Melissa Suran is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism where she’s focusing on media law and ethics. Her interests include animal rights and health and science reporting. Suran’s work has been featured in publications including EMBO reports, the Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, The Tennessean, Chicago Journal, and Kaiser Health News.

Tenure Tyrants:

When There’s No Escaping Bad Teachers

October 2013

BY MELISSA SURAN

We’re always hearing and reading media coverage of problems related to primary and secondary education in the U.S.: the lack of funds, the lack of decent teachers, the not-so-decent teachers demanding higher salaries despite the lack of funds, and, of course, the lack of school districts as schools across the country continue to shut down – usually because of the lack of funds.

Even the film industry is participating in the conversations regarding K-12 education issues. Just watch the documentary Waiting for Superman, an examination of the role charter schools play in education. But what we don’t hear as much about is post-secondary education – also known as college.

We all remember the college professors who encouraged us to pursue our dreams and had faith in us when we had little faith in ourselves. I was fortunate to have had a few great mentors along the way. In fact, were it not for one professor in particular, I would have never dreamed of pursuing journalism as a potential career. There’s always that one individual who teaches us life lessons beyond the classroom.

But for every good teacher, there can also be a bad seed that ruins the semester or trimester for us. And usually, that person has tenure.

If you look up “tenure” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it’s defined as, “a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal.”

But it’s more than that. In many cases, a K-12 teacher can apply for tenure at a school after working there for a couple of years. No major requirements necessary. On the university level, a professor has to frequently publish research in esteemed peer-reviewed journals while the tenure process can last anywhere from five to seven years. And once teachers receive tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them. While that’s a good thing when it comes to decent teachers, it can be disastrous when bad teachers, or “tenure tyrants” as I like to call them, are left to their own devices.

According to a 2008 Time article, there are tenure tyrants all over the country. For example, the magazine reported that, “a Connecticut teacher received a mere 30-day suspension for helping students cheat on a standardized test; one California school board spent $8,000 to fire an instructor who preferred using R-rated movies instead of books; a Florida teacher remained in the classroom for a year despite incidents in which she threw books at her students and demanded they referred to her as ‘Ms. God.’”

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a professor in electrical engineering gained infamy from a book he wrote and published about his belief that the Holocaust was a hoax. And another NU professor teaching a human sexuality course held a seminar where students had a special live encounter while learning about female orgasms; they watched a woman masturbating with a sex toy.

While professors at Ivy League institutes may not have such provoking histories, there are some who cause far more damage – at least internationally. Take Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, for example, “whose shoddy research drove global austerity.”  They concluded that a country’s economic growth is severely diminished when its national debt is at least 90% of its gross domestic product. Because this research came from reputable Harvard economic professors, it was widely relied on by many European countries as a basis for reducing government spending. Then a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student discovered that there were multiple errors in the data, debunking the theory that once a country’s national debt hits that 90% benchmark, economic growth will decline. Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman of The New York Times (also an Ivy League professor), wrote frequently about the Harvard study and stated that it “quickly achieved almost sacred status among self-proclaimed guardians of fiscal responsibility.” Krugman further noted that, “what the Reinhart-Rogoff affair shows is the extent to which austerity has been sold on false pretenses.”

But the question still remains: what about the students? Are they at least getting the crème de la crème of collegiate education as they (and their parents) are expecting? Not according to the Harvard’s daily newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, which ran a piece about the school titled, “World’s Greatest University, World’s Worst Teachers.”

Now, I’ve had to deal with some tenure tyrants (as well as some of what I think were the world’s worst teachers) in my academic life. In 10th grade, I had a “recovering” alcoholic teacher who had a nasty habit of hurling objects across the room. She once broke her hand on a lectern in the middle of a temper tantrum. On the university level, I’ve had professors spurt out racist remarks, hold class in a bar, refuse to grade anything (which confused the class when final grades were due), and force students to write about topics (like pornography) that had nothing to do with the course. I’ve even had a professor tell me that taking handwritten notes in class was “very distracting” to her.

But for every bad teacher, I’ve had a professor who went above and beyond for his or her students. In one of my reporting classes when I was pursuing my master’s degree, there was the professor who never left the classroom until every student had completed a flawless article ready to publish online. No matter how late it was, she would stay with a smile on her face, saying it was her pleasure to help us produce the best work possible. When I was an undergraduate, there was my professor who helped me get my first internship. And another professor who helped me get my first job. I also had a professor who gave out his personal email address on the last day of class because, he said, that he’s not just our professor in the classroom, but also our professor for life.

And now, back in school again at the University of Texas at Austin, I’ve had three professors who I know I can count on night or day and am lucky enough to have them all on my dissertation committee. Although I still consider myself a journalist, I’m also working on my doctorate in journalism. That means one day, I may enter the world of collegiate academia again, not as a student, but as a professor. I may even be on a tenure track. But what does that mean in terms of my teaching career?

Like everything in life, tenure has its pros and cons. According to a 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “critics of tenure for college professors say it is ruining the education of millions of students. In pursuit of tenure, they say, professors have become experts at churning out research of questionable value while neglecting their teaching duties.”

On the other hand, tenure drives professors to publish research, which sometimes leads to groundbreaking findings. Currently, at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers are discovering ways to take images from your thoughts and project them on to video screens. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers claim they’ve found a leukemia treatment that has the potential to cure all forms of cancer.

However, not all research is groundbreaking, let alone valuable in the minds of everyday citizens. In fact, a lot of “research” is downright incomprehensible and meaningless to society. For example, a journal article in Polar Biology detailed research that revealed how far a penguin can squirt out fecal matter. It’s headline: “Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation.” Yes, they used the word “pooh” (which is technically an expression used to convey disbelief) in the wrong context. The researchers concluded their study by stating, “whether the bird deliberately chooses the direction into which it decides to expel its faeces [sic] or whether this depends on the direction from which the wind blows at the time of evacuation are questions that need to be addressed on another expedition to Antarctica.” The bigger question is whether someone will be dumb enough to fund a second expedition.

