Wharton Professor: Overhaul Tenure System

In the New York Times, Adam Grant proposes adding more types of tenure.


Wharton professor and Philadelphia Thinkfest speaker Adam Grant lands an op-ed in the New York Times Thursday on page A23, lamenting the current drawbacks of the tenure system at American universities. He proposes an overhaul.

Grant, who according to his Twitter biography is also a former springboard diver and magician, writes of the standard arguments against tenure: While it ensures academic freedom, it can encourage laziness among professors and forces research-focused academics to waste time teaching classes. Ever the Wharton prof, Grant adds it may be “a necessary evil” to capture workers who could otherwise make more money elsewhere with their advanced degrees.

His idea is to add two more types of tenure — to allow professors to focus solely on research or teaching (or to continue doing a mix of the two). Grant argues the benefits of his idea:

Granting tenure on the basis of exemplary teaching would be a radical step for research universities but it might improve student learning. In a recent landmark study at Northwestern, students learned more from professors who weren’t on the tenure track. When students took their first course in a subject with a professor who didn’t do research, they got significantly better grades in their next class in that subject.

Currently, universities pay adjunct instructors below the rate of tenure-track faculty and give them short-term contracts. If tenure were available for teaching excellence, with pay and prestige comparable to tenure for research, we could attract and retain more exceptional educators.

It seems odd to have tenured professors who don’t do research, but Grant makes some convincing points in the op-ed. Still, even he admits his proposal isn’t quite feasible currently: There’s no approved-of model for evaluating teachers for tenure based on their teaching ability.