One-Tenth of a Grade Point

The trend toward a majority non-tenure-track faculty has begun to attract serious economic analysis as—possibly—an institutional problem. You know something is up when administrators seek evidence that no damage ensues to students’ education from staffing practices and personnel policies that have created a higher education faculty with, in four-year institutions, only a third of its members employed in full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty positions (and under 15% in two-year colleges).

Enter the working paper recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?,” by David N. Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University; Northwestern University’s president, Morton O. Schapiro; and Kevin B. Soter, from the Chicago-based consulting firm The Greatest Good. The paper examines first-term classes taken by first-year Northwestern University students across eight student cohorts, from fall 2001 to fall 2008, some taught by faculty members inside the tenure system and some taught by faculty members outside the tenure system. The authors ask two questions: Did the likelihood that a student took a subsequent class in the same subject vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? Did the grade the student received in the subsequent course vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? The paper states their core findings as follows:

[A] non-tenure track faculty member increases the likelihood that a student will take another class in the subject by 7.3 percentage points (9.3 percentage points when limited to classes outside the student’s intended major) and increases the grade earned in that subsequent class by slightly more than one-tenth of a grade point (with a somewhat greater impact for classes outside of the intended major). (9)

The conclusion that follows most directly from these findings should come as welcome news to MLA members, especially in the light of the exceptional character of the study’s institutional setting and the specific courses on which it focuses. It should surprise no one to have evidence that a cadre of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, most of whom have what the paper’s authors describe as “a longer-term relationship with the university” (9n8), perform well as teachers in the introductory courses that are central to the work Northwestern University hires them to do. Or that these full-time non-tenure-track instructors even improve—slightly—on the support colleagues inside the tenure system can offer students in these introductory courses, courses that are not as central to the work, including the teaching work, Northwestern University hires faculty members inside the tenure system to do. Perhaps the surprise should be how small the differential is rather than how large. We’re talking about one-tenth of a grade point on a four-point scale.

Of course, the study and its conclusions will be put to polemical uses that can be anticipated to respect none of the features that ought to make the study welcome and to indulge all the phony generalizations that are bound to make its findings damaging. Under cover of the conveniently elastic term “adjuncts,” results of a study confined exclusively to full-time faculty members are sure to be cited as showing what the findings emphatically do not show: that the widespread institutional abuse of part-time faculty members does no damage, whether to students’ education, to the faculty, or to institutions. Memo to the media: the findings of this study have nothing to do with faculty members whose status or function can properly be described as adjunct, even if institutions use a title like “full-time adjunct professor” to categorize them.

The authors are curious to understand how their results may speak to the debate about higher education’s staffing practices and the dramatic expansion of the segment of the faculty employed off the tenure track. They note that in the United States in 1975, “57% of all faculty [members] (excluding graduate students) were in the tenure system; by 2009 that figure had been cut almost in half to 30%” (2). Interestingly, according to the United States Department of Education’s Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP), in fall 2011 tenured and tenure-track faculty members made up 57.7% of all non-medical-school faculty members at Northwestern University, compared with 28.2% across all degree-granting institutions, both two- and four-year, and 33.9% across the four-year institutions. With respect to tenured and tenure-track faculty members, the faculty demography of Northwestern University today is comparable to the faculty demography prevailing across all institutions of higher education in the United States in 1975.

Moreover, according to the EAP, 64.8% of the Northwestern faculty outside the tenure system was full-time in fall 2011.  Among four-year colleges and universities, 70.3% of the non-medical-school faculty outside the tenure system was part-time in fall 2011, nearly the reverse of conditions at Northwestern. In the light of the decidedly exceptional demography of the Northwestern University faculty, efforts to generalize the results of this study to the wider universe of four-year colleges and universities are untenable or at best premature. Unless, of course, a right understanding of this study and its institutional setting really argues for returning the faculty to the conditions of tenure status and full- and part-time employment status prevailing across the system in 1975 and still prevailing at Northwestern today.

The most consequential implication of the paper’s analysis may be stated as follows. If non-tenure-track teachers are professionals who perform well in the work they are hired to do, shouldn’t this—now majority—faculty be included in institutional employment and compensation policies that treat them as professionals? Instead, it seems depressingly clear that the paper will be abused to rationalize the further immiseration of the large and rapidly expanding part-time segment of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, under the excuse that “the research shows” faculty members outside the tenure system teach at least as well and often better, irrespective of the size of their classes, their course loads, their compensation, their full- or part-time employment status, the working conditions they endure, or how little support they receive. Which leads to the question, How will the authors, most especially the president of Northwestern University, respond if their findings are used to assert such unjustified conclusions?

David Laurence

5 thoughts on “One-Tenth of a Grade Point

  1. Profile photo of Margaret W. FergusonMargaret W. Ferguson

    Thank you so much for this smart and illuminating analysis of a study that is already being used by the media to generalize about adjuncts in ways that pay no attention to the very special status of the Northwestern non- TT teachers whose teaching results were measured in this research.

  2. Pingback: New post on The Trend examines the study “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” | News from the MLA

  3. Susan Kalter

    The methodology of the study, unless not clearly described here, seems flawed. Would it not be fair to say that NTT faculty tend to teach more introductory and gateway courses at most institutions, and therefore that the findings are actually statistically insignificant. In other words, if they only looked at one aspect of the question (whether students are likely to take another course in the same field after taking someone’s course and not even whether they wanted to or had to), faculty who teach upper division courses for the students’ senior year (presumably more often TT faculty) are at a distinct structural disadvantage in what this methodology measures, but a disadvantage that is meaningless. Unless I have too few facts about the methodology to go on, I’d say that what this methodology measures is precisely nothing significant, unique or unpredictable.

  4. Marilyn Shapiro

    Students’ preferences are not, necessarily, indicative of better teaching. The student may feel comfortable with the non-tenured faculty member, who may be warmer, seen as ‘easier,’ or more companionable since that faculty member may be younger, or older than tenured faculty and be more concerned with student approval since that approval is crucial to his or her employment.

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