Incentives for Faculty

I’ve had a bunch of conversations in the last five years that have turned on the question of what makes new practices or approaches attractive to tenure-track and contingent faculty, if anything.

This kind of discussion springs from a deeply rooted vision of cultural and social change that ultimately traces back to a very liberal, individualist and frequently capitalist understanding of human agency and motivation. If you think that individual actors respond primarily to centralized commands or strictures, or to preconscious and emotional drivers that have little to do with the surrounding environment, to some higher rationality that is no respect about self-interest, etcetera, then talk of incentives is already a misfire. Or if you think that any instrumental effort to encourage some practices and discourage others is a mistake or an irrelevance, equally so.

But if there’s any institution where “incentive” seems to me to be a fairly good way to approach deliberate or purposeful change, it’s tenure-track academia, in which individual faculty generally have considerable autonomy in developing their own interests, their modes of participation in institutional life, their work process and so on. Which I think is all to the good both for practical and philosophical reasons. A command approach doesn’t work and is a bad idea in any event. But given that some degree of institutional coordination is also an important need for higher education, you need to figure out some way to align or connect what individual faculty choose to do, and when there are opportunities or dangers in the larger context of higher education, some coordinated response is also important.

So what do faculty want? Some possible ways to look at this question:

1. Money. There are a lot of reasons why many colleges and universities don’t use this incentive too openly or actively, however. And some reason to think that a model of baseline salaries for most and huge salaries for a small sliver of highly desirable faculty at the top has even more perverse effects in relation to academia’s missions than it does in most businesses.

2. Security, e.g., promotion and tenure. Obviously this incentive works in the sense of motivating people to tolerate the process of graduate training, the perilous crapshoot of the academic job market, and the little tyrannies that junior academics often have to cope with on a daily basis. Precisely because it is both central and heavily mystified as a process, it is a very hard mechanism to consciously skew in some new direction in order to produce new outcomes. Even when administrators or influential faculty embrace the idea of crediting new modes of scholarly output in digital or new media formats, for example, shifting actual practices of assessment by peers is exceedingly difficult. Add to this point the fact that tenure as an institution is dying, and the incentive value of expanding or extending its protections thus unlikely to appeal to most administrations.

3. Enhanced autonomy. At least some faculty interested in new practices of publication, teaching, or engagement might find an offer of increased freedom from departmental or institutional strictures to be an attractive incentive. One of the dangers here is that the major reason why an institution might want to encourage experimentation or innovation in those practices is as a test of the viability of those experiments for wider adoption. If getting people to experiment involves detaching them from ordinary structures of governance or supervision, that possibly will limit the impact of those experiments as well as free the experimenter of the obligation to persuade colleagues of the advisability or generativity of their new ideas, cancelling out most of the positives for the institution as a whole.

4. New resources (technological tools, support positions, faculty lines, dedicated leaves). For one, potentially very expensive. For another, potentially inflexible or structural changes being made well in advance of testing out the viability of some new approach. And yet another problem: many faculty would not welcome the additional supervisory or administrative responsibilities that new resources typically entail.

5. Endorsement, validation, a kind word from on high. I wouldn’t underestimate how powerful a motivator this kind of appreciation can be. At some point, it’s possible that many people might expect such an endorsement to be backed up by something more substantial and be disillusioned if it weren’t. Administrative endorsement also often mobilizes as much antagonism as it does appreciation among faculty eager to protect their own prerogatives.

6. Nothing that a local administration can provide: if there are incentives, they’re extra-institutional, vested in disciplines or professional associations or public culture or government approval and so on.

7. The subservience and fawning obeisance of mere mortals. Sadly, I’d say I’ve met academics who seem to be primarily motivated by this objective. It would seem to me to be a bad idea to give them what they want as a matter of official or administrative policy.

8. Nothing at all: faculty who do interesting things that create new practices or spread new ideas are primarily self-motivated, and trying to underwrite or encourage their work might actually insult some of them.

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One Response to Incentives for Faculty

  1. bradweiss says:

    More fawning obeisance!! Really, the sad thing is that in my experience the ones who expect this (and have rather specific ideas of what it could possibly mean) tend to GET what they want from admin., even as they remain convinced that they are never getting enough. The giant maw of self-congratulation knows no bounds.

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