Changing the Incentives

At most colleges, faculty with extra duties get reduced teaching loads. Duke professors asked for -- and are getting -- new options.
January 19, 2006

The norm in higher education is that when professors become chairs or directors of undergraduate studies or take on some other "service" duty, their reward is to have their teaching load reduced. As a result, if good faculty members are taking on these responsibilities, their colleges are losing some (or most) of their teaching.

Duke University is about to try a different approach. A faculty committee proposed a system -- recently adopted by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which has 600 faculty members -- to create a menu of rewards. A reduced teaching load would still be an option. But a professor might also choose extra money for a laboratory, a travel fund to visit a far-off archive without having to spend time applying for a grant, or just extra cash.

"In using a reduced teaching load as your only currency to recognize service, you take faculty away from doing what they came to universities to do," said George McLendon, dean of arts and sciences at Duke. "The faculty certainly didn't come here to be director of graduate studies. They came to do teaching and scholarship."

McLendon said that Duke doesn't have a flat formula now for reducing course load for service, and won't use a flat cash formula in the future. "It's a very different task to be director of undergraduate studies in a department with 200 majors than a department with 8," he said. "It would be inequitable to treat those as equivalent issues."

But he said the plan would provide eligible professors with "thousands of dollars" a semester in much the same way that the university faces costs for reducing a professor's teaching load.

"When you release someone from a course that may be a critical part of the curriculum, you have to replace that, and that has a real cost, and to whatever extent you can take that real cost and monetize that back as other opportunities for the faculty member, maybe they would want that," he said.

It was such a supposition that prompted him to ask faculty members to study the issue, and they came back with a report that said Yes, they do want other options.

Lee D. Baker, chair of the Arts and Sciences Council at Duke and a professor of cultural anthropology, said that faculty members very much wanted "a menu of options" to reward service, and many said that they wanted to keep teaching their courses while taking on service responsibilities.

Baker said, for example, that he is the editor of a journal, Transforming Anthropology. He would far prefer getting some extra staff help for the journal than to give up teaching a course.

McLendon said that the policy change would also reverse a negative message about teaching sent by the old policy in which teaching was the first thing to go. "The underlying message is that teaching is really important," he said.

It's so important, McLendon said, that he predicted some faculty members -- given a menu of choices for compensation -- would decide to keep on teaching and not request any extra funds. To doubters, he noted that although deans aren't required to teach, he has a freshman chemistry course with 260 students -- and doesn't get paid extra for it. "I happen to really like it," he said.


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