Recently I was reading some online discussions about student opinions re. recent cuts in instructional staff owing to budget woes at various major research universities in the US. I read complaints from students who were upset at the loss of beloved (mostly non-tenure track) instructors, and who were angry that their universities did not give these instructors tenure so that these good teachers could stay instead of the loser professors who were tenured. An oft-repeated opinion was that universities should consult students about hiring, firing, and tenure decisions, and that the lack of consultation of students indicates that universities treat students "like children" by not involving them in personnel decisions.
This relates to yesterday's post in that it involves student perception of the goals and structure of a research university and the work done by professors at such universities.
Most of us teach, do research, and participate in professional and institutional service, but undergraduates have little idea about these other aspects, and don't have the information or expertise to evaluate faculty in these other respects. You would think that undergraduates at a research university would be well aware that their professors spend a lot of time doing research, but some don't seem to give this much thought.
I fully support the inclusion of students in some aspects of the hiring and promotion of faculty who teach and advise students. Students should be encouraged to attend interview talks and to participate in discussion opportunities with candidates, and to give their views on candidates for tenure and promotion (but see here and here for what this involves and why it can be complicated).
Student opinion should be one piece of information considered along with all the other factors in hiring and promotion/tenure decisions. If a candidate is rude or patronizing to students, or if a tenure-track faculty member has a consistent record of poor teaching (as demonstrated by a variety of evaluation methods), this is important information.
For students, however, to criticize a university for not bestowing tenure on their favorite teacher (whether tenure-track or not) shows a lack of understanding of all the elements involved in personnel decisions. I am not going to get into the complicated general issue of the large numbers of non-tenure track instructors at universities, or the economic factors and implications of this situation. Nor am I implying that universities always make the best and most fair personnel decisions, whether or not in an economic crisis. Clearly they do not.
Nevertheless, I think that for students to feel "infantilized" by a university for not being consulted more in employment decisions shows a misunderstanding of what is involved in faculty jobs.
I can understand the frustration of students who, after all, are reacting to the loss of a talented teacher, but I don't feel "infantilized" when my medical clinic hires doctors without consulting me and other "customers" of the clinic, despite the fact that my health and life may be at stake in these decisions. I have to trust that the powers-that-be know what they are doing, know how to evaluate excellence in medical personnel, and will (try to) make the right decisions. So it is with other professions. Academe is not special in this respect.
Even so, I think it is good for students to speak up when a valued teacher's contract is terminated or a talented teacher is not awarded tenure. I have seen such decisions overturned, including in tenure cases, owing to the actions of a group of articulate and well-organized students. The important thing in these cases is that the students convincingly explained and documented the major positive impact that these instructors had on them, rather than just going on the internet to trash their university administrators because an instructor who is "a really cool guy" lost his job.
Is there a way to avoid misunderstandings like this in personnel decisions at universities so that students don't feel so angry when an apparently inexplicable decision is made regarding the employment status of an excellent teacher? Probably not, but those of us at universities could do a better job of explaining our jobs to students, and students who are critical of university personnel decisions could make an effort to find out more about what is involved in the jobs of various species of professor.
If a university seems to have made a truly unfair and bad decision about the hiring/firing/continuation of a beloved teacher, even in an economic crisis, I hope concerned students will speak up in a clear and convincing way and gather as many like-minded people (students, faculty) as possible to do the same; these efforts might have an effect.
8 months ago