Tenure study co-authored by Morton Schapiro sparks controversy

Tyler Pager, Reporter

As a rule, working papers do not receive much media attention.

But a study by Institute of Policy Research Director David Figlio, University President Morton Schapiro and Kevin Soter (Weinberg ’12), a former Daily staffer, has been the exception to the rule. Featured in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, the study, titled “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” and published  in the National Bureau of Economic Research, has sparked controversy in academic circles.

The three authors spoke about the study Monday at Chambers Hall as part of IPR’s Colloquium Series. Schapiro started the presentation by saying how surprised he was by the amount of media coverage the study received.

With the number of tenured professors at universities declining over the past two decades, tenure has also been at the forefront of discussions concerning higher education. The study, which began as Soter’s economics honors thesis, examined eight cohorts of freshmen in their first quarters at Northwestern from 2001 to 2008. First, the authors looked at whether students who took an introductory level course were more likely to pursue another course in the same discipline of study. Then ,they looked at how the students performed if they took those higher-level courses. In both cases, tenured and tenure-track professors were less effective.

“It was a little embarrassing that we were unprepared for the media coverage,” Schapiro said. “The next morning after it was in The New York Times and appeared that afternoon in the Wall Street Journal … (University spokesman Al Cubbage) said, ‘You know, Mort, I am used to having Northwestern faculty putting out controversial papers and not knowing about it in advance, but you’re the president. Couldn’t you have told me?’ … It never occurred to me that anyone would write anything about an NBER working paper.”

Schapiro said the study’s lack of clarity regarding NU’s non-tenured professors contributed to the media frenzy.

“In retrospect, I wish we had been a little clearer about the fact that we have non-lined faculty, but most of them are regularly renewed longtime professors here teaching full time for us and have been doing it forever,” he said. “It’s a big difference than when I was at (the University of Southern California) and we called them ‘freeway flyers.'”

Schapiro said these “freeway flyers” would teach at multiple universities throughout the day and stressed the difference between those types of adjunct lecturers and the lecturers at NU. Figlio, the study’s lead author, said the media made the mistake of interpreting what the study designated as non-tenured professors as such “freeway flyers.”

“To me, it’s not that much of a surprise that people who are hired because of their teaching excellence would be great teachers,” he said. “Just because you’re an excellent researcher doesn’t always mean you’re an excellent teacher.”

History Prof. Peter Hayes agreed that the results of the study were exaggerated in the media.

“I don’t think the study says anything significant about the scholar-teacher model of university education,” Hayes wrote in an email to The Daily. “In that respect, I think the way the study’s claims have been publicized is pernicious.”

Figlio likewise said the results of the study should not affect the University’s tenure system because many students are attracted to NU due to its reputation as a premier research university. Rather, he said, the study’s results emphasize the importance of non-tenure professors.

“The biggest takeaway message, in my opinion, is really one of major research universities have these outstanding teachers teaching classes and we need to give these outstanding teachers more respect,” he said. “We in the professoriate and maybe NU as an institution, but not just NU, need to recognize that if these people are doing such a good job in the classroom, maybe they should be even more integrated into the fabric of great research universities.”

Economics Prof. Mark Witte was not surprised by the results either because he said when lecturers are hired, they are expected to be great teachers. Witte is not a tenured professor because he said research is not his talent.

“The metaphor I like is baseball,” he said. “(Pitchers) are there because they are really talented at one thing. I think I am a pretty good teacher. If I had to hit for a living, I couldn’t make the team. The demands for the research faculty are really tremendous. I don’t have that talent.”

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