As with many university administrations, ours is deeply concerned with faculty productivity.  There’s a prevailing attitude among upper administrators and, apparently, our Board of Trustees, that surely there are many faculty somewhere on campus not doing their jobs, especially in terms of research.  Accordingly, the administration insisted on several principles in our contracts: continuing to have at least some part of compensation based upon merit, having fine gradations in the policies, and having merit based only on one-year scores as opposed to the three-year averages.  One could say, hey, if you’re being productive, then what’s the worry?

Here’s the worry: the question is not whether faculty are being productive, but what kinds of things faculty are doing.  And going to this new regime, if it’s not done well, will reward a constant stream of mediocre, comparatively meaningless work and punish risk-taking and long-term projects, precisely where academics are most moved forward.

The academic treadmill
The academic treadmill

Think of what kind of research or creative activity is most impactful on the profession, most meaningful to those who do it, and of most interest to humans outside the academy.  Chances are, we’re not talking about the shorter, small-bore articles in the explosion of academic journals over the past couple of decades, one that with online publishing shows no signs of abating.  Rather, it’s risky research, which sometimes comes up with an interesting result — and sometimes doesn’t.  It’s articles or books that because they take more data, or more time in the archives, or simply more time to think through, can be years in the making.  Having a reward system that insists upon a level of productivity, including grants and/or publications or creative activity, every year discourages that kind of risk or long-term thinking.  Rather, it leads people to crank out small-bore stuff to make sure that they meet what are now considered annual minimums.

This is not to belittle the many smaller advances and accretions of knowledge necessary to make those bigger leaps.  Those should be counted and valued, too.  But the labor necessary for such efforts would be captured in either a fine or broad evaluation system, and whether using one-, three-, or five-year averages.  Using longer-term averages allows faculty to do the smaller stuff on a more regular basis, or the bigger stuff while working on a longer horizon.

Of course, there are still ways to jerry-rig  one-year systems to account, somewhat, for longer-term or riskier activity: include works in progress, applications, submissions, and so forth.  But that makes evaluating such work very difficult, tricky, and time-consuming.  Great — let’s spend even more time writing out our merit reports and evaluating each other, and even less time teaching and doing research.

A university that actually valued research, and the faculty who do it, would trust its faculty more, and be wiling to give its faculty space and time to do their work.  That’s necessary for great research and great universities.  BGSU My esteemed university, on the other hand, is suspicious of its faculty and has little understanding of research beyond the vague sense that it should raise revenue (the same way our current bean-counters think of students: as a source of revenue).  And so it tries to make sure we’re doing something, anything, every year, at the hidden expense of bigger and, perhaps, better things.

In other words, at BGSU my esteemed university, we’re not only mediocre, but we’re trying to enforce and reward mediocrity.

Whatcha thinkin'?

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