Incentives: Part 2

This is a post of incentives for adults. Most of the adults I know are in academia. I have heard that leading academics is akin to herding cats.

A while back, I watched a TEDx collection of talks about leadership. Barry Schwartz talked about incentives in the context of doing the right thing versus abiding by a list of duties or rules. Examples given included a janitor who mopped a hospital room twice because the distressed father of a critically ill patient had not seen him do it the first time and wanted it done again. Mopping it twice wasn’t in his job description; the janitor did it to make the father feel better. There were countless other examples where empowering people to make the right decision worked better than giving them a long list of rules or devising incentives, especially monetary ones. The emphasis of the talk was on “practical wisdom,” the combination of moral will and moral skill, according to Aristotle. Providing long lists of rules and increasing incentives undermines the opportunities for individuals to practice their moral skills.

A major issue facing many Deans of Colleges of Arts and Sciences at research institutions, from John Hopkins to my own Indiana University, is reinvigorating tenure-track faculty involvement with undergraduate education. The 2013 strategic plan at John Hopkins incentivized undergraduate teaching. Faculty in the humanities and social sciences who were willing to teach 3 rather than 2 undergraduate courses a year would be awarded a sabbatical after 3 years instead of after 5 years. The plan from the College at my own institution is more rule-based: reduce graduate instruction of tenure track faculty to a ratio of 2 undergraduate courses: 1 graduate course on average, “or else.” The plan at John Hopkins has a goal of raising graduate student stipends in order to provide a decent wage and to compete for the best students, the trade-off being reducing the number of graduate students and covering some of their duties with undergraduates or unemployed Masters Degree students. The plan at Indiana University is to address the budget crisis the College seems to be facing due to decreasing undergraduate enrollments.

The moral issues should be obvious: it is the undergraduate tuition and fees that make the really rather pleasant academic life of tenured faculty possible; therefore tenured faculty have a moral obligation to engage with undergraduates at their institution. Moreover, engagement with the undergraduate curriculum demonstrates to our students the intellectual inquisitiveness that the Liberal Arts instills into its beneficiaries. The over-production of PhDs creates a very pleasant faculty teaching situation but does not generally benefit the graduate students who cannot go on to find the kinds of academic jobs that they come to expect after spending 4-8 years conducting research at a premier research institution. Producing a reasonable number of PhDs, providing them with realistic expectations for their futures, individually, and providing opportunities for them to obtain the skills they need for the kinds of careers they will likely have are all moral obligations.

I am not sure about the ethical understanding of cats, but humans from janitors to professors want to do the right thing, generally. They just need to be given the opportunity and freedom to practice their moral skills.

Leave a Reply