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No Tenure=Better Teaching?

BU associate provost weighs in on new study

Julie Sandell, associate provost for faculty affairs, Boston University, non-tenure track faculty

Julie Sandell, associate provost for faculty affairs, suggests several reasons that non-tenure-track faculty may make better teachers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The well-known, much-published, and tenured expert in her field is the teacher we all hope to get in class. But she might not be the best.

A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University found that non-tenure-track lecturers at that school were superior to tenure-track faculty at spurring first-year students to pursue further study in a topic—and in preparing them to get better grades in the follow-up class. The results were most pronounced among the least academically gifted students.

All of which has educators debating the results’ applicability to other colleges. Julie Sandell, BU’s associate provost for faculty affairs, says she finds the study intriguing, while noting several key differences between Northwestern and BU.

The Northwestern study’s subjects were mostly full-time lecturers, who, unlike professors, are hired exclusively to teach and are free from research or university service obligations. By contrast, BU has lecturers and non-tenure-track professors: people contracted to teach and do research, just like their tenure-track peers, but whose long-term employment hinges on continued renewals of their contract rather than tenure. They have the same pay and benefits as tenure-track professors, while lecturers earn less.

BU has an unusually high percentage—about half—of professorial faculty who are non-tenure-track, Sandell says. The Medical Campus, for example, where she is a School of Medicine professor in the department of anatomy and neurobiology (and the recipient of the 2001 Stanley L. Robbins Award for Excellence in Teaching, MED’s highest teaching honor), eliminated tenure a quarter of a century ago. Meanwhile, lecturers are a growing percentage of teachers at BU and in academia generally. Just one-ninth of the BU faculty 20 years ago, lecturers accounted for one-quarter of the faculty in 2003 and one-third today.

Sandell is leading a University review of the working conditions and use of part-time faculty, most of whom are lecturers. Any recommendations will likely be made early in the spring semester. She spoke with BU Today about the Northwestern findings.

BU Today: Did the study results surprise you? Might the results be replicated here if somebody did a study like this?

Sandell: I was surprised. BU has not ever looked at the relationship between student performance and the tenure status of the faculty member. I think one factor is that full-time lecturers are dedicating their full effort and energy to teaching and tenure-track faculty members have many additional demands on their time. Number two, the incentives are arranged so that full-time lecturers’ continued employment depends on the quality of their teaching. They’re not being judged on their scholarship; they have very few service requirements. Third, many full-time lecturers have a passion for teaching. They don’t necessarily want to have a job where they’re expected to do scholarship and service. When you look at tenure-track faculty members, there are plenty who love to teach and are really good at it, but that’s not necessarily the passion that drove them into the profession. Their research is at least as strong a passion for many of them.

Is the Northwestern study something BU might want to replicate?

It’s something that probably could be done, but it would be a tremendous amount of work by people who are very scholarly in the statistical techniques used and the field of education to address the question as well as the Northwestern study. I think it would be a fascinating master’s thesis for somebody.

Is the rise of lecturers and non-tenure-track faculty in general a good thing?

This study is valuable because it says we should take a careful look at the way we use our instructional staff, from the tenured full professor who’s the world’s expert in his field to the one-term lecturer. This study suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have dedicated, full-time lecturers teaching those introductory courses. They can be very effective teachers.

The study said non-tenure-track faculty work under “challenging conditions.”

I would carve off our non-tenure-track professors from our lecturers. Our non-tenure-track professors have all the same rights and responsibilities as our tenure-track faculty. They teach the same classes; they have the same pay.

That is different from lecturers. For part-time lecturers, that’s where I think the environment is challenging, because they usually have a contract for one semester or year; they don’t have access to the full range of benefits that our full-time employees have. We’ve done a lot of work to bring our full-time lecturers into the fold in terms of benefits and treatment. Now our working group is discussing what changes we could recommend that would provide a better environment for our part-time lecturers.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on No Tenure=Better Teaching?

  • BU Student on 01.21.2014 at 8:13 am

    It is nice that BU is finally bringing this topic to light. In my 4 years here at BU, it has actually been quite noticeable (maybe it’s just my area of study) that lecturers are very effective teachers while tenure-track faculty tend to spend more time focusing on their research than their undergraduate students. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that BU is a top research institution in many areas and it is a huge part of what makes BU a highly ranked school. But I think this is something BU should really look at seriously because it is sad to see some undergraduates fall through the cracks due to a tenure-track professor not putting as much effort into I their students as their research.

