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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why Faculty Are Like AIG Executives

Today's Inside Higher Ed:  Incentivizing Failure: AIG and the Academy, by Christoph Knoess (Founder, Engaged Minds):

America is up in arms about bonuses for AIG executives who raked up astronomical losses that have (almost) brought our economy to its knees. ... In higher education we might shake our heads over the insane amounts of money involved, but when it comes to warped reward systems that sabotage an entire profession’s ability to perform its most important function, we don’t have to look far. ...

If faculty are focused more on research than on the success of their students, they are behaving rationally and in accordance with the metrics used by their employer. On many campuses teaching and advising are considered to be hard or impossible to measure, ergo they do not get rewarded, ergo it is considered acceptable and inevitable that too little time and effort are invested in them. ...

Faculty embrace the value system of their employers as much as the executives of AIG’s Financial Products Division used to. Similarly, their bosses in the cabinets of their institutions seem to have lost focus on their core missions as much as the management committee of AIG had during the derivatives bubble. The coming lean years will show how much of the branches that support our higher ed institutions have been cut away in the past by a compensation system that incentivizes failure not only of students, but maybe also of entire institutions.

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The problem with incentive systems is that they work.

When you reward people for certain behavior, you get more of that behavior, whether it is beneficial to you or not.

Posted by: dirc | Apr 14, 2009 12:33:12 PM

But it isn't irrational for institutions of higher learning to reward research: that's why they exist. And I am not sure there are many that pay large, end-of-the year bonuses. Other than that, it's a very convincing comparison.

Posted by: mike livingston | Apr 14, 2009 2:44:04 PM

At a research university, research is a reasonable job requirement. It's not a distortion of the university mission.

Arguably, good teachers are easier to find than are good researchers. If so, then the disparity in rewards makes economic sense.

However, if faculty don't exert effort in assigned teaching and they are rewarded anyway, that's a failure of the employer, i.e. the administration.

Posted by: Henry | Apr 14, 2009 5:05:44 PM

As an associate professor only a few years into my academic career, I have to agree with what you've said here. Teaching and advising will always take a back seat to research and publication when the latter is what is rewarded. Yes. Furthermore, it is not the research and publication that our customers (students) are paying us for... directly. Yes.

However, if I were to pare my job down to just the teaching and advising my students are paying for, what would be left is a job that basically any charming idiot could do. If all I had to do was go into rooms and be charming and memorable as I spoke about something I knew a lot about, well... There are a lot of people who can do that. If all I had to do was greet students in my office, listen to what they want out of life, and try to either push them in that direction or put them in touch with people who can... Again, there are a lot of people who can do that.

So how does an institution figure out who to pay a nice salary for working 8 months of the year (no one really only works 8 months a year, but it sounds good)? What do they use to differentiate the people in their employ? Research. Not everyone can research. Not everyone has the interest, drive, perseverance, and mental acuity to conduct and publish new research, helping to push the field (whatever it may be) forward.

Now, I am by no means saying that the purely teaching aspects of my job are somehow beneath me. To the contrary, I take them very seriously and get choked up with pride at every graduation where a kid whose dreams I tried to help make come true walks across that stage, well on his way. I love that aspect of my job. I love to help and see my students succeed. But so does the idiot down the hall who really does only work 8 months of the year, doesn't remember anything about the field at all, has no research going on, and is not engaged in the professional dialog that the university is supposed to foster. In the end, if there's any justice in the world, he'll be booted and I'll be given tenure--not because I'm so great, but because I am constantly learning and working to be a better expert, worthy of the honor of teaching my students.

Of course, you know all this. You know how important research is. You know that a university whose professors are not engaged in further learning about their fields is a university which cannot serve its customers' needs. You know that what you're really asking for is balance. The brevity of your post, however, seems to over-simplify this tricky issue.

Posted by: Kyle Armbruster | Apr 14, 2009 9:02:33 PM

This week my school is having the teacher evaluations. My questions is this: Are these evaluations that student fill out even looked at? This semester there have been a number a extremely poor teachers, teachers who know the material well but can not teach. Do the evaluations have any impact whatsoever?

Posted by: K | Apr 15, 2009 5:21:00 AM