Internal Report Reveals Harvard Uses An Army of Non-Tenured Faculty To Teach One-Third Of All Courses
By Radhika Jain, Matthew T. Lowe, and Kevin J. Wu
David J. Malan ’99 (far right in the photo below), whose introductory computer course CS50 has seen enrollment more than triple since he took over four years ago, epitomizes Harvard’s recent emphasis on good teaching.
But that hasn’t guaranteed him a permanent job.
Even as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences embarks on a renewed effort to prioritize undergraduate education, it continues to operate under a system that looks beyond performance in the classroom to reward its faculty with academia’s ultimate form of job security: tenure.
Professors must demonstrate a combination of research and teaching to enter the tenure track, so for many instructors who, like Malan, spend most of their time teaching, tenure is not an option.
But these instructors also play an integral role in undergraduate education: according to an internal 2009 report on non-ladder faculty, this segment teaches nearly one-third of enrollments.
The document states that 61 percent of enrollments across FAS were taught by ladder faculty in 2008. Non-ladder faculty—which the report defines as lecturers, preceptors, and professors of the practice—taught 29 percent of enrollments, while the remaining 10 percent were taught by visiting faculty, professors emeriti, and professors from other Harvard schools.
While several non-tenure track professors, including Malan, declined to comment for this article, some ask how the University can retain its best teachers without giving them tenure.
AN ARMY OF NON-LADDER FACULTY
Non-ladder faculty members represent some of the biggest names on campus: Malan is a senior lecturer on a renewable five-year contract; Jeffrey A. Miron, who leads the second largest course in the Economics Department, is also a senior lecturer; and Robert A. Lue, who helped found and still teaches LS1a, is a professor of practice on a similar contract.
In the spring of 2009, economics professor James H. Stock and members of the Advisory Committee on Non-Ladder Appointments submitted the report on non-ladder faculty to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith that recognized the vital role that cadre of teachers plays on campus.
“Through the use of non-ladder faculty, the FAS is able to deploy its resources and instructors to their best comparative advantage,” the report states.
As the report notes, ladder faculty probably teach even less than the estimated 61 percent of enrollments. For example, tutorial classes often list a ladder faculty member as the course head, but delegate teaching responsibilities to non-ladder appointments.
And large courses often rely on an army of non-ladder faculty or graduate students to teach most of the course material. The introductory course Economics 10, led by economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, has 31 section leaders who teach the majority of classes.
Economics Department Chair John Y. Campbell said non-ladder faculty offer a pragmatic solution to dealing with the reality of limited resources, in terms of finances and qualified manpower.
“FAS will always want the core of the teaching done by ladder faculty, but it makes sense to have some flexibility around the edges to augment that teaching,” Campbell said.
Harvard also has a financial incentive to rely on non-ladder faculty, whose salaries are significantly less than those of ladder faculty. According to Alison D. Jones, lecturer on sociology, a non-ladder faculty member in the Sociology Department earns approximately three-quarters the salary of a junior faculty member.
A ZERO-SUM GAME
For all they contribute to undergraduate education, non-ladder faculty never earn the job security of the tenure track.
Until recently, lecturers and preceptors operated under annual contracts but with restrictions on their stay at Harvard: lecturers can stay for up to three years, preceptors can stay for up to five years, and Expos preceptors can teach for eight years.
FAS has since implemented some changes in response to recommendations in the report. The School now allows lecturers and preceptors to be hired on multi-year contracts “where there is a clear curricular need for doing so,” FAS Spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement.
But with tenure still off the table, departments must sometimes retain their prized non-ladder faculty members by offering them administrative duties. Non-ladder positions with administrative duties are significantly more stable but also more competitive. These instructors, including professors of the practice, senior lecturers, and senior preceptors, are appointed for five-year terms that are indefinitely renewable.
“Getting a position like this is almost as hard as getting tenure,” says Paul G. Bamberg ’63, a senior lecturer on mathematics.
With many of the most coveted non-ladder posts out of reach for the majority of the non-ladder faculty, some young teachers find themselves choosing between maintaining high teaching standards and conducting research in order to qualify for the tenure track.
