When Mary and I go out to eat we always decide where we are going before we leave. Sometimes we even talk about it on the phone before I get to the house. In other words, this is not a last minute decision, or a snap judgment but a carefully considered and deliberate choice that we make. On the way to the restaurant we invariably say, “Maybe we should go there?” You know the routine.
I always want to stop at the place that has the most cars. If I don’t see cars I get nervous. People vote for restaurants by parking in the lot, like a continuous opinion poll. They factor in cost too. We conduct an analysis and make a decision based on a single indicator that combines cost and quality, or value.
So it is with universities. The principles of supply and demand are everywhere evident on university campuses, especially now as costs continue to increase at rates that exceed the consumer price index and because there is a growing set of choices for those interested in attending college.
Just like restaurants.
Options abound: for-profit universities, public universities, private universities, faith based institutions, community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees, weekend programs, executive programs, night school, the traditional residential universities, commuter schools and every possible combination and permutation.
Many organizations rate universities. No university, or any possible hybrid, will be near the top of any list if excellence is not recognized through merit recognition for faculty, staff and students.
If you want to know which restaurant has the best cooks, wait staff, janitors, and maintenance personnel just look at the parking lot. It will be those eateries that recognize excellence in mission through merit: Merit pay for quality performance.
Just like universities.
You can have a pretty good one, eating house or school house, where merit is unrecognized but eventually the parking lot will empty because another more enterprising establishment will reward what has gone unrecognized.
Some people don’t like merit. Disdain is a strong but appropriate word. Some organizations want to treat everyone the same. It is easy and completely unfair. The faculty member who goes into the classroom and spills her heart and empties her mind, is available, who studies and publishes ideas so that her teaching is fresh, who participates in the community through service and an open commitment to the mission of the place, and is treated just like her lackluster colleague next-door, hates the absence of merit recognition. I am not talking about trinkets or accolades. I mean real money, dollars, that discriminate excellence from the run of the mill in a way that has a real impact.
So too the lackluster faulty or staff member who does the minimum and wants to be treated well, even though their effort and results are poor, hates merit because it is “unfair.” It rewards his neighbor who is not better than the low-achiever, at least by the low-achiever’s standards.
The arguments against merit are profoundly silly. “We can’t do it now, the budgets are too tight.” This is when it is needed most. “You cannot judge merit fairly”; good-girlism, cronyism, favoritism and all kinds of other -isms will enter the fray. In well-run establishments this should not be the case.
A good university will recognize quality through merit compensation. Otherwise quality decreases, as surely as an empty parking lot is the first indicator of a weak restaurant.