An Argument Against Merit Pay for Faculty

I just came across this letter by Vallorie J. Peridier, Ph.D., Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering at Temple, in the Faculty Newspaper. Here’s the key bit of Peridier’s anti-merit-pay argument:

Advocates of both “merit” and/or “pay for performance” have unwarranted confidence that faculty can be rationally assessed and compared, either by peers or supervisors, in a practical, realizable time frame. The intangibles that make a faculty great — generosity, energy, attitude, idealism, ability to learn, leadership, intellectual humility — are notoriously hard to quantify. Research dollars do not measure research; CATE forms [student evaluation forms at Temple] do not measure teaching; the merit-application process, in practice, is by-and-large a dissatisfying exercise in competitive self-promotion. Of course, it is possible for academic peers and supervisors to make a serious attempt to assess faculty — we do in the tenure process — it is just formidably time-consuming, disruptive, and generates resentments within the organization that can last for years.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that salary-increase procedures, based on perceived comparative merit, could be equitably implemented in a university context due to the limited, genuine, collaborative interaction between faculty in research and teaching. In industry, the several managers who are deeply familiar with an employee’s work can come to a coordinated unbiased view of the employee’s contribution; this situation has no analog in academia.

So the gist is that because measuring each other well is very costly, in part because the thing that faculty are supposed to be maximizing is in dispute, all merit pay programs are ill-conceived. This is an interesting claim, but not one I buy.


In part, I think that most merit pay systems are really designed to punish individuals who are totally checked out. That’s not particularly hard to measure. Second, I think that one effect of merit pay is to force us to pay more attention to our colleagues, which is pro-, not anti-social. Finally, I bet that the reason the private sector can sometimes succeed at evaluating based on performance without producing serious resentments probably speaks more to relative advantages in management skill than to structural differences.

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6 Responses

  1. anon says:

    I would add that resentment is caused not only by merit-based pay, but by the lock-step (or whatever the alternative to merit) pay too. Take two scholars. One consistently publishes 5 high-quality papers a year, speaks at multiple conferences, organizes workshops at home school, gives workshops elsewhere, serves on boards of professional organizations, referees peer-reviewed conferences and journals, and is a highly visible figure coveted by many higher-ranked schools. Works 70 hours a week on scholarship and teaching. He/she has a colleague who merely teaches classes and then goes home to play tennis or do outside consulting or whatever. Works 20 hours a week on scholarship and teaching. Why should they receive the same, or even similar, pay from the school? How is it “fair” to give them the same pay?

  2. Jason Mazzone says:

    I understand that some law schools pay a bonus to faculty members who place an article in a top journal (according to a list determined by the Dean at the beginning of the academic year). So that is something of a compromise. I wonder what effect it has on productivity, sociability, and other factors? One could imagine other possibilities. How about $1 every time your article on SSRN is downloaded? (10 cents if your last name is Solove)

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    Peridier is right. The answer is to pay every academic based on minimum wage. This would free up an extraordinary amount of time currently wasted on measurement, and lead to much more productive faculty members.

  4. David Zaring says:

    If there’s one thing there isn’t these days, it’s measures of faculty quality. Peridier is right – it would be way too hard to develop, say, a ranking system or a system based on citations….

  5. Edward Swaine says:

    I completely agree with the arguments in your post, and disagree with the letter (though at the end, it seems to reserve a margin for merit pay, so perhaps the issue is simply one of scale). No merit pay system, within academia or otherwise, is entirely successful at defining and quantifying merit, and all such systems impose substantial costs; I’m surprised to hear anyone who has been through the process within a corporation claim to the contrary.

    Were you more tendentious, you might have titled the post “A *Faculty* Argument Against Merit Pay for Faculty,” “A *Tenured Faculty* Argument,” or gone still further. Honestly, if the alternative is to let each faculty member judge himself or herself along dimensions like “generosity, energy, attitude, idealism, ability to learn, leadership, intellectual humility,” etc., I think we would each somehow emerge with equal and stunningly high scores — starting, of course, with humility.

  6. TRE says:

    On a side note: The system for determining “merit” of law students imposes significant costs that harm the educational mission.