Rutgers After Lawrence
An Open Letter to Eugene O'Hara
As you know, the recent resignation of Francis Lawrence has prompted a great deal of speculation about the future course of Rutgers.
Having talked to a large number of students, faculty, and alumni, I sense strong agreement that it is time for everyone who cares about Rutgers -- both those on the Board of Governors who supported Mr. Lawrence and those who have spent the last seven years working for his resignation -- to close ranks.
From this point on, it is time for all of us to be thinking about how Rutgers might take its place among the top four or five public institutions in the country.
That is what this letter is about. As someone who has been paying close attention to developments from what might be called the opposing camp, I wanted to try to give you some sense of various problems -- and suggested solutions -- that have occurred to those of us who opposed Mr. Lawrence when he was still in office.
I am, I'm afraid, going to have to mention athletics. As you know, I am associated with Rutgers 1000, the campaign that means to see Rutgers withdrawn from the NCAA's Division IA and the "Big East" conference, and to abolish "athletic scholarships" for individuals brought to campus on the basis of motor skills rather than intellectual ability. Still, this letter is mainly about academic and intellectual values.
I will only say that I don't think that Rutgers 1000 and those on the Board of Governors who support "big time" athletics are as far apart as they seem. As a former high school and college athlete myself, I strongly believe that sports have an important part to play in college life. Our only real disagreement, it seems to me, is about whether "professionalized" college athletics are college athletics in any genuine sense.
In what follows, I am going to address a number of issues that will have to be faced by any new president coming into Old Queens.
In my view, there are three ways Rutgers can go in this moment in its history: (1) we can sustain the state of mediocrity achieved over the last 12 years under the Lawrence administration, (2) we can sink even farther down in the ranks of public institutions of higher learning, or (3) we can aim to have Rutgers among the top 5 public institutions in the country within a period of 5-10 years.
Seminar room as seen at real universities. The College Ave gym, gutted and redesigned from within to provide seminar rooms, conference rooms, and a well-equipped student theater, could accommodate twelve rooms like this one. Estimated building cost would be far less than the $600 million already wasted on Div IA athletics since Rutgers joined the "Big East" conference in 1994. (See "Bricks and Mortar" below.)
Needless to say, it is option (3) that I will address in this letter. Given its natural advantages -- one of the strongest applicant pools in the United States, a very high-powered faculty, a history and tradition going back to the colonial period -- it has always seemed to me that it is harder for Rutgers not to be one of the leading public institutions in the country than to go on in our current state of demoralized mediocrity. As a colleague of mine once said, with all Rutgers' advantages, you have to work hard to be mediocre.
Rutgers is a large and complex institution, so this will have to be a long letter.
To help give you some systematic sense of the issues it addresses, I will separate the topics out under boldfaced headings.
One major tragedy is that, given one of the most talented applicant pools in the United States, we lose 70% of our top students to out-of-state institutions.
Even more embarrassing is the fact that the College of New Jersey -- formerly Trenton State -- has, by raising its admissions requirements and hiring better faculty, begun to steal a substantial portion of top New Jersey students from Rutgers.
The result has been catastrophic. Because the New Jersey applicant pool is so rich in talent, Rutgers still manages to draw a substantial number of very bright and intellectually motivated students in every entering class.
But, almost without exception, these students sense within a week or a month that they are only marginally important in Rutgers' scheme of things. Very many decide to try to transfer to a "better" school before the end of their first semester. Others, knowing that their family financial situation won't allow them to transfer to Columbia or Northwestern, feel trapped and helpless and alienated at Rutgers.
At a good university, the brightest and most intellectually motivated students on campus are at the symbolic center of the institution. They are made to feel that they are at the very heart of the university's mission to provide a high-quality education for students from less-than-wealthy backgrounds. Their intellectual commitment in turn inspires other students with a sense of purpose and aspiration.
On the other hand, most open-admissions state universities -- schools like Nebraska and Oklahoma and Ohio State -- make no pretense of trying to attract top students. Teaching at such schools takes place mainly at a remedial level. If the occasional bright student who is stranded at such a school feels marginalized, nobody worries about it.
