Teaching, Tenure, and Trade-offs

In a an article published last week in The Crimson, various professors commented on the divide between “ladder” and “non-ladder” faculty—those who are on track to receive tenure and those who aren’t. Because tenure requires professors to excel at both research and teaching, “ladder” faculty typically perform research and also teach classes, while “non-ladder” faculty often focus primarily on their teaching responsibilities. The article includes quotes from a number of professors and lecturers, noting that “some ask how the University can retain its best teachers without giving them tenure.” In a section entitled “Zero-Sum Game,” the authors claim that some professors have to make tradeoffs between effective research and high-quality teaching, which prevents them from excelling at both.

I believe that this emphasis on teaching and research as a “zero-sum game” is misplaced and greatly detracts from a forthright discussion of tenure practices on campus. Strong teaching and innovative research are not mutually exclusive goals, traded off and balanced against one another. In fact, professors who research may have certain experiences that can enhance, rather than detract from, their teaching ability. A professor performing research can convey the results of this research to his or her students, providing knowledge that no textbook will yet be able to offer. Ladder faculty members might also be well equipped to supervise students engaged in research of their own; for example, a professor who is known for his or her unique methodologies might make an excellent thesis advisor, providing students with creative ideas for research practices. In these ways, research can enhance a professor’s ability to teach, rather than detract from it.

Certainly, a non-researching professor might still possess many of these skills, but that is exactly the point: Being an effective teacher does not prevent one from acquiring the skills of strong research, just as being an effective researcher does not prevent one from learning the tools of strong teaching. Even if time constraints make it difficult for researchers to devote an equal amount of time to teaching, their research experiences may provide benefits to compensate for their limited time. Yes, non-ladder faculty may receive higher Q scores than their researching peers, but I doubt that these scores would be lowered if non-ladder faculty added research duties to their responsibilities. Research doesn’t take away from one’s teaching ability, and in fact, it might complement or enhance it.

As the tenure system at Harvard is currently structured, it rewards teachers for excelling in two areas: teaching and research. Emphasizing one of these areas at the expense of the other would take away from Harvard’s dual focus as a research university. In addition, one wonders why teaching is the element that deserves emphasis; if we were to begin granting tenure to professors who did not teach, why not exempt researching professors from their teaching responsibilities and grant them tenure as well? None of this is to detract from Harvard’s lecturers and non-tenure track faculty, who contribute to the university’s goals in unique ways and are valued for their teaching abilities. The point is to recognize that Harvard’s focus is a dual one to which both ladder and non-ladder faculty contribute—not in a zero-sum way, but in a complementary, mutually reinforcing manner. Harvard can still incentivize and promote effective teaching, and it should do whatever it can to retain its strongest instructors. But providing tenure on the basis of teaching ability alone would eliminate incentives for effective research, shifting Harvard’s dual focus to a one-tiered emphasis on teaching.

If we would like to change Harvard’s objectives—becoming a university focused on teaching rather than research—then tenure reform seems more feasible. However, such a university would be one in which we taught ideas developed by researchers at other colleges rather than exporting ideas of our own. Research is what makes Harvard innovative and unique, and sacrificing its quality in order to emphasize improved teaching is not only unnecessary but, more fundamentally, also undesirable.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.


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