Universities that deny the relationship between merit and value undermine quality. Without recognition of meritorious achievement results fall. So desperate are organizations to be perceived as having value they replace excellence with its appearance, real performance with placebos, and the meritorious with the mediocre.
“Fransisco, you’re some kind of very high nobility, aren’t you?” He answered, “Not yet. The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.”
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Last week NPR Morning Edition carried a Lisa Chow story regarding the escalating costs of attending Duke University. A number of Duke faculty, students, and administrators were interviewed. Discussions ensued regarding the share of students who pay full fare for tuition and fees, just over 50%, the 10% who pay nothing, and everyone in between.
Jennifer West, a bioengineering and materials science expert and professor was interviewed. She brought with her staff and students from Rice University along with lab upgrades and other necessities for the conduct of her research — “start-up” costs. This multi-million dollar investment was touted as a means of creating value for Duke undergraduates.
Duke purports to be merit driven and actions affirm that. Performers are sought and paid for. Results are acknowledged in the universal language of gold. Faculty, students, leaders, and staff are recruited, retained, and rewarded based on performance. It is the nature of the elite: football teams that win championships, armies that win wars, successful businesses, great poets and artists, and universities that create ideas.
Some public systems are trying diligently. In Nevada, according to a Colleen Flaherty post on InsideHigherEd last August, the legislature is mandating merit raises even before returning salaries to pre- furlough levels. Good intentions but probably a mistake. The Miami Herald reported last April the Florida Legislature pumped nearly $.5 billion into merit based faculty raises. The University of Wisconsin is sniffing the same trail. The Racine Journal Times Editorial Board concurred, saying last week, “It makes sense. Schools should reward their best teachers to incentivize them to stay and entice other teachers to strive to higher levels.”
In many public universities, pressures from organizations that represent employees often create dread of, and disdain for, merit. The intentions of preventing favoritism, cronyism, and other forms of initiative-stealing behavior may be noble, but erroneous. Performance falls off the table. Positive purpose is transformed into puny performance.
Quality soars when rewards are determined by executed work. Anything that substitutes a reward based on something other than performance initiates a slide down a slippery slope. Unfortunately, in various public universities, policies evolve that protect, protract, and institutionalize mediocre performance. Perpetual across-the-board raises are a form of theft, taking from productive people to reward unproductive people.
Public university leadership, and the statehouses to which they report, should create worker driven merit reward systems. It is unpopular, but mediocrity is deadening in a competitive marketplace like higher education. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” quipped Derek Bok.
The argument that favoritism will creep into the decision-making apparatus is true only if diligence is absent. University employees of every stripe, working with management, can create merit systems that work, but they will not be well received by employees who don’t. Without merit, favoritism already exists: Poor performers earn de facto favor — that’s an ism that won’t quit.
People may not get what they pay for at Duke. Maybe the critics are right. Maybe too much is invested in people like Professor West, and too little gained. The average freshman paying full fare to secure a Duke seat bought a jet ticket. Maybe they should have taken the bus. My advice to disaffected Blue Devils: head down the road to North Carolina or North Carolina State, the other two vertices of the Research (Golden) Triangle. If those institutions are taking students for high-priced, low-value rides, call entrusted elected and appointed fiduciaries. Tell them something is broken.
If faculty are paid the same regardless of the quality of work; if students are admitted regardless of the quality of their preparation or demonstrated ability; if institutions will not eliminate substandard degree programs of little or no value, starving valuable degree programs in a misbegotten effort to create equity and fairness, quality sinks and value stinks.
Our universities that neglect the relationship between merit and quality are doomed to mediocrity.