Yet even some of these institutions have begun to see that operating a remedial learning operation for a huge and indiscriminate mass of intellectually underprepared students means depriving many other students of their one chance at a real college education. They are taking steps to do something about it. (See "States Seek to Stiffen Their Admissions Standards," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Jan 2002).
Of particular interest to people in NJ, perhaps, is the experience of CUNY, which has shifted to selective admissions from open admissions and remedial education. "Despite early concerns that more-rigorous admissions standards would drive applicants away," reports an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, " students seem to be flocking to CUNY. This semester freshman enrollment at CUNY senior colleges increased by 23 percent over last year." In addition, diversity of admissions has been maintained.
At Rutgers, the outmigration of 70% of New Jersey's top students, and the marginalization and demoralization of those who do come to Rutgers, is a disaster.
A new president must make the reversal of this situation the first item in his or her list of priorities.
Until every student who attends Rutgers is as proud to be here as are students at Berkeley or Virginia, we will have failed as an institution.
One characteristic common to all top public universities is that they have selective admissions. The University of California at Berkeley accepts only 26% of its applicants. UCLA, with an undergraduate enrollment larger than Berkeley's, accepts 29%. The University of Virginia (39%), University of North Carolina (37%), and William and Mary (41%), all take well below 50% of all candidates who apply.
The rationale of selectivity at these institutions is precisely the fact that they are public. They thus belong to state systems that offer applicants with lower-level academic and intellectual qualifications the opportunity to work for a degree at an institution -- whether another four-year school or a community college -- more suited to their present level of achievement. Additionally, all permit "upward transfer" to the most selective campus for students who are late in fulfilling their promise.
I am going to explain below why the "college system" -- Rutgers College, Cook, and Douglass as separate colleges within the larger university -- is potentially our greatest strength as an institution. I will also explain why having a differential rate of selectivity within the college system provides Rutgers with an opportunity to develop an internal version of the "cascade principle" that has made the University of California the best system of public education in the world. Here, I want simply to give an idea of the admissions goals Rutgers ought to be moving toward.
Our most selective unit is Rutgers College, which is, however, substantially below the best public institutions in the country in admissions requirements.
As soon as the new president has had an opportunity to put a new system of admissions into place, the "target" requirement for Rutgers College should be set at a combined SAT average of 1300 for its entering class. This would give us one unit within our college system that was immediately comparable to such institutions as Berkeley (1290), the University of Virginia (1310), and the College of William and Mary (1317).
As I make these proposals, please be aware that "target" does not mean "cut-off." It simply refers to the average of all scores in an entering class.
To get a class with 1310 average SAT's, for instance, Virginia accepts students with a wide range of scores. Thus, on the SAT Verbal, 5% of UVa freshmen are below 500, 21% between 500 and 599, 48% between 600 and 700, and 27% above 700.
To get a class with a 1300 average, Rutgers College would accept students with a similarly wide range of scores.
This same measure would also substantially increase the percentage of Rutgers College students who had finished in the top 10% of their high school class, again making us more comparable to Berkeley (98%), the University of Virginia (82%) and William & Mary (83%).
The target requirement for Cook College should be set at 1250, making Cook comparable to the University of North Carolina (1250) in selectivity. The target for Douglass should be set at 1200, roughly equivalent to Penn State (1210).
The immediate benefits of setting admission standards at the above levels would be enormous. Among them: (1) a boost in student morale, with the brightest and most intellectually-motivated students moving closer to the symbolic center of the institution's values, (2) attraction of a much higher percentage of the top New Jersey students currently leaving for out-of-state schools, (3) a sense on the part of more "average" students that they were attending a demanding and intellectually serious institution where they could get a top-quality education for a reasonable tuition cost, (4) shrinkage of the student body, easing pressure on classroom space and competition to get into classes, (5) an instant improvement in the faculty-to-student ratio, making it possible for departments to do less hiring of adjuncts and new faculty, (6) a dramatic increase in the availability of senior faculty to teach freshman and senior seminars, and (7) a lowering of cost to the taxpayers, even as they were getting a far better university for their tax dollars.
