By Richard Vedder
I have been finding myself contemplating the question of when is it appropriate to get rid of academic personnel who somehow do not meet minimum standards. We know that tenure raises the costs of dismissing some faculty, and the rise in the importance of non-tenure faculty in modern times is in part an attempt to reduce these costs. Keeping poor tenured professors on both lowers the quality of the instructional mission and reduces the ability of institutions to reallocate academic resources as needed in a dynamic society.
Beyond that, however, three incidents recently have focused my attention on this issue. As mentioned earlier, Texas entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer runs a no-tenure business school, the Acton School of Business, that adopts one of Jack Welch's old ideas from General Electric: it drops, at least temporarily, from the faculty that professor each year that least measures up to standards, which I gather is largely determined by student evaluations. While arguably somewhat brutal, it no doubt stimulates faculty to be engaged, enthusiastic, prepared, relevant --all good things. On balance, I think it is a good idea.
Second, there is of course the student loan scandal, and the ousting of a significant number of directors of financial aid from major universities. In this case, ethical transgressions are involved, and it seems to me that the moves being made are fitting and proper, although I have no first hand knowledge of the individual circumstances. To be sure, if I had my way, there would be largely a divorcing of the act of education from the act of financing that education, and financial aid officers would lose much of their clout --and the ability to engage in nefarious activities to enrich themselves.
Along the same lines, I wonder about admission offices. At selective institutions, parents are willing to fork over big bucks to get their kids in, and occasionally the schools take "gifts" in return for preferential admissions. How often, however, do admission officers admit kids in return for some form of personal financial consideration? Often it is difficult to do, since committees make decisions, but given the stakes involved, I wouldn't be surprised if there are not some scandals lurking out there, particularly when schools use subjective criteria to differentiate between many near equally qualified students. I am not suggesting most admission directors are crooks, but rather that when non-market criteria are used, the temptations to stray from sound ethical principles increase, with predictable results owing to the frailties of human nature.
My third example is at my own university. By many objective criteria, Ohio University is floundering --endowments are stagnant, the quality of incoming students is not rising like at its competitors, and the retention rate of students is falling. The students (!!) in a campus-wide referendum overwhelmingly (78 percent) voted no confidence in the President, and in two votes not yet announced it appears the faculty will do likewise. Yet the trustees of the university have announced "full support for the president." This gets into issues of governance, the role of trustees, and the whole issue of "who owns the university?" If the trustees do not bend, the faculty probably will vote to unionize, trying to force greater consideration of its views. As an economist, I would simply spend a million dollars or so to induce the leadership of the institution to step down, but for some reason the trustees find that unacceptable. I find the whole thing sad and perplexing. While universities may be too important to be left to the whims of faculty opinion, overwhelming votes of no confidence amidst objective signs of big troubles is, to me at least, a sign that changes are needed. But the "optimal rate of dismissal" for incompetence or unethical behavior is hard to define with precision --it is more of an art than a science.