January 7, 2004

Leading Horses to Water

Lately I’ve been wrestling with two complicated experiences, things I wanted to write about in this space, but felt inhibited about exploring fully. So my language here will be a bit oblique. What is spurring me to write is first, a disappointing experience with a grant I was hoping to get, and second, ambivalent feelings I have about a government-funded educational project that I have an institutional connection to.

What I'm concerned about is the nature of incentive in academic life. Many of academia’s critics regard this question as the greatest specific damage that the tenure system inflicts on higher education, that the lack of a risk-reward calculus post-tenure gives few scholars the incentive to excel, and punishes few for the failure to do so. This isn’t quite the way I want to come at the problem—for one, I think it involves a highly questionable assumption that such incentives meaningfully and typically exist in business or other institutions, and are the main engine for creativity and innovation—but I recognize the importance of the general issue.

How can any given institution articulate a set of preferences or desires for particular kinds of scholarship, teaching or activity from its faculty, and do you need rewards or incentives to get otherwise independently-minded faculty to respond to those desires? What makes academics change course to pursue a particular kind of reward?

There’s an obvious bookend to this question, and that’s whether there are any meaningful sticks at all to go alongside the carrots, but that’s a matter for another essay, and more directly involves some of the problems with tenure.

Here’s my list of meaningful institutional incentives that I can think of, ranked roughly in the order of their importance to the average tenured faculty member (obtaining tenure being an almost separate class of initial incentive):

1. Secure, reliable, long-term commitment to funding sabbatical leaves for an individual faculty member
2. Significant permanent salary increases
3. Structurally permanent course releases
4. Short-term course releases
5. Short-term programmatic stipends
6. Permanent relief from some or all service and administrative work unconnected to the faculty’s personal interests or objectives
7. Significant autonomous control over a dedicated, personally customized institutional unit or resource (major research project, institute, department, etcetera)
8. Personalized endorsement or warm acknowledgement of a faculty member’s research or pedagogical projects by top administrators
9. A strong degree of privileged access to administrative decision-making for an individual faculty member
10. Generalized administrative endorsement of an overall position or faction to which a faculty member subscribes within the institution
11. Committed, differentialized administrative and collegial non-interference in an individual faculty member’s perception of his or her own pedagogical, scholarly and administrative domains
12. Generalized support for faculty as a whole in grant-seeking efforts

There’s some more general “atmospheric” incentives I could describe, but faculty are often not aware of them as incentive until the atmosphere or culture shifts negatively for some reason. There is also a class of incentive that can be powerfully motivating that mostly lies outside of any single institution, most crucially seeking reputation capital through scholarly production within a specialized field or discipline, publishing textbooks or other works for profit, and seeking credibility and circulation within the wider public sphere. Institutions can decide to help faculty seek those rewards with sabbaticals, salary replacement and so on, but not much more than that.

Not all of these incentives are equally motivating to all faculty. When I recently helped put together a faculty seminar here, I was actually struck at how the offer of a course release was a powerful disincentive for some of the faculty that were attractive potential participants. Nor can they be found at all institutions. Swarthmore, for example, does not give a significant raise at promotion to associate or full professor (the title is largely honorary) and we give relatively minimal merit-based raises. Most smaller undergraduate institutions avoid giving structurally permanent course releases or structured relief from administrative or service responsibilities, unlike large research universities, where such incentives are often part of the package used to woo especially desirable senior scholars. Some of the intangibles are sometimes the strongest rewards for certain people: I know that getting some sense that Swarthmore officially shares my belief that a generalist and interdisciplinary approach to faculty development is more in line with our institutional values than continued narrow specialization would be a more desirable reward and more motivating to me than more money.

In any event, most of these incentives are generally designated rewards for individual productivity and achievement, and often work in concert with disciplinary or public rewards for scholarly achievement or general reputation. They are rarely used to reform pedagogy or academic administration, to encourage academics to study one subject more or another subject less, to achieve any more targeted institutional or social goal.

In this case, the only incentives that matter are internal and external grants and funding that are differentially targeted at particular kinds of research or institutional reforms, or some kind of highly focused top-down advocacy and support from the top reaches of academic administration in a particular institution.

If an external agency or internal administration actually wants to change academia in some particular fashion, even if it merely to encourage the study of some new discipline, or endorse one approach over another, they have to think very carefully about how to proceed. These kinds of incentives, properly designed, really can have a major impact, but it is very easy for them to be diverted, co-opted or ignored if they’re not actively looked after by the people who set them in motion, if they’re not very precisely defined and targeted at the outset, or if they’re paired alongside an incentive that pulls in another, contradictory direction.

In the work I’ve done with several foundations giving academic grants, I’ve been impressed with the extent to which they have been very clear about the specific kinds of things they wanted to reward, which went well beyond simple “excellence”. (Say, for example, wanting to diversify the pool of institutions receiving support for their doctoral students, and to widen the range of disciplines being rewarded). To stay on target takes not just precise standards but also constant monitoring and intervention by the grant giver. If you want to reward some particular kind of behavior or choice among academics, you have to build in some kind of evaluative weighting when making your choices, and aggressively shepherd decisions so that weighting is always taken into account.

In the case of my own disappointing experience, I applied with a collaborator from the sciences for a grant that I understood was supposed to reward collaborations across disciplines—but essentially each one of us were evaluated separately, as if we were two unrelated people who each had to excel above the competition in isolation from each other. If you don’t build in a weighted reward for applying as interdisciplinary collaborators, so that all non-collaborative projects are at a structurally inflexible disadvantage no matter how excellent they might be, you’re actually discouraging collaborative applicant. It makes it two times as hard to be selected: your project has to pass muster twice, and is subject to twice the possible political and institutional vagaries in that judgement. It's hard to reflect on a grant you didn't get without descending into sour grapes--you always have to take seriously the possibility that your proposal was flawed, and you also have to know, if you've been a part of making decisions about grants, that the decision often comes down to very small, fractional differences between generally excellent applicants. But I definitely walked away from this one feeling this case revealed a problem with how some grant-givers actually look after the goals they have set.

On the other hand, you can look after those goals too aggressively or inflexibly. In the case of the federal project I’m involved with, it’s clear what the grant-givers would like to encourage, but they’re so rigid in their approach (because of statutory limitations and a mass of their own home-grown bureaucratic regulations), most of the things they’d like to see come to pass will either not happen because they entail considerable extra “make-work” for participating faculty or because they are non-adaptive to particular institutional cultures. So there’s a disincentive to respond to this intended incentive, making it stillborn. (One suspects this is fairly common with a lot of federal grants.)

I think it is very possible for foundations, political groups, philanthropists and governments to shift academic institutions this way or that, to encourage or discourage particular kinds of research or teaching, and to reasonably hope that there will be visible general social benefits from these initiative. This can be done indirectly, through various incentive structures, rather than through crude statutory restrictions on public universities or other blunt instruments. (Or, in the case of a reformist college administration, I think it’s easier to gently push things in a new direction rather than pursue pogroms and such in the neo-Stalinist approach favored by John Silber.)

Any institution thinking along these lines is best advised to be precise, be clear and stay heavily involved at every stage of the process of change—because academic inertia is a powerful, pervasive force, and tends to quietly and without malice subvert well-meaning hands-off forms of benevolence to its own ends, to reinforce the status quo.