At leading state institutions, admissions are overseen by a Dean of Admissions and a competent staff, who take into consideration all relevant information -- not simply SAT scores and high school GPA, but leadership qualities, outside activities, abilities in music or theater or art, and other appropriate measures of potential contributions to university life -- presented by each candidate.
A recent national magazine article gave a detailed account of admissions at the University of Virginia, where the admissions staff discusses the candidacy of each applicant and engages in spirited debate about the potential of candidates who present an unusual combination of talents and academic performance. The spirit of admissions was very close to what one would expect of a good liberal arts college like Swarthmore or Bowdoin, or of a selective private university like Colgate or Lafayette.
At "open admissions" universities, on the other, applicants are considered on an impersonal statistical basis, with most being admitted so long as they meet certain extremely low standards of academic performance. Such institutions, instead of having a Dean of Admissions, very often have an "office of enrollment management." Applicants are processed by computer. This is the admissions procedure at such institutions as the University of Oklahoma, Ohio State, and the University of Nebraska.
It is also the admissions procedure at Rutgers.
The second step that should be taken by an incoming president of Rutgers should be to abolish the "office of enrollment management" and install deans of admissions and competent staff at Rutgers College, Douglass, Cook, and Livingston. In addition, admissions committees in each college should include faculty members and students in that college's honors program, to provide oversight and ongoing input into the needs of the college.
Many leading public institutions are aware that in-state students benefit greatly, as broadening both their intellectual and their cultural horizons, by going to school with a "national" student body including students from other parts of the United States.
The University of Virginia, for instance, admits 33% out-of-state students in each entering class. William & Mary admits 35%. The University of North Carolina admits 18%.
Rutgers should aim for an entering class that includes about 20% students from around the nation. At the same time, we should make certain that out-of-state students meet at least the same admissions requirements as entering New Jersey students, and if possible -- on an "enrichment of the whole" principle -- substantially exceeds them.
One way to do this would be to index out-of-state tuition to entering SAT scores. So, for instance, an out-of-state student entering Douglass with the same 1200 SAT as in-state Douglass students might pay a tuition of $15,000. But students with higher SATs would be "forgiven" a certain percentage of the out-of-state increment for each increase of 20 points in her combined SAT, until at a very high level (say, 1400), an out-of-state student would pay the same tuition ($5300) as entering New Jersey students. This plan should be adopted, with appropriate statistical adjustments, across the entire college system.
An accident of historical development has put Rutgers in the position of being, potentially, the most exciting and admired state university in the United States. The reason is that Rutgers has "inherited" a college system that other institutions are only now, at great expense, trying to create from scratch.
The reason that institutions have begun to think about a "college system" is that so many state universities have become huge impersonal bureaucratic enterprises. A standard joke about the University of California at Los Angeles is that "I got into UCLA but I didn't go because I couldn't find a place to park."
Such universities may have outstanding faculties. They may have selective admissions. They may even be highly ranked in various national rating systems. But given their impersonality and the "anonymous" status of their students, they are little more than diploma mills.
The national authority on the adoption of the "college system" at public institutions -- that is, breaking the large anonymous mass of the university down into small, coherent, face-to-face communities -- is, by happy coincidence, a man named O'Hara.
Dr. Robert J. O'Hara was a designer of Cornelia Strong College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where as Senior Tutor of the college he tested his own ideas about how the college system can be adapted to public universities. He writes:
-- R.J. O'Hara, "The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and Higher Education"
As Dr. O'Hara indicates, the oldest model of the college system is the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, which for centuries have provided small, self-contained communities in the midst of the larger and more impersonal structure of the university. In the United States, Harvard adopted the college system -- the Harvard colleges are called "houses," but the principle is identical -- almost a century ago. Yale did so somewhat later. Today, in a belated attempt to catch up to its Ivy League compeers, Princeton is devoting an enormous amount of money to trying to develop a college system.