  • Ryan on 01.21.2014 at 8:43 am

    What she fails to mention is that TT professors typically carry a 2/2 load, while full-time instructors typically carry far more. The argument that the lecturers are (implicitly) less busy is flawed.

    But let’s get to the more interesting discussion of why the University thinks it’s morally acceptable to pay lecturers a mere fraction of what it pays its TT employees, even though they’re often equally qualified? Why is it acceptable that individuals with PhDs earn incomes that are comparable to, if not less than, individuals working maintenance on campus?

    • tom on 01.21.2014 at 10:49 am

      It is not fair to compare an annual lecturer salary with facilities folks. A lecturer is only required to be on campus 8 months out of the year and it is possible a lecturer could be on campus for 30 hours or even less per week with a 4 course per semester load. On an hourly basis a full time lecturer with a median salary of 48k (according to the chronicle of higher ed stats for BU) is doing quite well. Roughly equal to a “regular” job where one earns 70-85K to work 50 weeks a year at 40 hours vs a lecturer’s 8 months at 30-40 hours.

      Having a PhD does not inherently give someone market value. A PhD is a piece of paper that says you know a great deal about a topic. It says nothing about what value society places on that knowledge nor what the market conditions are for that knowledge. Low salaries , perceived or actual, among lecturers is a consequence of oversupply in the market. If it was harder to find folks to teach classes colleges and Universities would have to pay more for that labor but that is not the case, and BU pays quite well compared to most other schools (again based on chronicle.com salary stats). The only complaint I can make is about job security but certainly not about the financials.

      Moral of the story for students, DO NOT go after a PhD in any humanities or social science field if you see it as an “investment”, its not and the job market is terrible. Same goes for many science fields like biology.

      A lecturer who is satisfied with his employment in a tough market.

  • Former Lecturer on 01.21.2014 at 10:32 am

    Ryan’s argument about full-time lecturers carrying a heavy teaching load is indeed true; however, I would qualify his argument by saying that TT professors are often stretched due to teaching, research, service, and publishing (not to mention living a life outside of their profession on top of that). While I agree that that does not discount the flaw in the argument that lecturers are “less busy,” it should be noted that this stretching of time indeed affects TT professors and can often lead to the “findings” presented in this article.

    I primarily am commenting, however, to underscore Ryan’s suggestion/point about the sad state of pay/benefits for lecturers and adjunct faculty. This opinion article from CNN sums it up (http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/24/opinion/rhoades-adjunct-faculty/); however, I know personally the problems facing adjunct and full time lecturers. I changed professions primarily for that reason.

    If we do not address this problem I fear the quality of education we are providing will become as poor as the current public secondary education system. I do not wish to disparage all secondary education or secondary education educators, but we have seen a sharp decline in the quality of secondary education (based on global rankings), a decline I believe we can attribute to a system that promotes rampant undervaluing of educators.

  • Ryan on 01.21.2014 at 11:54 am

    Former Lecturer raises good points.

    S/he’s right that TT employees don’t have a holiday. They’re busy–especially when on the tenure track–and earning tenure is no small feat.

    Without downplaying these points, I do still wonder whether the lecturer’s position is still, generally speaking more difficult. Even assuming that both are equally busy–something impossible verify or really measure–the lecturer loses a lot in what can be called ‘social capital.’ S/he has a PhD, might be equally qualified as his/her TT employees, yet has no benefits, is paying off student loans, and is making ~30k a year (often less), and is struggling with self-confidence issues, paying back student loans, and trying to establish him/herself as a professional.

    That takes a real toll on one’s self-esteem. Not to say that the tenure track won’t knock you down a few notches–it probably will–but at least you feel like you’re being treated as a professional, not an exploited, beleaguered labourer.

    As for his/her comments about how the emergence of the underpaid lecturer is affecting higher education, they’re right on. To think we can pay individuals wages that are just high enough to keep them hungry, all the while giving students paying an outrageous amount in tuition a first-class education, is a modern administrator’s pipe dream.

  • Julie Sandell on 01.22.2014 at 11:14 am

    The original article is available and well worth reading:


  • Yester response article on 01.30.2014 at 9:46 am

    I found this response to this article questioning its representation of the study: http://yester.ly/culture/2014/01/30/adjunct-labor-full-time-lecturers/

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