Sunday, March 24, 2013

"On the folly of" ... universities

Egged on by a recommendation from this podcast, I sought out the apparently classic paper by Steven Kerr entitled "On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B" (pdf here). For some time now, I have been fascinated by how the structure of incentives determines behavior and outcomes. This paper was, therefore, preaching to the choir.

Nevertheless, Kerr made important observations three decades ago about incentive structures at universities, that have become more salient and pervasive since.
Society hopes that teachers will not neglect their teaching responsibilities but rewards them almost entirely for research and publications. This is most true at large and prestigious universities. Cliches such as "good research and good teaching go together" not withstanding, professors often find that they must choose between teaching and research-oriented activities when allocating their time. Rewards for good teaching usually are limited to outstanding teacher awards, which are given to only a small percentage of good teachers and which usually bestow little money and fleeting prestige. Punishments for poor teaching are also rare.

Rewards for research and publications, on the other hand, and punishments for failure to accomplish these are commonly administered by universities at which teachers are employed. Furthermore, publication-oriented resumes usually will be well-received at other universities, whereas teaching credentials, harder to document and quantify, are much less transferable. Consequently, it is rational for university teachers to concentrate on research, even if to the detriment of teaching and at the expense of their students.

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