ADAM SMITH’S CURE FOR THE MALADY OF MEDIOCRE TEACHING

Ronald H. Silverman

Hofstra University, Spring 2002 Distinguished Lecture

Feb. 27, 2002

Introduction

Good morning. Of course, I have my gratitude list. I’m very pleased to welcome some of my colleagues and some of my students—current and past including those who are alums.  More specifically, my thanks to Provost Herman Berliner, Associate Provost Susan Lukesh and the members of the campus-wide selection committee that she ably chairs. I am also grateful for the caring support and wise counsel of my partner, Ms. Terry Pristin.  Finally, I’m especially pleased to welcome both President Stuart Rabinowitz, who was Dean of the law school for many years, and my current Dean, David Yellen,  new to his challenging job this year. In fact, I’ve learned much about legal education and the teaching arts from my dozen or so deans, my numerous teaching colleagues and from many students, past and present. My own brief service at another law school as a kind of Vice Dean and, ultimately, as the Acting Dean, without official appointment, has also made an important contribution.  Consider the following, now, organized around these three simply stated questions:

I.

WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS ?

It’s important to begin with the right focus.  What concerns me is not the inflated word education but, rather, the key interaction between a university teacher and her students. John Stuart Mill once concluded that “as the schoolmaster is, so will be the school..”   This depiction, of  Professor Fuzzy and attentive Student Snoozy, is both accurate and inaccurate.  Teaching, as Jacques Barzun observes, is certainly a hand-to-hand struggle or mind-to-mind encounter.  But our concern is with university teachers serving students in groups, as well as individually.  The depiction also fails to reflect the increasing gender, racial and ethnic diversity on both sides of this key relationship.   

The positive qualities of an effective teacher may be described in different ways.  But I will not bother, except by implication. Instead, I offer a darker menu of teaching problems. First, Professor Aimless often fails to specify his teaching or course goals. He never asks the key questions: Why am I teaching this material?  What will my students be doing with their education? And how do my efforts relate to my colleagues’ teaching?

Second, Professor Abstraction teaches without much use of suggestive analogies and illuminating metaphors that confer new and surprising meanings on lazy generalizations. Her teaching is largely disconnected from the real and more specified world of human needs, aspirations, sympathies and antipathies.  

Third, Professor Fragmentary mostly teaches in fragmented and unsystematic ways.  He is an unsatisfactory teacher when he submerges or avoids useful explanatory theories, organizing principles and simplifying concepts and suggestive categories.  Socratic instruction, both inside and outside the law schools, often suffers from this kind of incoherence.  Of course,  teaching can be too systematic, too “finished” in character, suppressing student curiosity and questions.  Nonetheless, who can deny the positive effects of coherence, continuity and progression in both teaching and learning.  Surely not Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who once playfully observed that law study often involved “intellectual chaos with a full index.”

Fourth, consider the problem of Professor Ideologue.  Ideologically passionate Professor Lefty and his close relation, Sister Professor Righty, together “activate” the worst sides of their students.  Max Weber may have been right.  He criticized professors who “imprint” students with “personal political views.”  He was confident that “prophets and demagogues do not belong on an academic platform.”

But what alternative exists to “politically juicy” teaching? Consider a fifth character: Professor Neutral. Neutral refuses to reveal her political preferences or, even, her policy choices.  Neutral chooses the safe way to “dry-as-dust” land, largely devoid of intellectual and emotional provocations.

Sixth, Professor Hostility also prowls the zoo, growling as he goes.  Though it seems incredible, some professors seem to dislike, if not despise, their students.  Professor Hostility masquerades as sympathetic but with a deeper brute’s heart.  He says that he hates to hurt. but he still decimates the muddled preconceptions and misconceptions of his many benighted students.  His chilling aloofness and verbal attacks, studded with irony and sarcasm, reflect a taste for intellectual and other forms of domination. He turns a deaf ear to Gilbert Highet who counsels professors to avoid “pulverizing ridicule.”

Seventh, and finally for our current and partial indictment, consider Professor Selective. She is a  rationing university teacher. She is short of time and other pedagogical resources and  must pick and choose carefully.  She, therefore,  takes comfort and pride in “teaching to the top.” Unfashionable these days?  Of course, but no less tempting.  The rationing of teaching time and course coverage is also connected to a common professorial perception.  Many of us conclude, fairly or unfairly, that our students are strange–very unlike their teachers, both intellectually and emotionally.  Teaching to the top, however,  may have perverse results. Students who need the most teaching attention may get the least. Such rationing may lead to unhappy forms of socially irresponsible discrimination by university teachers anxious, they say, to do the right thing.

