Faculty debate merit pay

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The proposal of a merit pay scheme for Occidental professors sparked debate at the annual faculty retreat Jan. 15 and inspired the creation of a new task force.

The idea of giving raises to tenured and tenure-track professors based on individual merit—a combination of excellence in teaching, publication and service to the college—is controversial at Occidental, where professors are generally awarded the same annual raise across rank.

The merit pay task force, created last week, is charged with assessing the current proposal and reporting back to the faculty council May 1, according to Faculty Council President Nalsey Tinberg. Although the group has yet to meet, task force chair Professor Dan Fineman predicts that they will examine the current proposal, compare it to merit pay schemes at other colleges and solicit feedback from faculty.

“[The task force] will group it together, package it all up, say, ‘Gee this is hard,’ and sit down again,” Fineman said.

But the debate is unlikely to end there. Tinberg said the issue of merit pay has resurfaced cyclically at Occidental for years, and there are strong views both for and against its implementation.

“I think there are some people who would argue we’ve never had this, it’s not part of Occidental culture, it creates a weird kind of competitiveness thing,” task force member Professor Brandon Lehr said. “And then there are others who would argue that without merit pay, what’s the incentive to work really hard at your job?”

Merit pay systems are not completely foreign to small liberal arts institutions like Occidental. Several comparable schools, such as Reed College and Trinity College, administer some kind of additional pay based on performance. But Professor Mike Hill, chair of the faculty Subcommittee on Finance (SCOF), said their proposal was not motivated by the policies of other institutions.

“When we formulated our plan, the question wasn’t whether or not we were similar to our peer group in terms of offering (or not) merit compensation,” Hill said via email. “Rather, we wanted to think about a system that would provide an avenue for faculty to explicitly talk about in a holistic way what ‘meritorious’ scholarship, teaching, and service looks like, and to provide an incentive to encourage that high level of work.”

In developing a merit pay proposal that works for Occidental, SCOF had to determine who would be in charge of assigning these bonuses. According to SCOF member Professor Brandon Lehr, they suggested that the advisory council, which advises the dean of the college on promotions and tenure, also advise the dean as to who should get an additional raise.

“When you start asking about merit pay, you have to ask who determines the merit,” Lehr said. “As SCOF we said, ‘To work within the existing system, there’s already a group of faculty who review professors for promotion, perhaps they are best equipped.'”

Instituting a merit pay policy would also require determining what work is deserving of higher compensation. This idea is controversial among faculty.

“We’re not clear what actually is deemed more meritorious than other things, because some of us are concerned that it will only be on professional work and not on college contributions,” Tinberg said. “The institution needs to be run by people who are willing to do the institutional work, and is that going to be rewarded?”

Other faculty raise concerns with comparing merit across disciplines. Lehr gave the example of trying to compare a professor who specializes in cellular biology with one who specializes in ancient Greek poetry.

“To do exceptional work in two different fields can look very different,” Lehr said. Writing several journal articles, for example, entails a different process and outcome than writing a full-length book.

But longtime proponents of the plan, such as Economics Professor Robby Moore, argue that the decision is less difficult than it appears.

“I think there’s about 10 to 15 percent [of faculty] that are quite stellar, and really different from the rest,” Moore said. “And I think most colleges have a way of trying to recognize those people. And they’re the ones that are kind of discouraged under our current system.”

In Moore’s view, giving raises based on individual merit will reward this group, incentivize the faculty to do more over the course of their careers and even attract more motivated faculty to Occidental. Others, such as Tinberg, feel the issue will be divisive to the community and create a competitive atmosphere.

On both sides of the debate, however, professors agree on one thing: the funding for merit pay would have to come from outside the existing salary pool. The SCOF proposal explicitly stated that merit bonuses should not be funded by reducing faculty salaries across the board, though it did not specify where else the funding should come from.

“I frame the problem as one in which you have to establish some clarity about the dynamic and long-term path of salaries generally,” Fineman said. “Because obviously if merit is stealing from Peter to pay Paul, then you can expect that Peter isn’t going to be very happy.”