Incentivizing Failure: AIG and the Academy

Incentivizing Failure: AIG and the Academy

April 14, 2009

America is up in arms about bonuses for AIG executives who raked up astronomical losses that have (almost) brought our economy to its knees. While most Americans have to deal with the fear of (or actual) job losses, declining values of their homes, evaporating retirement funds, they see hundreds of millions of their tax dollars being paid to the very individuals who created this mess. Compensation practices at AIG and other Wall Street firms not only violated a common sense of fairness, they also turned out to be self-destructive: they rewarded excessive risk-taking and disincentivized responsible risk underwriting at AIG or responsible banking practices at Citibank, Bank of America and others.

Seduced by the enormous rewards associated with betting on derivatives, AIG executives (and the bankers at the other firms) sabotaged their ability to perform the important but more mundane tasks of insuring the homes and retirements of the average tax payer or lending to the businesses that employ them. And they never realized they were cutting off the branch on which they sat until they dropped.…

In higher education we might shake our heads over the insane amounts of money involved, but when it comes to warped reward systems that sabotage an entire profession’s ability to perform its most important function, we don’t have to look far.

A few weeks ago I talked with the provost of a large research university. When the conversation touched on faculty priorities, the provost explained the parameters that determine career progression and remuneration at her institution. They are not very different from those at most research universities in this country and might sound familiar to many. Her hierarchy (in order of importance) of what faculty should do to be considered successful and paid generously was something like this:

a) Win a Nobel Prize
b) Write a research grant that attracts millions of dollars from the government (if the money comes from the NSF or the NIH instead of the treasury it is not called a bailout, but a “research grant”)
c) Conduct research, publish profusely and speak on as many conferences as possible to generate publicity, win prizes and have their research quoted by others
d) Secure patents on their research
e) Write a textbook that becomes a standard in their field
f) Sit on a few doctoral committees to attract and nurture the next generation of researchers
g) Teach a basic undergraduate courses that prepare students for the more demanding classes in the junior and senior year or graduate school
h) Be an effective adviser

She pointed out that while a) - e) have direct financial rewards attached to them, f) - h) do not. But then she made an important point that shows that the warped logic of AIG’s compensation system is alive and well on our campuses: “The punishment for being a good adviser is that you get more advisees. That makes sure that you have less time to do any of the activities a) - e). The more you do for student retention and success, the more you cement your status at the bottom of the pecking order. And that is not lost on our faculty.”

The result? In this case a freshman drop-out rate of 18% (which is still below the national average of 25 percent, but much higher than it should be). If faculty are focused more on research than on the success of their students, they are behaving rationally and in accordance with the metrics used by their employer. On many campuses teaching and advising are considered to be hard or impossible to measure, ergo they do not get rewarded, ergo it is considered acceptable and inevitable that too little time and effort are invested in them.

But is this more than just a lame excuse? Systems to assess the effectiveness of teaching have been around for a while. And now there are systems that measure the effectiveness of advising, too. Yes, the effectiveness of teaching and advising can be measured! The true reason they are not seems to be that it is a lot sexier to chase the fast rewards of large research grants than to focus on the mundane tasks of making students successful.

Faculty embrace the value system of their employers as much as the executives of AIG’s Financial Products Division used to. Similarly, their bosses in the cabinets of their institutions seem to have lost focus on their core missions as much as the management committee of AIG had during the derivatives bubble. The coming lean years will show how much of the branches that support our higher ed institutions have been cut away in the past by a compensation system that incentivizes failure not only of students, but maybe also of entire institutions.


Christoph Knoess, is a higher education consultant and founder of Engaged Minds, a services company focused on increasing student retention and success. His Web site is at



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