Watching Trains Go By: Merit Increases and Principled Resistance in the University


Provost Scott Mcnall
Scott G. McNall
I used to stand as close to the railroad tracks as I could in order to feel the vibration and power of the train going by. I lived as a child in the little town of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, which was divided in two by the railroad tracks. To get to Sunday school, I needed to cross the tracks. The train came roaring through every Sunday morning. The first few times I went to Sunday school my cousin, Leota, took me and held my hand at the train crossing, far back from the on-rushing train. One morning my mother either decided I could go by myself or, more likely, didn't know that my cousin wasn't available. So, off I went. That Sunday, as the train approached, I crept as close to the tracks as I could, so close I could feel the power of the train shaking the ground under my feet and feel the suction from the wheels pulling at my trousers.

Helping to implement a set of terms and conditions of employment which has been imposed by the board of trustees is a bit like standing next to a moving train. We don't want to take a step in the wrong direction. There have been a range of suggestions about what we should all do. One, is that we accept the terms and conditions which have been imposed and get on with things. (This campus did vote to accept the Tentative Agreement by a margin of two to one.) Another view urges faculty to engage in various forms of resistance, including striking, which can vary from a policy of non-cooperation to not meeting one's responsibilities to students. Feelings about the current state of affairs are deep and conflicted. Sincere and committed faculty and staff do not see eye to eye on the issues. It is not my intention here to seek agreement, but rather to comment on two issues about which I, myself, have strong feelings: merit pay and the need for faculty to work both with one another and with the administration on this campus to do the best job we can implementing what has been imposed.

This will be the fourth year the campus has made decisions about merit salary increases. If any of us expected people to become accepting of the concept and the process after four years, we were wrong. However, the fact is that we will now have the potential for more merit pay increases than we have ever had. Merit pay began as a small portion of the total compensation and has now grown, under the imposition, to 40 percent (2 percent of the total 5 percent increase). For our campus, this means that $784,000 is available to distribute to all unit 3 members. If the average award is $3,920, then 200 people will get merit increases for 1998-1999. If you add the number of people who have already received merit increases, close to half of the faculty will have received them. If the second round of salary increases, for the 1999-2000 academic year, provide the same resources, we will be approaching merit increases for three fourths of the faculty.

This is not enough money, of course. That is, once you pull out 40 percent of the salary monies and distribute it to a few people, it reduces the amount needed for cost of living raises, and for raises associated with promotion. The good argument has been advanced that merit pay should be provided only after an adequate cost of living increase has been provided, and only after the salary gap with comparison institutions has been closed. One theory of merit pay is that it only works when you already have adequate compensation.

Nevertheless, it is probably safe to say that merit pay is going to be part of the future of the California State University system. The concept of merit pay has wide support. I support the concept, as does President Esteban.

The issue for our campus is not whether we are going to have merit pay, but how we should allocate it and on what basis. By the time this column appears, department/unit merit committees will have already made their recommendations. They will have made these decisions based on the criteria which were imposed by the trustees. These criteria are not bad ones, though they are not the ones I would have proposed. I applaud the fact that awards can be made for the quality of teaching alone. We've already done that on this campus—allocated substantial merit increases solely for the quality of teaching. The other categories to be used in making merit allocations are ones we use routinely—service to the university and community, and scholarship. I would have preferred to see scholarship more broadly defined, using an expanded definition of scholarship which explicitly captures the scholarship of creativity, pedagogy, research, and application.

We have a substantial challenge when it comes to assessing quality of teaching because we continue to use student evaluations of faculty (SEF's) as the principle, and in some cases sole, means of measuring teaching effectiveness. If we are going to use quality of teaching as a prime criteria for making merit increases, we must work together to develop better means of assessing teaching. If a merit pay system is to work, people need to understand the criteria used, which means that the criteria need to be developed consensually, used consistently, and applied fairly. Any one of us ought to be able to understand who got what and why. I believe that if we can do this, we will take some of the sting out of the concept of merit pay.

My second point concerns principled resistance in the academy. It is in the lifeblood of academics to challenge received wisdom, to demand clarity, to seek new understanding. Unfortunately, it is not inherent in the nature of modern universities that they function as democracies. Manus Midlarsky (The Evolution of Inequality, 1999) has provided a powerful explanation of why some societies, and by extension organizations, are democratic while others are authoritarian. The archetype of a functioning democracy is still ancient Greece. The ideology of Greek democracy grew out of practice; it was "action oriented," to use Midlarksy's term. For Greek democracy to be created and to thrive, people needed to make repeated choices, and to participate actively in the decision-making process. Only participation made it possible for individual choices to be aggregated. Without the aggregation of individual choices by whatever means (representative or participatory), democracy simply ceases to exist.

There are many tensions which erode the basis of full participation in modern universities. Sometimes we don't have enough time. On other occasions, we are focused on work which pulls us away from the daily life of a department or the daily life of the university. Whatever the reasons, the problem remains: for there to be a democratic ethos we need to create it together.

Within the context of a democracy, principled resistance requires a willingness to help create viable alternatives, to seek out ideas, to aggregate choices. We are all standing close to a train rushing by. This campus has a long and valued tradition of the administration, faculty, and staff working together to avoid stepping in the wrong direction. I ask the help of everyone in trying to determine what is best for the institution, and to work with one another in a way that shows sincere respect for differences of opinion on important issues. We can create in reality the kind of institution we value in the abstract.


Scott G. McNall, Provost
and Vice President for
Academic Affairs


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