Of course, we might add to any such indictment of weak university teaching. Most university teachers take little pride in being windy bores.  Nonetheless, even the best-intentioned correctives may backfire.  Innovative teaching may often be regarded by students as confusing or off-putting. Other seemingly commendable teaching commitments may have unintended consequences. Especially thorough and meticulously detailed teaching, in so-called depth, many only bore many students.  Teaching students how to think, while de-emphasizing what to think, may be more questionable than it appears.  Professor Lon Fuller, of the Harvard Law School, once warned that “the goal of teaching students to think has been the last refuge of every dying discipline from Latin to Greek to Mechanical Drawing to Common-law Pleading.”

II.

WHAT DID ADAM SMITH CONTRIBUTE?

A very great deal!  He was a popular and accomplished professor at the University of Glasgow, as well as an experienced and competent university administrator during part of his academic career.  Keynes, among his many latter-day admirers, once described Smith as “the first and greatest of the teachers who have taught a modern subject in a modern way.”  Keynes notwithstanding, Smith never held any appointment as a professor of economics. In fact, no one merely taught economics in Smith’s day.  Instead, he was a Professor of Moral Philosophy, a university title that more accurately reflected his wide intellectual range.

As you all know, Smith was the author of at least one very famous work.   In 1776, a very important year, he published  “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations;” in short simply “Wealth of Nations.”  This was the second of his two published long works, preceded in 1759 by “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”  Smith also published essays and commentary on philosophical subjects, rhetoric and belles lettres, and jurisprudence. His complete works have been republished in modern form by the Oxford University Press to celebrate the bicentennial of the publication of  “Wealth of Nations.”

While many regard  “Wealth of Nations” as a work of genius and a living masterpiece, relatively few modern readers have focused on Book V.  There, Smith describes the problems of university professors, offers an impressive explanatory theory and, finally, prescribes a seemingly simple but quite remarkable remedy.  While Smith is not wholly original, relying on Mandeville and others, he does offer an important description and analysis, especially in his “Wealth of Nations,” and in some of his other work including “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Descriptive Smith, first, bluntly describes his unhappy experience as a scholarship student at Oxford:

...the greater part of the publick professors [at Oxford] have, for  these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.

Edward Gibbon and Jeremy Bentham agreed, though Boswell apparently did not.    Modern historians of the great English universities of the eighteenth century also concluded that these institutions “had fallen on evil days.”

With typical specificity, Smith, something of a student of European universities, praised the pedagogy at the Scottish universities and criticized the outdated and impractical English university curricula of his day which emphasized  ancient languages and metaphysical studies. He further complained about the lack of academic innovation, particularly at the richest and best endowed universities. Finally, Smith objected to university professors who contented themselves “with teaching a few unconnected shreds and parcels of [a] corrupted course.”  To compound this pedagogical failure, even these shreds were commonly taught “very negligently and superficially.”

But why such poor university teaching? Smith praised the teaching of ancient Greek and Roman tutors and English preparatory school instruction  in reading, writing and in, what might be called, counting or mathematics. Smith also compliments the teaching of practical arts like fencing and dancing. Even girls and women, denied university educations, benefitted from contemporary instruction outside school environments.

But beyond such comparative success stories, Smith also offered a theory of pedagogical failure.  Theoretical Smith built his theoretical account on two conceptual foundations.  The first is psychological and involves certain natural, permanent and sometimes competing human desires and propensities. The second conceptual foundation links specified psychological conditions to certain conventional or customary university practices.

Contrary to his reputation, Smith was a perceptive student of human psychology.  He did not really believe that human behavior is typically single-minded and rationally devoted to the unambiguous maximizing of a single value. In fact, Smith specified several related motive- forces.  In addition to the human drive for what he called “material betterment,” he also argued that humans desired  reputation--- the deserved esteem of others.  This so-called “pride-drive”(my words, not Smith’s) explained why even the already wealthy persist in the quest for “material betterment.” The pursuit of material improvements continues even among the wealthy because they desire the social approval and respect afforded successful strivers.  This quest for reputation is particularly prominent, Smith says, in doctors, lawyers, poets and even philosophers.

Smith emphasizes a third aspect of human psychology.  University professors, in addition to the quest for material betterment and for deserved reputation, are motivated by a seemingly constant and perhaps dominating desire for “ease,” for what we moderns might call leisure.  Like Freud after him, Smith observed that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”  Workers and clergymen similarly desire their leisure.

Fourth, and finally, Smith notes the human talent for self-deception. Self-deceit explains high-risk  behaviors like lottery gambling, military service, gold mining and even smuggling. Even where it is unlikely that high ambitions will be fulfilled, in, say, the practice of law (Smith’s example, not mine), self-deceiving men still conscientiously prepare for the profession, dreaming as they go. Self-deceit, moreover, had a mediating function. University professors, striving simultaneously for both reputation and leisure, may persuade themselves  that both can be achieved at the very same time.