In the meantime, Rutgers, through sheer good fortune, has inherited a fully-functioning college system, with the advantages of separate campuses and residential arrangements but -- as at Harvard and Yale -- a centralized faculty to which every student at each of the colleges has access. In the last twelve years, the college system at Rutgers has been adrift, with a great deal of administrative chaos and student demoralization, due to an administration that utterly failed to grasp that the system is a resource that could almost immediately put Rutgers into the foremost ranks of American public institutions.
An incoming president of Rutgers should should set about developing the enormous potential of the college system. This will involve serious deliberation about a number of issues too complex to be considered here -- how, for instance, Rutgers faculty may re-enter student life as members of the "Senior Common Room" of each college -- but two are important enough to deserve separate mention.
The current weakness of the college system at Rutgers is that the separate colleges have become little more than hollowed-out administrative fictions. The colleges do run separate honors programs, but aside from that there is nothing to provide a sense of college membership or community. Any student at any college may take any class, and shared educational experiences are few and far between.
Under a revived college system, the new president should mandate that entering students at each of the colleges will take a freshman seminar -- numbering between 10 and 15 students -- with other freshmen in their entering class. These seminars should fill basic college and university requirements, but be designed, in addition, as experiences in intellectual community.
In the middle -- sophomore and junior -- years, students at all colleges should take classes under the present system, with large introductory courses in major departments, especially, open to students from all colleges. So, while Rutgers College students would take a freshmen seminar with other Rutgers College freshmen only, they would take Introductory Psychology or Political Science 101 alongside students from Douglass and Cook.
In the senior year, students at each college should "reconverge" in a senior seminar in their own college. Again, these seminars should be designed to meet college and university requirements, but to serve as well as a final experience of intellectual community.
The University of California has developed the best system of public education in the world by adopting what admissions people call a "cascade" principle with Berkeley at its pinnacle. Thus Berkeley is constrained each year, because it accepts only 26% of all applicants, to reject a large number of candidates with very high SAT scores and very good high school GPAs. These students then tend to move one level down to the next-most-competitive unit in the California system.
The effect has been to give California a state system in which the top four or five campuses are all among the leading public institutions in the country. In a recent U.S. News ranking of public universities, for instance, Berkeley was listed as #1 in the nation, UCLA as #4, the University of California at San Diego as #7, and the University of California at Davis as #10. (Rutgers, in this same ranking, was tied for 24th-27th place with such lackluster institutions as Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware.)
A differential tightening of admissions standards as described earlier in this letter would immediately give Rutgers an internal version of the "cascade" principle that worked to the advantage of every student -- for all would take a large percentage of their classes with all other students at the university -- while dramatically improving the standing of the university as a whole relative to public institutions elsewhere.
Developing the college system to its full potential will, as I have said, depend on giving every student at each of the Rutgers colleges a freshman seminar and a senior seminar within his or her own college.
Quite apart from the college system, there is an argument to be made that the seminar experience -- a chance to spend a term sitting around a table in intensive discussion with 10 or 12 other bright students and a professor who is a leading scholar in his or her field -- is the very essence of the college experience. It is expected at private universities like Harvard and Yale and Columbia, and the normal way of teaching courses at small liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst.
To the degree that large public universities do not provide students with the seminar experience, they are in effect telling their undergraduates that they are second-class citizens in comparison to students wealthy enough to go to private colleges and universities.
Developing the college system to its full potential will take a substantial investment in bricks and mortar: a seminar can only be given in a seminar room, and providing rooms that permit all students to have the seminar experience will demand a substantial commitment to giving Rutgers students a top-quality education.
At Rutgers College there is presently one seminar room (Bishop 211) available for 10,000 students. (Another, in Brett Hall, cannot be counted as a true seminar room. It is separated by a thin wallboard partition from a TV-and-game room, the noise of which constantly distracts from class discussion.)
Mr. O'Hara, I promised that I would not mention athletics, and until now I haven't done so. But here I find myself overwhelmed with anger at the enormous waste that has gone into the athletics program over the last 12 years while literally thousands of "real" Rutgers students have been deprived of seminars that would have transformed their college experience.
