On (some of) the problems with merit pay

Written by Brad Long, this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of The Beacon

Academic excellence lives within our ranks; although the Administration can provide the conditions that enable excellence to flourish, the realization of excellence rests with members of the StFXAUT who are on the front lines of delivering the academic mission of this university. Such a reality begs the following question: Would a system of merit pay for Faculty (one could imagine its application spreading further, but I’ll narrow my gaze for now) promote academic excellence, were such a system to replace the automatic annual step pay increase currently in place? Both administrators and some our own members have raised this question in recent months, and so heading into a round of collective bargaining, it would make sense for us to engage seriously with it.

One of the first questions that arises when considering performance-based pay is, what may be the desired recipe upon which performance is measured? Even if the average balance of responsibilities for teaching, research and service approached the ratio of 40/40/20, there are significant variances from one person to the next. Can an over-contribution in one area be offset by an under-contribution in another? My ratio for the academic year just ending is likely closer to 15/15/70. Would I have been penalized (denied a pay increment) for assuming a significant service load? If not, and if such variations are permitted, then would this defeat the purpose of such a system which is purportedly designed to ensure we are all filling the full range of our prescribed duties?

Who then decides whether one’s performance has in fact been satisfactory and sufficient to earn the merit pay (certainly not another peer-review committee)? What is the evidence required to warrant it? The reduction of Faculty work to a series of performance metrics may lead to ‘checking the box’ whereby efforts will be geared toward meeting the criteria for teaching, research and service, devoid of the passion for wanting our contributions to count. Quantity becomes valued over quality. Moreover, what then would be the remedy process for unjust denials of the merit pay increase – more grievances?

Lets examine teaching and research a bit further. An evaluation of teaching effectiveness requires a thorough DEC assessment (including class visits, review of teaching materials, etc.). DEC assessments are only performed throughout one’s probationary appointment, and then again to assist in the determination of tenure and promotion. For any other year, the only way teaching is measured annually is through student evaluations. The attachment of a financial incentive to the production of elevated student opinions is a total perversion of this assessment instrument – the final move away from these having any formative purpose. Our business will be to increase student happiness, not educate them. Moreover, the resource allocation decisions made by Administration do not achieve the levelling of teaching loads amongst members within their departments and Faculties that allows our ‘scores’ to be comparable.

With respect to research, there are real and under-appreciated differences in research output amongst Faculty and between disciplines due to the variable probability of success in research funding by the granting agencies, length of peer-review and publication processes, time to gather data, sheer length of manuscripts, potential for collaborators, opportunity to leverage research assistants and students, and more. Also, research that is more mainstream has an easier time to make it through this process because of a more receptive publisher base; research that is critical or about the marginalized may itself be marginalized when seeking publication. The conclusion that must be reached is that there are no standard templates that could be used across Faculties, departments and even amongst researchers.

I’ll turn my attention to the existing stepped pay scale which is based upon the principle of lifetime earnings. Faculty salaries make sense over a career; Faculty salaries begin rather low relative to our qualifications and work responsibilities, but over time we work toward a salary commensurate with both. When a member is fortunate enough to retire from a career at StFX and retirement from same, then the lifetime earnings of this person is decent. The effect of missing a step, if one were to not qualify for a merit pay increase, would be compounding; one would lose not just the value of the step (~$2500) for that year, but that person’s salary would be less this amount every year thereafter. There is no way to catch back up. From the perspective of lifetime earnings, this is a significant penalty.

Finally, merit pay leads to inequities. A recent report by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (January 2016, p.3) concluded that merit pay, along with lower starting salaries, “may be a key driver of the persistence of the gender wage gap among university faculty.” One way (amongst others) this could happen can be found in Article 1.9.6: 3.2 of the Third Collective Agreement which ensures that even members on pregnancy, adoptive or parental leave can count the time spent on leave toward advancement through the salary grid. Under a merit-based system of pay, a member on such a leave would scarcely be able to, nor should be expected to, have performed the work necessary to warrant the performance increment. Over time, therefore, the salaries of Faculty can diverge significantly based on factors completely unrelated to performance, again contrary to what a merit-based system of pay is purportedly designed to achieve.

In sum, meritocracies function where all individuals have the same work and opportunities to succeed. This does not accurately describe the university workplace.

In advocating for a merit-based system of compensation, one must ultimately ask, what is the problem that such a system is trying to solve? Are Faculty under performing and lacking the motivation to do so? If so, what kinds of better management and support could be offered to such people? If the problem is not widespread, then why implement a widespread solution when a specific one would do? More broadly, what is the experience at other institutions where merit pay does exist? Did academic excellence increase after it was implemented? Did people start doing their jobs better? What happens to those who fail to meet the bar, that is, what is the human impact of such a system? Do Faculty elsewhere sense their dispensability and live in greater anxiety?

Anyone who wants to make a serious case for advancing merit pay must be able to provide satisfactory answers to the many questions and problems that arise from such a system. I for one am not interested. So whereas all members of the StFXAUT should get behind a mission that promotes academic excellence, merit pay is not a means toward this end.

Postscript: After drafting this article, I came across an admittedly superior article from Paul Handford in the CAUT Bulletin from March 2002. Paul’s article is well worth a read for anyone interested. It stands in stark contrast to, and rebuke of, this article published a few years earlier by the Fraser Institute.