By Rhea Howard
It’s the ultimate goal of every doctoral candidate, the gold standard of academia, the foundation of free scientific inquiry. It is the tenured professorship; it doesn’t come cheap. To become a tenured faculty member, junior faculty must go through years of scrutiny. They must present their research, they must have strong student evaluations and they must pass several reviews by panels consisting of their peers. The theory is that any professor who can handle the process must deserve to have a lifelong job, free of the pressures to produce a particular type of research or to conform to “safe” inquiry. And, I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a good theory. The only problem is that, right now at Union the theory just isn’t holding true.
Ask any student on campus, any student at all, and I guarantee that he or she has a horror story or two about a tenured Union faculty member. And by horror story I’m not talking about a spoiled first-year declaring, “I totally got a B when I deserved an A!” I’m talking about serious cases of unacceptable teaching. For instance, I personally have had the experience of a professor who left for two weeks during the middle of a term for a “family issue” only to return ridiculously tan after attending a wedding in Mexico (oh, and he also went spelunking!). After being absent for 20 percent of the term and not assigning us new material while he was gone, we only had one make-up class. I don’t know about you, but I don’t take out student loans for my professors to go spelunking in Mexico. Unfortunately this is but one example; I have heard countless stories of the professors who do not respond to student e-mails…ever, the professors who do not grade work until the last two weeks of the term, the professors who are just downright rude—and, perhaps worst of all—the professors who simply do not teach the material.
Many accusations have been thrown at our generation—that we have the attention span of goldfish, that we are privileged and needy, that we cannot buckle down and actually do work. Whether these things are true or not, I don’t know, but what I can say is that the professors who get the best student evaluations are not the easiest professors, they are not the professors who pander, they are not the professors who use video clips or infographics or memes, they are not necessarily the professors who are the “coolest” or youngest. The professors who get the best evaluations are the professors who are fair, who actually teach the material they test, who love their fields and who love teaching. Students know that there is a big difference between a good professor and an easy professor, and we also know that there is a difference between a professor who cares about details and a professor who is just an asshole. We can appreciate—or at the very least respect—those who emphasize detail; we don’t appreciate jerks.
If my experience were a single, solitary incident I would let it go. It’s conceivable that every professor has a bad term here or there, but if that were the case students would not have the same opinions about the same professors term after term. Shouldn’t consensus indicate that some action ought to be taken against these “educators” who claim to enrich the Union academic environment, but who really do nothing but tarnish it? Technically, the definition of tenure is “a senior academic’s contractual right not to have his or her position terminated without just cause.” Of course, the question then becomes what, exactly, constitutes “just cause”? I would say that consistently poor student reviews absolutely fit the bill.
But, perhaps I have misunderstood what Union is all about. I thought when I attended a small college, and not a large research university, that I was going to be in an academic environment that really prioritized strong teaching skills and the student-professor relationship. However, I’ve just realized that no where on the “Mission” page on Union’s website is there any mention of the words “learning” or “teaching” at all. The website does say, “Faculty, staff and administrators welcome diverse and talented students into our community, work closely with them to provide a broad and deep education and guide them in finding and cultivating their passions.” That’s great, really it is, but what if my passion is to actually learn in my subject field? Don’t we deserve faculty who want to be teaching and who are good at it?
Of course, in my experience “bad professors” are the minority; most of the professors I’ve had at Union have been quite good, many are even fantastic. But even the occasional bad professor can truly taint the Union experience, particularly if that professor is a mainstay in your major department. For example, I know many students who are not going to petition for a particular course they need for their majors because of who is teaching it in the spring. Personally, I’m going to wait until fall; perhaps I’ll even have to wait until senior spring just to avoid taking this essential course with this one professor. That’s sad. It is really sad that I feel the need to do this just to safeguard the quality of my education.
How do poor-quality teachers get tenure in the first place? It’s a murky subject to say the least. Some say these bad professors purposefully cheat the system for years. They inflate grades and are sickeningly helpful and sweet just to get good student reviews, they produce an incredible amount of published research, they secure ridiculous amounts of grant money over the first few years. People say that as soon as these professors pass their tenure reviews their true colors appear, but by that time we’re stuck with them. If this is the case, then Union has to create a protocol for firing professors (tenured or not) who fail to teach their students. Another hypothesis is that Union is purposefully “tenure-ing” professors who admittedly don’t care about teaching , whose main focus is their own reputations and research. If this is the case, then shame on Union. As students we deserve professors who want to teach us. If we wanted disinterested lecturers and teaching assistants we would have gone to a large university. But we didn’t, we came to Union.
To the majority of professors who are decent and who care about us as students, thank you. To the professors I’ve had who have really made learning an amazing experience, and who go out of the way for us students—many, many thanks. We won’t forget who you are or what you’ve taught us. To the professors who care more about research and vacation and ego than your students—shame on you. And to Union, you need to make some changes. Either don’t hire ‘em, or figure out a way to fire ‘em, because as an institution you’re better than this.