Another example of this type of “ground-breaking” research is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, where the researchers examined whether a human could swim faster in water or syrup. They determined there was no significant difference.

Keep in mind, this type of research Is being pursued in all fields, whether you’re in the hard sciences, social sciences, or humanities. Nevertheless, without enough peer-reviewed journal hits on your résumé, no matter how irrelevant the published work may be, it’s hard to acquire tenure, or the Holy Grail of academia – full professorship. Hence the term, “publish or perish.”

One University of Texas professor, Robert Jensen (who happens to have tenure), recently published an opinion piece in the Austin Post about his feelings on the matter. In the article he states, “there is a lot of irrelevant research being done by a lot of self-indulgent professors…in 21 years of teaching at UT, I have seen how the reactionary politics of the conservatives and self-serving reactions of the faculty have not served students or society very well. The solution isn’t to force the university to become more factory-like or to defend the existing system of evaluating professors.”

Jensen goes on to say that the value of university research is based on whether “it can be turned into profit, the sooner the better, regardless of the effects on society or ecosystems. Basic science that has no immediate profit-potential is allowed, in part because it provides a necessary foundation for more applied work.  In the humanities and social sciences, the result has been a trend not only toward research that serves the master, but toward research that just doesn’t much matter. The most glaring example is the faddishness of so-called ‘postmodern’ approaches to society, in which marginally coherent ‘theorizing’ that is detached from the real world is not only accepted but celebrated. When I ask students how they react to this allegedly sophisticated material, they usually roll their eyes. To them, it’s just one more part of college that must be endured to get a degree, like standing in line to get forms signed…If an individual professor breaks out of the system and spends too much time writing in plain language about subjects that potentially threaten the powerful, the career path gets rocky. As a result, most faculty members take the path of least resistance, accepting the conventional politics of the university and their academic disciplines…to my faculty colleagues who scoff at this analysis, I would say: You are smart people, probably smarter than I, but being smart isn’t everything.”

While I pursue my doctorate, I also work as a teaching assistant. I remember the first time I led a class the initial thoughts that entered my mind were, “what would a good teacher do and what would a bad teacher do?” Since I’ve seen examples of both, I did my best to emulate the good teacher model. Good teachers never let tenure dictate their careers. Students (and their parents) are paying for a good education, so it’s important to give them what they’re paying for. Bad teachers care about their work first and the students second.

Being a new teacher myself, I consulted some of my professor-mentors who I admire. Stephan Garnett, my professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who taught me how to be a thick-skinned beat reporter while I was earning my master’s degree, told me about his concerns with colleges, learning, and higher education. He said the irony is that teaching students isn’t of any great significance, given the overriding emphasis put on professor research. “This amazes me,” Garnett said, “especially now that people are putting themselves in hock for years – perhaps decades – to attend universities that reward their faculty for achievements at the expense of their students. That’s nothing less than criminal.”

He continued, “I ask only one thing of those (educators) considering higher education everywhere: if you don’t want to teach and feel that your students are getting in your way, stay out of the classroom. Lousy teachers leave as much of an impression as the very few good ones.”

The whole point of tenure should be rewarding the professors who leave positive impressions on students, not just the journal editors. While there are many wonderful tenured professors, there are just as many who get tenured and forget their responsibilities to their students. A 2011 article from the Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, states how, “UT-Dallas President David Daniel appeared on a panel lamenting the state of research universities in Texas. Daniel said the ‘biggest disappointment’ of his lifetime was that people consider higher education an individual benefit rather than a public good. If this is the case, the universities have only themselves to blame. And the system of tenure has done more than anything else to devalue undergraduate education and promote trivial research.”

The article continued, “Higher education has become a game of prestige and the only thing that brings prestige is publication. A 2005 report in the Journal of Higher Education found that college professors actually get paid less for every additional hour they spend in a classroom.”

I never really knew how much goes into teaching a class until I did it myself. The hours you put into preparing lecture notes, study plans, and grading continuously add up. It’s critical to stay on top of your teaching duties while also going to your own classes and, yes, conducting research. It’s hard to imagine how professors teaching multiple classes juggle their academic duties. Some teachers do a remarkable job; others don’t. But even when the student evaluations read less than desirable, the tenured professor usually wins. According to the National Education Association, “It is difficult – purposely difficult – to fire a tenured professor.”  In fact, only about 2 percent of tenured professors are fired yearly.

But Daniel isn’t the only administrator sick of the tenure tyrants. This past May, The Philly Post reported that William Hite, the superintendent of the Philadelphia Public Schools, also proposed an end to the tenure system.

So how do we fix the tenure problem? Do we give annual teaching evaluations where tenured professors are assessed in the classroom by a panel of their colleagues or the dean? Is there a way to just get rid of the bad teachers? Do we abolish tenure altogether and implement yearly contracts in its place? So far, there’s no consensus, and at major research universities (a.k.a. the “prestigious” universities), tenure probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. For now, it’s the only system that we have.

I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I can say this: If I become a professor one day, whether I have a tenure-track position or not, I vow to follow in the steps of those who showed me how being a great teacher can make a great impact – and that attaining tenure should only be the educational icing on the college cake.

In academia, there’s seemingly no end to the number of tenure tyrants one encounters, but nowadays when I’m faced with one, I’ve found it helps to remember the famous line attributed to Mark Twain: “Never let school interfere with your education.”

Melissa Suran can be reached at mnsuran@u.northwestern.edu

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