent teaching

University of Ohio StateâÄôs President, E. Gordon Gee, has recently said he would like to take on the contentious issue of tenure, and how it is awarded.
To be clear, tenure is a valuable and venerable tool for Universities. However, reforming how it is awarded and the incentives thereafter could improve the value to Universities of tenured professors. Universities provide tenure in order to attract the best professors possible. It provides those professors a measure of protection and job security for pursuing risky research âÄî such as projects that will take a long time to complete, are unpopular with the UniversityâÄôs administration, or displease corporate donors. These protections are just as important today as they were 100 years ago. The job security that comes with tenure also allows the UniversityâÄôs lower salaries to compete with the private sectorâÄôs. Without tenure, the University would have to pay significantly more per professor to compete, because there would be no advantage to working in academia over the private sector. Every student, though, has had a professor who is uninterested in teaching (it shows) because the most brilliant academic minds donâÄôt always admittedly belong to the best instructors. This is where Gee has attempted to stir up some productive discussion: he would like to see teaching, among other things, incorporated in some way into the tenure system. Even a sensible reform of this nature is sure to be met by fierce resistance; if it has proven hard to discuss merit pay for teaching in high schools, it will be nearly impossible to discuss with regard to professors. Yet the bottom line remains: teaching matters. It matters to students, and it ought to matter to professors whose job it is. ThatâÄôs why itâÄôs not too far-fetched to propose that tenure systems, for all their value, also incorporate some measure of accountability for didactic performance. First, all professors should have to be above a baseline level of teaching competency. They would not need to be fired if they were judged to be below this level; Universities could offer seminars for professors who either wanted or needed to improve their teaching, along with a reasonable amount of time to show improvement. Second, Universities should do more to reward professors who prove themselves to be excellent teachers. This could be judged through a combination of student review, peer review, and administrative review; it should be fairly easy to identify the truly excellent teachers. These could be rewarded with higher priority for sabbaticals, for example, and recognized publicly for their outstanding contributions. Once professors have been selected and trained to be great teachers, the investment really pays off for the University and its students âÄî tenure encourages those instructors to stick around indefinitely. Universities may not be ready to adjust the tenure system enough to make good teaching a requirement yet, but there are other productive ways universities âÄî including our own âÄî can incentivize and reward good teaching while keeping most of the standard tenure procedures intact. Eric Murphy welcomes comments at [email protected]