Colleges should prioritize classroom instruction and revise how they reward faculty (opinion)
Colleges should prioritize classroom instruction and revise how they reward faculty (opinion)

Most colleges and universities view education as among the top priorities of their mission. We certainly agree. One of us, Pablo, is a tenured full professor, and the other, Lisa, is a nontenured full teaching professor, and we both count teaching as the most important and rewarding part of our work at a major research and flagship land-grant university.

The fact is that, beyond what appears on a website detailing a vision statement, the actual mission of an institution in practical terms, through all disciplines, is to teach each of our students how to interact with the world as whole human beings. Given that basic and incontrovertible fact, we in higher education need to set institutional priorities that foster the central importance of the mission of teaching. And the most efficient and effective way to do that is to revise our system of faculty recognition and evaluation such that research is no longer the determining element in achieving tenure.

Tenure is ultimately about recognizing a faculty member’s value to the institution. The institution recognizes that value by making a long-term commitment to that faculty member. Tenure means intellectual freedom -- freedom that must include the classroom, which, in the current climate, has become an inhospitable place for ideas that are outside the mainstream, politically challenging or even simply unpopular. It means security -- security to put down roots, to buy a home, to gain a sense of community, to know that your investment in the institution is matched by the institution’s investment in you. It means fairness -- fairness in representation at the levers of power, and less risk of falling victim to those levers. It means stronger shared governance -- the shared opportunity to safely participate in the governance of the institution, knowing you cannot be dismissed for standing up to the administration or voicing uncomfortable truths.

At a time of economic uncertainty, institutions have sought to reduce tenure-track faculty positions in an effort to reduce financial commitments and gain flexibility. However, it is especially in a polarized environment hostile to the enterprise of higher education that institutions must promote diverse views, challenge received ideas and question arguments. And faculty members should feel secure to do so, without fear of censure or retribution -- not only in publications but also in the classroom, where it may actually have the most significant and lasting impact.

Because teaching is centrally important to the Unites States’ higher education system, enfranchising by granting tenure to faculty members whose primary role is teaching is long overdue. Teaching functions to develop people who are capable of interacting positively with our world, and who will be our future political, economic, scientific, social and artistic leaders. Teaching helps develop the critical thinking skills that are crucial for building thoughtful individuals. The results of our teaching efforts are not easily or convincingly reflected in publications, or in easily quantifiable results. Sometimes the effects of our work do not necessarily manifest immediately, nor are they represented by employment or salary rates. Rather, they come to fruition over time as our former students navigate their lives and their work in the world. Our results can only be measured over the course of a lifetime.

Building a More Resilient System

The current pandemic, which has curtailed normal interaction, throws into dramatic relief the central importance of teaching not only for our students’ learning, but also for their overall well-being. It behooves us all, after COVID-19, to build a more resilient system that includes rewards and support that encourage collaboration toward our common educational goal. We must multiply the stakeholders, enfranchise teaching faculty to ensure better outcomes for our students, our institutions and society. This inflection point provides us with an exceptional opportunity to recognize teaching faculty contributions to our institutional missions and rebalance the roles of educators as such.

That assertion is not to say that research, as reflected in publications, presentations or discoveries, is not important. Instead, we argue that the focus on evaluation and achievement based primarily on research is misguided and counterproductive because it ignores the real impact of our teaching on students and society. Research is important for the development of human knowledge as well as for faculty development, and therefore is a necessary component of teaching. But the enhancement of expertise is less about making groundbreaking discoveries -- the actual ones always being few and far between -- than for enriching the learning experience of our students. The classroom is just as valuable an outlet for research as a book or journal. Thus, research should not be the main pillar in the case for tenure, or for compensation.

Likewise, we do not contend that service should be devalued. In fact, the pandemic has also demonstrated that service is crucial to maintaining student success, as well as institutional integrity. Teaching, research and service should be valued equally, as each is mission critical. Faculty members, in collaboration with their leaders, should be allowed to creatively revise their workload to reflect institutional needs, unit priorities and individual faculty strengths -- and those rebalanced loads must be equally valued and rewarded in the granting of tenure.

Currently, teaching or service is often used to penalize faculty members who are deemed unproductive in terms of their research efforts. It appears that the reward for greater research productivity is less teaching, while the consequence of less productivity in research is more teaching or service. Clearly, the system is set up to spur on research productivity and enable tenured or tenure-track faculty to free themselves of those unwanted burdens. The de facto course equivalencies entrench the undervaluation of teaching and service in tenure status and salary, as well as in faculty perceptions.

Revising tenure to accord proper value to teaching and service productivity would promote overall productivity and facilitate success in the core mission of higher education. Recognizing faculty contributions in teaching and service would improve institutional culture and job satisfaction. It would be a truer measure of the balance of elements required for an institution to flourish. It would enfranchise the myriad teaching or service faculty members who now feel marginal to their institutions. Moreover, it would allow them to deepen the connections to their community as well as to their students in ways that foster retention and degree completion.

Beyond those practical reasons, awarding tenure for teaching or service work is simply the right thing to do. This moment, which calls institutions of higher education to rise to the challenge to innovate, is ripe for just such a sea change in faculty recognition. Ultimately, tenure is the coin of our realm. It is time to distribute it equitably.



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