By Richard Vedder
Dick Bishirjian is a conservative scholar who runs Yorktown University, a school that has battled, now successfully, to get accreditation. Dick is blunt, often untactful, the skunk at the higher education picnic/love fest. Therefore, I like him.
Dick sent me a copy of a story that appeared in the Washington Post, which then led to my discovering a second story. The biggest hellhole in education in the solar system, arguably, is the Washington, D.C., public schools, but they have a chancellor (superintendents want a grander name) Michelle Rhee who is interesting and a bit different --which of course is what the system needs. Most recently, Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and teachers aides because they were not certified, an action that I have mixed feelings about since teacher certification has to be one of the biggest scams that ever was devised, and she did it to comply with federal law. But she has guts.
But really what intrigues me is that reportedly Rhee is preparing to offer the teachers a deal --you can continue on your current pay scale, making, say, $62,000 a year with all your cushy tenure and seniority rights. Alternatively, you can leave that highly secure world and go on a non-tenure track option --but have the opportunity to earn huge bonuses, perhaps making up to $100,000 a year. Presumably the average salary for this second track would be greater by far than the average on the first. Your performance would determine your salary --and even your continued employment.
I proposed this idea in GOING BROKE BY DEGREE for college teachers. You can sign up for the "green" track or the "red" track (you pick your colors).You can either go for job security or for higher income. The reasoning is that tenure imposes costs, most of them implicit and hidden, that are very real. Universities have a terrible time shifting resources to meet changing needs. It is hard to fire teachers of medieval history and hire experts in nanotechnology --even if it makes great sense to do so. Tenure breads arrogance and an unwillingness to obey university policies or even laws. It allows mediocre teachers to continue to do little, seemingly forever. So why not consider tenure a fringe benefit, but put a limit on the amount of fringe benefits available to each faculty member --forcing a choice between, say, a Lexus style insurance policy and no tenure or a low cost insurance policy and the possibility of gaining tenure (and, ultimately, the awarding of it).
Of course, I predict it will not happen in DC. The teachers will say no because giving management some discretion over its labor force reduces the power of the union, and union leaders are often more interested in their own income and power than in the welfare of their workers in many cases. But it could happen in higher education. Indeed, it IS happening --in a different way. We have a two class faculty now at most universities --tenure track people who are well paid and pampered, and a group of adjuncts, graduate assistants, etc., who are paid little and have few benefits. The Vedder-Rhee two color tracking system could actually reduce the disparities between the haves and have nots in higher education and end a crazy situation where those making the most money (senior professors) do less teaching today than the untenured, marginalized itinerant faculty who make often less than 20 percent as much per course taught.