Consider: the football stadium, a monstrous waste of money built for a handful of imported athletes, cost over $25 million dollars. Consider: as Athletics Director at Rutgers, Robert Mulcahy has raised over $10 million dollars simply to "upgrade" the weight rooms and players' lounges and video game rooms in the Hale Center. Consider: in the last year alone, the athletics program cost $30 million, of which a $13 million deficit had to be made up out of general operating funds -- money that could have been used to provide smaller classes, more courses, and, yes, seminar rooms.
Seminar room as seen at real universities. The College Ave gym, gutted and redesigned from within to provide seminar rooms, conference rooms, and a well-equipped student theater, could accommodate twelve rooms like this one. Estimated building cost would be far less than the $600 million already wasted on Div IA athletics since Rutgers joined the "Big East" conference in 1994.
If just $50 million of the funds poured down the athletics drain had been invested in a complex of 10 seminar rooms, over 24,000 "real" Rutgers students could have had the seminar experience. It is a tragedy.
Sorry. I couldn't restrain myself. Let me go on.
Another bricks-and-mortar problem at Rutgers, which as an old university has many beautiful parts of its campus, is that it has been allowed to develop on a larger scale as a "slum campus."
Let me mention a couple of examples.
One of the most depressing sights to greet a visitor to the College Avenue campus is the parking lot at the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton. It is filled with cars and litter, ugly blacktop and uglier metal fencing. The "grease trucks," constantly generating more litter and an unsightly visual clutter, add to the depressing effect.
The grease trucks: sight that greets visitors to Rutgers
Yet Rutgers owns this land. Rutgers can do anything it wants with this stretch of ground. With a wave of a wand, Rutgers could turn this area into a grassy quad and complex of attractive buildings that would mirror the attractiveness of the old quad by Murray and Van Dyke halls, and we would have a real campus.
Mr. O'Hara, I ask you to imagine the following. Rutgers needs more dormitories on its College Avenue campus.
Parking lot behind grease trucks. This is the impression visiting students and parents carry away from Rutgers
Suppose, Mr. O'Hara, that the parking lot and the grease trucks were removed, and that they had been replaced with a quadrangle that included two
Demarest-type dorms and a classroom complex, also in the Georgian architectural mode, containing 10 new seminar rooms, each with its tables and chairs and indirect lighting and good sound insulation.
Mr. O'Hara, it wouldn't be simply the lives of the 24,000 students who got to take seminars that were transformed. Nor would it be simply the lives of the several hundred students who would live in the new, solidly-built, Georgian-style dormitories. It would be the lives of everyone who walks down College Ave during the day, of out-of-state students coming to visit Rutgers with their parents, even of visiting members of the Board of Governors.
A depressing feature of the present Rutgers campus is that its oldest part, the Old Queens quad, is separated by Hamilton -- a busy, noisy, dangerous street -- from the old quad containing Murray, Van Dyke, and the art museum. This is one of the things that makes walking through the College Avenue campus more like dodging cars in the Walmart parking lot than being a student at a university.
Mr. O'Hara, I don't like to bring up Harvard in discussions of what might or ought to be done at Rutgers, because I've found that it gratuitously stimulates Pavlovian responses about "Ivy League elitists" and other things that it has never occurred to me to be. But this isn't about the Ivy League; it is about how we might make Rutgers into a lovely and quiet and wonderful university campus, so bear with me.
When I was a graduate student many years ago, Harvard faced exactly the same problem in back of Harvard Yard -- right behind the Yard ran a street that, a hundred years ago, had been little more than a cowpath, but that in the age of the automobile and increasing traffic and blaring horns had become a torrent of noise and metal separating the oldest part of the Harvard campus from another main portion -- the Law School and the Kennedy School -- across a major thoroughfare.
So Harvard did a supremely intelligent thing: getting the City of Cambridge to split the cost, it built an underpass that took the traffic and the blaring horns and the exhaust fumes underground and passed it through until it emerged on the other side. Atop the underpass, where the noisy street had been before, they spread dirt and planted grass and trees and waited to see what would happen.
