Monday, March 26, 2007

Bribing the Faculty to Change

By Richard Vedder

Sitting in the affordability discussions at last week's education summit, on several occasions, individuals said, "that is a great idea, but it will go no where given faculty opposition," or "unless you have the faculty on your side, nothing much happens in universities." Senior faculty have life-time appointments, they teach the students and do the research -- they are the core of the university. However, they are notoriously conservative in terms of workplace change (even while very liberal politically), and use their powers of "shared governance" often to stifle innovation and change. How do you change that? Bribe them.

I have said previously that the faculty will do almost anything for money. Give them a share of the gains from a productivity-enhancing idea, and they will likely go along. For example, suppose research shows that a combination of repetitive Internet instruction, interactive TV, and small group discussions can reach students at a lower per student cost without any loss of average student comprehension relative to the traditional lecture-discussion model. Suppose the immediate marginal costs of teaching a survey course are $1000 per student by the new approach, and $1500 by the old approach, but the faculty are resistant to the new approach. Solution? Give the department in question some amount, say $200 per student, as an addition to their budget in return for giving up the instructional resources previously used to teach the lectures. And allow that money to be distributed, at least in part, to faculty in the form of added compensation.

To be sure, tenure rules, traditions, a difficulty in measuring classroom effectiveness, etc., make it easier to propose this approach rather than implement it. But it deserves consideration. And, fortunately, the recommendations of the education summit to Secretary Spellings included wording supporting efforts to provide incentives to faculty to change. This is, in part, how the old Soviet Communist bureaucracy became reconciled to capitalism -- they went from being bureaucrats to being "oligarchs" -- getting shares in the businesses that owned the factories that they ran. A similar form of bribery might be necessary to effect needed changes in higher education.

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