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Oct 27, 2006

The Academe and other Soviet states

At one of many meetings last week, we discussed equity in faculty workloads, and how hard it is sometimes to motivate faculty to do something they don’t want to do. My comment that, in the Academe, we live in a Soviet-style economy, brought some laughs. However, I was almost serious.

Now, I do not attach any value judgment to the words Soviet economy. It was quite inefficient, and associated with political repression, but it worked for a while and I grew up within it. The truth is, most of the humanity for most of its history has survived without market economies, and still does. Now, markets are very efficient, although not necessarily just, they have their own share of social problems. If you think about it, market economy has not spread to the entire social fabric of even the most developed industrial nations, and is unlikely to do so. Many areas are still dominated by non-market forms of exchange. For example, relationships within families, volunteerism, much of civil society, clubs, associations, etc. are non-market economies. And oh, yes, I forgot the world of education.

Education is one of the largest industries in America. Every fifth American is a student, the rest of, it seems, are some sort of teachers. This is not a surprise: the economy as a whole depends on constant supply of more and more educated workforce. The problem with the educated workforce that it tends to die rather regularly, and takes all the knowledge to its grave. So we need a constant, massive work of moving all that knowledge from old brains into the new ones. Books and other media help, because it does not have to be direct transfer, but every new generation still needs to learn a lot of stuff. Now, this large and growing industry is in stark contrast with the rest of the economy; specifically, it does not operate on market principles.

The world of education is essentially, pre-capitalist, like Ancient Rome or Egypt, or feudal Europe, or Soviet Union. You may think this is a good or a bad thing, depending on your persuasion, but it is hard to deny that fact. K-12 and higher education present two different types of non-market economies, with their significant differences. But both are not responsive to competition, and lack market discipline. So, yes, it is hard to make people do things they don’t want to do, because you can’t fire them, and because the company (the university) is unlikely to go belly up if they don’t.

Just because this is a non-market economy, does not mean it is not an economy at all. Nor does it mean it can work well, or be efficient. After all, think about Egyptians who organized these massive projects without much of a coercion. How did they make all these people to work without monetary incentives? There are still rules, regularities, patterns, and constrains. For example, university faculty do much more when they do something that is interesting to them. They will do less if a task is unconnected to their interests, or boring, or both. Again, you may think it is a good thing of a bad thing, but to be more efficient, universities need to take this into consideration. Another example, university faculty will be more productive if they feel others pull their fair share of the common weight – this point was made several times at the meeting mentioned at the beginning. However, there is always a perception that someone else does not do enough, and here I am stuck with all this work, and what am stupid, or what. Now, part of this perception is probably true, but a big part of this perception is due to simple lack of information. We simply do not know what everyone else is doing. And when we do, past conflicts or perceptions often cloud our judgments so perceive others as working less than they actually do.

It is impossible to reach the exact match between people’s effort and their compensation, both monetary and psychic. Faculty evaluation mechanisms will never be perfect, or even close to being perfect. However, it would help if we somehow, magically knew who is doing what at all times. As I was working with many of the projects our School’s faculty are involved with, I suddenly came to a realization: they don’t know what the other group is doing, and how much effort the other people make. Of course, if you’re involved with one of these projects, you will assume naturally that others maybe slacking. The truth is, everyone or nearly everyone works rather well, some in groups, some in isolation, but no one, including me, knows everything about other people’s work. How do we make this happen? The sense of being treated fairly is perhaps the best incentive for good work in places like a university. Non-market economies are relational economies; their currency is good will, respect, pleasure from interacting with other people, sense of duty and sense of challenge, excitement, curiosity, pride, rivalry, etc., etc.

All we need to do is to make sure more people experience this sense of fairness and pleasure more often. Err, how about fairness coefficient? OK, forget about the coefficient, but perhaps a show and tell at the next faculty meeting will help.

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