Mr. O'Hara, I saw that underpass being built. A couple of summers ago I went back to Cambridge to teach at Harvard Summer School and, when I walked out the back of the Yard, couldn't believe my eyes: where there had been noise and traffic and exhaust fumes there was now a garden, a continuous expanse of trees and flowers and grass stretching away toward the Law School. Harvard had turned a single horrible feature of its landscape into a continuous campus that was an island of peace in the midst of noisy Cambridge. All it took was a little imagination and a very reasonable investment of resources.
I am including a map with this section of my letter, just in case you are charmed and wanted to see where the Hamilton Street underpass would go. (If I were permitting myself to mention athletics, I would point out that it could be constructed for a fraction of what the Piscataway football stadium cost, but I will not do that.)
One of the slummiest parts of the Rutgers campus is Union Street, littered with trash, filled with boarded up and deserted houses -- many of them formerly fraternities -- and generally looking more like a section of Route 1 than the campus of one of the nation's leading universities.
Mr. O'Hara, it is standard policy at many universities that border on declining neighborhoods simply to buy up and remodel for college purposes the buildings that have plywood where their windows used to be. The buildings are usually structurally sound, and when they have been purchased and remodeled can serve all sorts of purposes -- faculty offices, Honors Program centers, seminar rooms -- that answer desperate needs on the part of the university community. The grounds are landscaped, the street is cleaned up, and the area becomes a pleasant and happy portion of the campus.
The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, has followed this course with great
Mr. O'Hara, please let me suggest that when Rutgers has appointed a new president, you take him or her for a walk down Union Street, and then hint that perhaps it might be a solution to the "slum campus" problem if the university could absorb Union Street and transform it into an attractive portion of the College Avenue campus.
Mr. O'Hara, one of the very worst things that's happened to Rutgers during the last 12 years is the ill-judged imposition of a "corporate model" on an old and distinguished university. It has been misguided, even evil in its consequences. It must be reversed. Undone. Abolished.
When I speak of a "corporate model," people might imagine that I am talking about the most visible efforts of the recent administration: the constant stream of mickey mouse "strategic plans" and "plans for strategic vision" and "visionary strategies for planning excellence" and the like. Or the glossy brochures that poured off the presses with such great waste of time and energy and such little effect on Rutgers.
But there is a deeper problem involved with the "corporate model" when applied to universities.
Here is an analogy. Many years ago, researchers pointed out that Gerber's and other popular brands of baby food had a very high salt content. They also pointed out that salt, dangerous to adults because of its tendency to cause hypertension and other disorders, was especially dangerous when given to tiny babies.
Then came more news: the same researchers established through testing that babies didn't care whether the baby food contained salt or not. It turns out that babies have undeveloped taste buds that don't distinguish between salty and unsalty.
Then came something amazing: the companies making the baby food knew that babies don't care about salt. They were putting the salt in because they knew that the mothers of the babies tasted the baby food, and bought their preferred brands according to what they thought was the "best taste."
In short: the salt wasn't for the babies. It was bad for the babies. It was for the mothers buying the baby food.
This is exactly the situation with the "corporate model" as applied to universities. The corporate model is not only inappropriate for universities, but bad for universities. But the corporate model is adopted by weak or incompetent presidents because trustees and members of Boards of Governors, who are mainly drawn from business and the professions, are familiar with this way of thinking.
In short: the corporate model isn't for the university. It is bad for the university. It is for the businessmen and professionals on the Board of Trustees.
Let me content myself with only one example --there are hundreds -- of how the "corporate model" has been misapplied at Rutgers over the last twelve years. It is an epitome of the whole situation.
A few nights ago, I was reading Anthony Kenny's A Life in Oxford. Kenny was the Master of Balliol and has been a major figure at Oxford for nearly 40 years. At present he is head of Rhodes House, which is the British headquarters of the Trust that administers Rhodes Scholarships.
