Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Key to Reform: "I" Words Not "A" Words

By Richard Vedder

At meetings of higher education leaders, much talk occurs about the three "A"s: accessibility, affordability, and accountability. These topics are all important, but true reform requires more emphasis on three "I" words:

* Incentives
* Integrity
* Interrogation

As someone said at the so-called higher education summit a couple of weeks ago, "no reform is going to happen without the faculty's support." And, basically, there are few if any incentives for faculty to change their ways. Why teach in new ways that are uncomfortable and potentially could reduce faculty jobs? Why conduct research on promising teaching practices, when salary increases are largely publication-driven? Why cut administrative staff when the current bloated bureaucracy reduces the work load on some high level decision-makers, isolate the leaders from some thorny problems, and increases the administrator's sense of power? Why teach more hours per week when teaching is not valued much? Why spend time with undergraduate students, when only graduate students and fellow faculty can help get more research published to advance one's career? Why teach (and utilize buildings) in the summer, when that is when faculty and staff like to work short days and take long vacations? Why teach at 8:00 a.m. in the morning or on Fridays, when I like to sleep in and take long weekends?

Faculty and staff have to be given incentives to change. If innovation A will save the institution X number of dollars, perhaps 0.4 X (40 percent of the savings) need to be devoted to providing incentives for faculty and staff to actively work to implement the innovation. Incentives could take several forms, including salary increments.


Providers of funds to universities, both public and private, are often becoming more skeptical about what colleges tell them. Money too often gets misused, as the huge confrontation over the Robertson gift at Princeton suggests. Universities bury embarrassing news, such as rising attrition rates, and even campus crimes. If universities showed extremely high level of honesty and integrity, people would believe and support them more.


Education is about asking and answering questions. An active, lively mind is an inquisitive and imaginative (other "I" words) one. Those in university governance and providers of funds need to ask universities more questions, probe more about how resources are really being used. Have incremental funds supported more teaching or rather narrow research interests of faculty? Have new funds meant generous salary increases to faculty and staff more than new positions, more scholarship aid to students, etc.? Trustees and others need, on average, to question academic leaders more, and usually need their own "eyes and ears" within the university community to report to them on what is going on campus.

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