The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.... ...W.S. Gilbert, "H.M.S. Pinafore"...

Commentary of the Day - January 10, 2001:  A Merit-Pay Plan With Precious Little Merit:

For the past several months the minions of the California State University (CSU) system administration and its faculty union, the California Faculty Association (CFA), have been at loggerheads over the issue of "merit-pay".

To provide some background, former Chancellor Munitz pushed through a "merit-pay" provision in a CSU-CFA contract about five years ago.  This initial incarnation focussed on "performance salary step increases" or PSSI's (referred to with less than affection by the faculty as "pissies") that were awarded pretty much exclusively at the whim of each of the local campus presidents in the 23-campus CSU system.  Under the plan "merit raises" tended to be awarded either to faculty members who had managed to maintain a high level of "visibility" with respect to their work, or to those faculty who had particularly ingratiated themselves with the campus administrations.  In fairness, most of the people awarded "merit" increases probably deserved them (a few did not).  However, a large number of faculty who were at least as meritorious as those who received awards, received nothing under this plan.  Not surprisingly, this created a high level of hard feelings among the faculty at campuses up and down the state.

Munitz together with the CSU Board of Trustees favored "merit-pay" as a way to improve faculty productivity in the largest system of public higher education in the United States.  At the time, California was just beginning to come out of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and the faculty union was operating from a position of weakness.  As a result, the union acquiesced to this first "merit-pay" plan even though it was fatally flawed.  By the time the next contract was negotiated, the economic situation in the state had improved substantially.  This time the CFA leadership, prodded by their rank and file who had risen up in anger over several intemperate remarks about faculty by the newly appointed Chancellor (Charlie Reed), took a much tougher stance toward merit pay.  With the prospect of a faculty strike looming large on the horizon, Reed and the Trustees offered a substantially revised "merit-pay" plan that gave faculty a much greater role in recommending who should receive "merit" increases.

The new "merit pay" plan, which has been in operation for the past two years, does not put as much power in the hands of the campus presidents to determine who receives "merit" increases; however, it still has proven unpopular among faculty for a variety of reasons.  One of the major complaints is inequities in the way available "merit" funds are apportioned.  Under the plan each department is awarded a percentage of the available funds based on its full-time equivalent faculty allocation.  Many part-time faculty members do not bother to apply for merit raises, and those that do generally receive relatively small percentage increases - if any.  Thus the full-time faculty members in departments with large numbers of part-time faculty tend to receive much higher "merit" awards than full-time faculty of comparable merit in departments with relatively few part-time faculty.  Another major complaint from the faculty is that there are no well-defined standards for granting "merit" increases.

Faculty members may apply for a "merit" increase based on their performance in teaching alone, in teaching and scholarly activities, teaching and service, or in teaching, scholarship, and service.  On its face, it would seem that it makes good sense in a system that prides itself on the quality of its teaching to require top performance in this area before a "merit" salary increase is granted.  However, in practice, measuring comparative teaching performance turns out to be very difficult.

Although the new plan includes a better appeals process than the previous one, administrators (college deans and campus presidents) can still make "adjustments" in the size of "merit" awards recommended by the departments.  It often has been said that the reason faculty politics are so petty is because the stakes are so small.  This, unfortunately, is all too true.  The wounds inflicted when a faculty member's departmental recommendation is reduced by a dean or the campus president tend to smart for a very long time, even though the absolute magnitude of the downward revision may be trivial.

Because of all the faculty unhappiness over the current "merit" pay plan, the CFA made it the central issue during a contract "reopener" this past year.  The current impasse reflects the failure of the CSU and CFA to reach agreement.  Recently, an independent arbitrator found in favor of the union's position during the "fact-finding" phase of the process.  However, the decision of the fact-finding panel is advisory only, and the CSU administration has rejected the panel's recommendations.

The IP has been a department Chair in the CSU for ten of the last 12 years.  In his opinion, the "merit-pay" program has been a failure in the sense that it has not met its stated objective.  Faculty productivity is not measurably higher than it was before the system was instituted.  In fact, the relatively large amount of faculty and administrative time devoted to the process actually tends to decrease productivity.  Likewise, the hard feelings and loss of collegiality engendered by the process has tended to lower morale, which further reduces productivity.

At the same time, the IP is not so naive as to believe that all faculty members in the CSU are equally meritorious.  The problem is finding a way to recognize those whose work stands out in a fair and equitable way.  The current system just doesn't do that, and it should be scrapped.

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