According to Katarina A. Burin, a visiting lecturer in Visual and Environmental Studies, the requirements for tenure have created a zero-sum game between an instructor’s research and his or her teaching.
“Honestly,” says Jones, the lecturer in sociology, “I worry that the amount of time I put into my teaching is gradually diminishing my chance of getting a tenure track position, because I’m spending less time getting publications out.”
But Jones, who is in the midst of her second of three years as a lecturer, said she cannot see herself devoting any less time to her classes.
“It’s so hard for me, because I value teaching, and I think the classes I am teaching, which are more hands-on, are really better,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out all these things in my life, and determine, given the constraints of the system, what are my best options.”
Under the current system, the position of non-senior lecturer can act as a stepping stone to more permanent positions. Lecturers, especially in the social sciences, are often young post-docs who hold the position until they receive a tenure-track offer, from Harvard or another university.
“[People] explained politely that doing this sort of thing perpetually was not in keeping with the Harvard system,” Bamberg explains of his first position teaching physics as a lecturer.
And while Jones is content with the teaching responsibilities that her non-ladder position entails, ultimately she, like many of her non-ladder colleagues, is searching for a more stable job.
According to Jones, eliminating the stringent term limits for lecturers and extending annual contracts to two or three years would help to take some of the pressure off lecturers.
But the tenure system is not poised to change substantially.
WORLD CLASS STATUS
According to many professors, a research-based tenure system is the only possible way to maintain Harvard’s status as a world-class university.
“The heart of the University, the majority of courses, are going to be taught by regular faculty who are there for research, and nobody within the Harvard community wants to change that,” Campbell says.
Some say that professors engaging directly in cutting edge research are best positioned to teach future leaders in their fields.
“You need knowledge that’s not in the textbooks yet,” explains Gregory Tucci, senior lecturer in Chemistry and Chemical Biology and co-director of undergraduate studies in the Chemistry Department.
Katherine J. Hinde, who joined the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology this fall as an assistant professor on track for tenure, says she has referred to her own research while writing the syllabus for her spring course.
“I’m actually really excited about it because I am able to teach classes that are directly relevant to the kinds of questions I’m asking in my research,” she says.
Bamberg admits that his classes sometimes lack these connections even though he has spent many years conducting research in the past. He says it can now be difficult to supervise undergraduate theses, which have to connect to current mathematical research.
“It’s very important for fundamental research to be done and a lot of this is only going to be done at universities because the corporate pay off hasn’t turned up yet,” explains Bamberg.
THE COSTS OF TENURE FOR UNDERGRADUATES
Ladder faculty members may be teachers who are the most active in the development of and expansion of their respective fields of study, but they are often not the ones with the greatest impact on undergraduate academic experience.
“People going into non-ladder positions have more teaching experience, and sometimes that is by choice, which means that they are more committed to undergraduate teaching,” Jones says.
“We need to think about what it means to deliver the best education possible to our undergraduates,” says sociology professor Christopher Winship. “Depending on the course and its objectives, it is far from obvious that ladder faculty are always the best or the most appropriate teachers. Our students deserve the very best instructors, no matter what their status is as faculty.”
Non-ladder faculty on average receive higher Q scores—student-based feedback—than tenured faculty at Harvard. According to the 2009 report, non-ladder faculty received an average score of 4.40, comparable with other junior faculty, but substantially higher than the 4.09 average for full professors.
“Tenure is something that carries significant risks to the institution that grants it,” Campbell says. “Suppose you grant someone tenure and their teaching performance falls off. Then the University has no recourse—no ability to get better teaching.”
And for all the stability that tenure offers, some professors are nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to teach undergraduates free from the pressures of a tenure-track position.
“Not getting tenure at Harvard was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bamberg says. He added that instead of conducting research, he spends his free time designing novel courses to enhance the undergraduate curriculum.
“I presumably free up other people to do world-class research,” he said.
First published in the Harvard Crimson. Used here with permission.
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