I still vividly remember my first day of classes at NYU four years ago. My first class was a physics lecture that fulfilled a science requirement. I sat down in a large raked lecture theater filled with hundreds of other students, curious to meet the professor who would be navigating the ominous course material for the next 15 weeks. I couldn’t believe what happened next. A professor just shy of 90 years descended down the aisle, managing six steps in six painful minutes.
He began to erase the formulas on the whiteboard left from a previous class. But the frail physics professor used such little force that no writing was removed. His eyesight was so poor that he failed to see the board still contained writing. He proceeded to draw over the previous scribble, creating illegible drivel much to the amusement and horror of the freshman-filled classroom. A girl in the front row called out several times, “We can’t read that.” We quickly learned the professor was partially deaf.
Over the course of my four years at NYU, I’ve encountered the same problem time and time again with the Core Curriculum program — a professor who is too old, but tenured. While tenure provides benefits and stability to hard-working educators, it also creates a costly and difficult hurdle for schools to remove underperforming teachers because of the lengthy legal process involved. It costs an average of $250,000 to fire a teacher in New York City.
A study at Northwestern University found that non-tenure track faculty are more effective teachers than tenured ones. This is not to say that all tenured professors are poor teachers. The problem is that tenured faculty are not required to retire because of their age. The median age of tenured faculty is approximately 55. And a Fidelity Investments survey found that “some 74 percent of professors aged 49 [to] 67 plan to delay retirement past age 65 or never retire at all.” Harvard magazine reported the average age of professors in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is 56, with 24 percent of those 65 years old or older. When you put a professor well past 65 in front of a hundred students to instruct a course as broad and material-heavy as a Core Curriculum class, the results are likely not going to be good.
The purpose of the Core is to provide a foundational, well-rounded academic experience to enrich and broaden a student’s overall intellectual outlook. Ideally, the Core Curriculum offers a canon of essential skills to students’ personal and professional development. However, these merits cannot be realized if teachers are too old to steer through a wide range of material with energy and clarity.
The strongest parts of my education at NYU have been shaped by the courses with engaging professors — all of which fall within my field of study or my minor. In these areas, NYU has opened many intellectual and professional doors for me. On the other hand, the Core Curriculum program, exceptions notwithstanding, has largely been unprofitable in my experience — many lacking organization and structure, and led by professors who, while certainly intelligent and knowledgeable of the material, are too old to teach.
I applaud the university for emphasizing a well-rounded education, but also ask that it reflect on the current state of professors in its Core Curriculum program. Keeping professors who are unable to educate detracts from a students’ academic discipline and is dishonest to NYU’s commitment to provide a balanced, quality education.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 10 print edition. Raquel Woodruff is opinion editor. Email her at [email protected]