Promoting Research While Advancing Instruction, Part 2

In this three-part series, Jeffrey L. Buller explores how colleges and universities can encourage substantive research without detracting from excellence in teaching. Part 1, which appeared [Tuesday,] discussed the ways in which the traditional division of faculty responsibilities into teaching, research, and service creates an inherent expectation that these activities are distinct.

Reconsider the merit pay system
In Part 1, we examined several reasons why it’s important for universities to look at faculty work not in terms of the actions that are taken but rather in terms of the benefits that result. Of course, it’s one thing to say that changing how we view faculty roles can help promote research while advancing teaching; it’s another thing entirely to bring about such a massive change.

The problem is that the division of faculty duties into teaching, research, and service is not merely a matter of semantics; that same division also drives the faculty evaluation systems at most colleges and universities. For instance, if we examine the way in which merit increases are assigned in many systems, faculty members receive a larger raise if they score “excellent” or “outstanding” (or earn enough points on a rating scale that places them in these upper categories) in all three areas. There are two drawbacks to this process.

First, as I mentioned in an earlier article, most merit increase pools in higher education are so small that they prove to be disincentives at every level of performance. See Buller (2009) 7–8. In other words, if faculty members who reached a certain level of performance were ever assigned annual increases of 10 percent or more, merit pay systems might well be effective. But in many cases, merit increase pools are only 1 percent or 2 percent, leaving the effectiveness of this entire strategy in doubt. The most highly ranked among the faculty say things like, “All this extra work, and all I get is another 1 percent? I’m not going to try as hard next year.” Faculty members who receive a standard increase say, “All this hard work, and all I get is the average raise? I’m not going to try as hard next year.” And faculty members who end up low in the ratings say, “All the work that I’ve done, and they dock me 1 percent? I’m not going to try as hard next year.” As a result, morale decreases, the amount of effort plummets, and a system that was intended to encourage a higher quality of work in actuality has the opposite effect.

The second problem with merit pay systems based on teaching, research, and service is that, by examining activities instead of results, they don’t reinforce the behaviors they’re intended to reward. A common administrative complaint is, “We keep rewarding excellence in teaching and research, yet we’re not seeing the increase in grant activity, publication of refereed research, recognition through national teaching awards, or development of innovative pedagogy that we had anticipated.” What the system has done is reward participation in a process that people hope will lead to certain results, when it would be far more effective to reward the results themselves. There are three major ways to avoid this problem:

  • Targeted merit plans are the most direct method of making sure that the rewards a system is providing are directly tied to the results that the institution regards as particularly desirable. In these systems, the raises that most faculty members receive are distributed as across-the-board adjustments or cost-of-living increases. Merit increases are assigned only for promotion and for the achievement of specific, clearly identified goals. For instance, a faculty member might receive a merit increase (either as a permanent addition to the base or as a bonus to be paid out over a specific number of years) if he or she has written a successful grant proposal that was funded over a certain amount by an external agency, published a book of research with an established university press, been honored with a national or international award for teaching, and so on. These merit increases, though not common, are large enough to be a genuine incentive to a truly motivated faculty member. The university thus achieves the goal it has identified as important, and faculty members are rewarded for their successes, not merely their efforts.
  • Post-tenure review systems can provide an opportunity for institutions to offer incentives for continued achievements, even in the later stages of a faculty member’s career. Today, post-tenure review at many institutions is regarded by professors as an unpopular and unproductive hurdle: an inconvenience at best, a threat to their livelihood at worst. But if more colleges and universities incorporated positive rewards for those faculty members who were doing exemplary work into a process largely known for its sanctions against those who were no longer productive, the entire activity could become far more beneficial both for the individual and the institution. Rewards for highly productive faculty members might include additional sabbatical time, bonuses or long-term salary increases, access to additional graduate assistantships, enhanced research or travel money, public recognition, or other benefits that would be regarded as particularly meaningful by each individual faculty member.
  • Distinguished professorships carry the concept of enhanced post-tenure review even further and combine an extremely high level of public recognition with increased compensation. The difficulty many institutions face is that, with only a few ranks available for faculty promotion, relatively limited incentives exist for encouraging continued achievement once someone reaches the level of full professor. But by adding additional ranks above the level of professor—such as distinguished professor, eminent professor, or endowed chair—colleges and universities can reward those faculty members whose accomplishments continue to increase throughout their careers. Moreover, rather than continuing to encourage a false opposition between instruction and scholarship by the use of such titles as Distinguished Teaching Fellow or Eminent Research Scholar, these “super professorships” have the potential to promote research while advancing instruction through the designation that Bob Smith, the provost at Texas Tech, calls “the integrated scholar”: eminent faculty members who teach via their research and thereby serve both their communities and disciplines simultaneously.

Of course, the most comprehensive way to reintegrate teaching and research (as well as service) is to reevaluate the very idea of what a university is in the 21st century, and we’ll consider that approach in Part 3 [next week].

Buller, J.L. (June 2009). The pros and cons of merit pay. Academic Leader. 25.6, 7–8.

Smith, B. (February, 2002). The integrated scholar: Have you seen one lately? All Things Academic. 3.1, 147–153. Retrieved September 16, 2010, from

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Academic Leadership Day by Day: Small Steps That Lead to Great Success (2011) and other books on higher education administration, all of which are published by Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 27.2 (2011): 3,7.