Education, Universities

Incentives in Academia

Friday, 29th January 2021

Long, but a good reflection on incentives or their lack in the university, getting stuck at associate professor level, and other related things.

As I’ve often said, tenure/tenure track academia is almost unique among professions in that there are a maximum of two promotions available in an entire career. If you want more “promotions” than this, you have to get out of the stream entirely (i.e., go into administration), which entirely changes what you do. This makes incentives and rewards very different from other professions. And, this piece is about why many people don’t go for the second of those promotions.

And of course, it’s all much much worse for those who have no possible promotions in a career, those who work at adjunct jobs or in instructor positions that do not have a promotion stream. One does not get promoted from adjunct to regular faculty anymore, or from instructor to tenure track. That might have been possible in some places decades ago, but not now. It is a new competition, a new job search, and so not much different from changing jobs by moving to a different city.

Anyway, I continue to be struck by the inability to understand problems of labor, morale, and creativity among faculty by especially upper administrators. I’m not one to draw a bright line between faculty and administration – I think a lot of the same dynamics can operate between upper level, mid level, and lower level administrators as well, even without things like tenure structures. And, I also think that faculty can draw their own lines between themselves based on prestige and social standing related to all sorts of things, both deserved and not deserved.

This is not, in other words, just a faculty vs. admin problem. This is a structural problem pervasive in universities, that results in perverse incentives and unintended outcomes. There are ways to think about these things, we just don’t want to do it because it would mean rethinking some pretty basic premises of the university.

EDIT: This piece was revised for the Chronicle of Higher Education, possibly behind a paywall.…/the-associate-professor-trap

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