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Feb 2, 2007

Merit, Shmerit, or “Evaluate not and thou shall not be evaluated”

It’s that time of the year when all university faculty in two thousand plus colleges across this great nation are getting ready to evaluate and be evaluated. Some schools have strong performance-based systems, where any salary increase is tied to merit, while others have much more egalitarian practices. The latter group may symbolically reward higher performance, but most of the available money goes to cost of living increases.

Let’s call these competitive and egalitarian approaches. Roughly, this is the difference between capitalism and socialism; both have clear advantages, and both have endemic problems. The competitive system encourages excellence, encourages the super-achievers to achieve even more, while encouraging or penalizing their less successful colleagues. However, the fights around merit policy, and actual evaluation process can get really nasty really quick. Academic communities can be destroyed, feelings hurt, and as a result, morale may suffer and productivity actually decline. In addition, a strong competitive system requires a highly structured, formalized system which can be manipulated (for example if each presentation is worth a point, people go to a lot of local conferences and present a lot of the same stuff. If editorship is worth 50 points, people create their own journals just to be editors, etc.). These are real, not theoretical risks, and one should never forget about them.

Now, egalitarian system promotes collegiality, and encourages solidarity. Everyone is above the average, and feels good about that. Even those super-achievers sometimes support the system out of solidarity with their less successful colleagues. Let’s not forget, that many university faculty have strong egalitarian leanings, so it is philosophically appealing to sabotage what administration wants (merit incentive), and just declare everyone above average. I am not being sarcastic here; egalitarian approach works well to sustain group cohesion. However, this system also caries long-term risks, mainly, the risk of becoming less and less competitive as an institution. Socialism has the same problem on a larger scale: such societies (whether Communist ones, or European social democracies) work well when isolated; they tend to lose when exposed to all those workaholic aggressive peoples like Americans or the Brits. So, Soviet Union collapses, Swedes reform their tax system, and even Germans think of cutting their welfare benefits. This happens not because of the internal problems, but because of the economic pressure from without.

Universities have been monopolies, fairly isolated from competition by state subsidies or by big names, as well as by historic high demand for their services. This is less and less the case. States tend to cut subsidies; enterprising neighbors steal their students, on-line competition makes it more difficult to recruit on-campus students. Student mobility makes transfers easier. The long-term danger of the egalitarian merit system is apparent: an institution may decline, because people relax to the point of doing very little besides teaching their course the way they always have taught them. It is difficult to encourage innovation without some sort of incentive. Why would you do it, if it takes very little to be excellent? Of course, everyone subjectively feels overworked all the time. But I am not talking about working more, I am talking about innovating, and working smarter. That’s the name of the game – productivity, not sheer effort.

It is very difficult to put the interests of the institution above your own short-term interests. It is also very difficult to agree to a policy that may or may not get you to the highest level of excellence. It is easier to avoid conflict and just agree to the lowest common denominator. Judging each other is hard; getting nosy about other people’s business is irritating. So, people should decide for themselves where to go – back to USSR or forward to the brazen cut-throat world of competition. The irony is, you might have no real choice about which way to go, only a choice about when change is going to happen – now and less painfully, or later, with a lot of pain. Do we make this university competitive and innovative, or we wake up one day with programs closing, tenured faculty being let go, enrollments shrinking, and the State imposing drastic cuts. Everyone complains about too much work, but think about having no job at all. I’d rather be slightly earlier, then constantly risking to have missed the train.

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