An Argument Against Merit Pay for Faculty
I just came across this letter by Vallorie J. Peridier, Ph.D., Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering at Temple, in the Faculty Newspaper. Here’s the key bit of Peridier’s anti-merit-pay argument:
Advocates of both “merit” and/or “pay for performance” have unwarranted confidence that faculty can be rationally assessed and compared, either by peers or supervisors, in a practical, realizable time frame. The intangibles that make a faculty great — generosity, energy, attitude, idealism, ability to learn, leadership, intellectual humility — are notoriously hard to quantify. Research dollars do not measure research; CATE forms [student evaluation forms at Temple] do not measure teaching; the merit-application process, in practice, is by-and-large a dissatisfying exercise in competitive self-promotion. Of course, it is possible for academic peers and supervisors to make a serious attempt to assess faculty — we do in the tenure process — it is just formidably time-consuming, disruptive, and generates resentments within the organization that can last for years.
In conclusion, it is unlikely that salary-increase procedures, based on perceived comparative merit, could be equitably implemented in a university context due to the limited, genuine, collaborative interaction between faculty in research and teaching. In industry, the several managers who are deeply familiar with an employee’s work can come to a coordinated unbiased view of the employee’s contribution; this situation has no analog in academia.
So the gist is that because measuring each other well is very costly, in part because the thing that faculty are supposed to be maximizing is in dispute, all merit pay programs are ill-conceived. This is an interesting claim, but not one I buy.
In part, I think that most merit pay systems are really designed to punish individuals who are totally checked out. That’s not particularly hard to measure. Second, I think that one effect of merit pay is to force us to pay more attention to our colleagues, which is pro-, not anti-social. Finally, I bet that the reason the private sector can sometimes succeed at evaluating based on performance without producing serious resentments probably speaks more to relative advantages in management skill than to structural differences.