In the section I was reading, Anthony Kenny was talking about the change that came to Oxford when market pressures suddenly made it clear that university professors were going to have to be paid differently in some fields than in others -- e.g., a Professor of Religion could go on making the traditional salary, but to draw anyone as Professor of Physics, Oxford was going to have to pay more.
Kenny thought this was one of the saddest moments in Oxford history, for a simple reason: up to this moment late in the 20th century, all university professors at Oxford, in all fields, had been paid an identical salary.
In America, where everything is measured by how much it costs or how much it's worth on the market, that sounds sort of crazy. But in an ancient institution like Oxford, it wasn't crazy at all. The ideal of the university was the scholarly devotion to "truth for its own sake," which is supposed to make matters like money and salaries and "who gets more" irrelevant. To a large degree it did.
It was the equality of salaries, said Kenny, that had made Oxford a "republic of scholars." When outside market pressures abolished that symbolic equality, Oxford lost something precious.
When I came to Rutgers, increases in faculty salary were given as what are called "step raises" -- professors at different ranks were paid different salaries, but everyone within a rank got the same raise.
Then, under the last administration, a standard "corporate model" move was made in instituting what are usually talked about as "merit increases" in place of step raises. From now on, in short, you'd get your raise based on such notions as "productivity."
It would take me far too long to explain to you why this is a hideously inappropriate model to apply to a community of scholars and teachers -- in brief, nothing we do answers to the model of "productivity" that may be appropriate to the annual production of automotive units at Chrysler or the increase of sales at Burger King -- but I can tell you what it has done to every university I've seen that has adopted the "merit pay" idea.
It has destroyed any sense of scholarly or intellectual community that existed in departments, or among the faculty as a whole.
The reason is that every "merit pay" scheme demands that increases be determined by a committee within each department. That is, some colleagues are put in charge of determining which other colleagues have been "productive," and thus compelled to adopt a model of business or corporate competition in their relations with each other.
The colleagues who have been left behind wind up hating the colleagues on the committee -- everybody thinks he or she is as "meritorious" as the next person in these situations -- and they wind up hating each other, and all hate the people who have been given the largest "merit raises."
The effect, in short, is to turn what had been a "republic of scholars" into a group of mutually resentful individuals each of whom detests all the others.
I have seen faculty members in these situations develop mutual hatreds on the basis of a few pathetic dollars in "merit pay" -- an amount that wouldn't buy a subscription to TLS, or dinner in a good restaurant -- that have poisoned their relations for years.
I should perhaps mention that every "merit pay" system I have ever been under has been extremely good to me in the purely material sense, because I publish a lot and that tends to get counted as "productivity" in such schemes. But I would infinitely rather earn a lower salary and go in every day to a university that considered itself a "republic of scholars" than earn a higher salary and have to live in a nest of mutual and hurtful animosities among colleagues.
If such applications of the "corporate model" are harmful or destructive, then, why does any university president ever try to institute them?
The answer is this: weak presidents and incompetent presidents want to look good in the eyes of the their trustees. They very quickly figure out that it is far easier to pander to the prejudices of a group of business or professional people -- individuals to whom thinking in terms of "productivity" and "the bottom line" is second nature -- than to educate them in the extraordinarily complex ways in which a great university works. So a badly-run university gets "merit pay," and "quality control," and "wait management," and "plans for strategic excellence," and the institution sinks ever more dismally into a sink of mediocrity.
Mr. O'Hara, it's up to you and your compeers on the Board of Governors at this point. Undo the damage. Get us a real president who understands how universities work and who has the vision and the energy to put Rutgers among the leading institutions in the nation.
Not at the top in the Nebraska-Florida State-Virginia Tech "booster talk" sense -- "Why right here in New Jersey, we got us one of the finest state universities in the whole Yew-Nited States!" -- but really at the top.
Select us a president who will be willing to educate the Board of Governors and the trustees about how institutions of higher learning work rather than trying to flatter the prejudices they quite understandably bring with them from the world of corporate relations.
Give us a Charles William Eliot or another Mason Gross, Mr. O'Hara, and all will be forgiven.
William C. Dowling
Professor of English