But Smith is more than a student of human psychology.  He also analyzes certain institutional or university characteristics; certain conventional practices that seem more amenable to change than the seemingly unchangeable features of human hearts and minds.  The prevailing system used to compensate English university professors of his day is a first relevant example. Salaries, disbursed by centralized university authorities, make teachers lazy:

It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that  authority will permit.

Of course, this means that the “subsistence” (Smith’s word, not mine) of professors,

provided by centrally administered salaries, will be largely “independent of their success and reputation as teachers.”  This type of compensation, therefore, will do little to assure good teaching.  Instead, it produces what Judge Richard Posner has described as a kind of “academic income insurance,” assuring income even for the relatively inept teachers.

Smith also addresses the monopoly leverage of most university professors.  While he does not actually use the word monopoly in this section of “Wealth of Nations,” he does show how hard it was for students to escape bad teaching. While never actually  using the modern “exit” vocabulary, like the modern economist Albert Hirschman, Smith is still fully aware of what has become a conventional theory of monopoly disadvantages.  In a 1774 letter to one William Cullen, Smith observes that “Monopolists very seldom make good work, and a lecture which a certain number of students must attend, whether they profit or no, is certainly not very likely to be a good one.”  Monopolies, Smith continues, are likely to be connected  “to bad work...and high price.”

Finally, Smith reflects on various difficulties in monitoring teaching.  Among his other conclusions, Smith criticizes monitoring by academic peers, infected by self-interest, who engage in collusion to exchange flattering teaching evaluations.

And what of the so-called external monitoring of university teaching by university officials, or by certain political or church authorities?  Such external monitoring may be “exercised both ignorantly and capriciously.”  While his vocabulary is not a modern one, Smith clearly describes the impediment of information costs or problems.  Even with the best intentions, university administrators, deans and department chairs will have trouble responsibly  monitoring teaching quality. Needless to say, this is a very important part of Smith’s critical theorizing.

Theoretical Smith finally becomes Prescriptive Smith. He prefers to change what can actually be changed.  He recommends changing certain university conventions and customary practices rather than trying to alter human psychology. As a result, practical and now prescriptive Smith suggests a kind of merit pay system–but merit pay with a special twist.

Pay should not be provided by relatively distant and substantially uninformed academic or other authorities, much removed from the actual teaching.  Rather, a university teacher’s compensation should come from “the honoraries and fees” provided by a teacher’s student-consumers.  Here is the heart of Smith’s prescribed corrective.  Like Mandeville before him, Smith predicts that naturally striving and self-regarding university teachers will be stimulated to greater teaching exertions by such a redesigned process:

[In teaching, as] in every profession, the exertion of the greater part

of those who exercise it, is always in proportion to the necessity that

they are under of making that exertion.       

In a more modern vocabulary than Smith’s, tuition paying student-consumers can directly influence university teaching. They would be armed with direct dollar-power, available to reward or punish professors.  There are problems with this corrective arrangement, several of which Smith actually addresses.  Still, this new model for merit pay promises to encourage more high quality teaching.

III.

CAN SMITH’S MODEL FOR MERIT PAY BE MODERNIZED?

The short answer is “Yes.”  Let’s take Hofstra as an example of a modern and aspiring university. While I will actually employ limited Hofstra data, provided by Susan Lukesh and  others, it is important to remember that Smith’s new model for a kind of merit pay is actually a very old one reflected in ancient Greek and Roman practices and in certain medieval universities as well.

Let’s try to describe, or at least sketch, a few basic features of a new compensation system that might actually be used at Hofstra.. After my sketch, I will evaluate the plan with at least a superficial survey of both the benefits and disadvantages.

Initially, it’s important to note how the actual plan departs from the Smith proposal.  A Hofstra University teacher would still receive most of her compensation in the old way.  Assume, for one example, that Professor Middling is a tenured Associate Professor of Ancient Cosmology earning the Hofstra average annual salary of about $67K. Eighty or even ninety percent of this figure would still be disbursed by the central administration.  At 90%, Middling would still receive $60,300 from the University. But where would the remaining $6,700 go? To the students for discretionary use after a semester is over.

Excluding the law school, Hofstra now employs 453 full-time faculty. Together, they are now paid  more than $30.5M.  On the student-consumer side, more than 8,400 are full-time undergraduates.  Current tuition, for full-time undergraduates carrying 12-17 credits, is $7,460 per semester or $14,920 for the current academic year.

Under the modernized merit pay proposal, Student Snoozy, as a full-time undergraduate taking 15 semester credits, would still pay the normal semester tuition of $7,460.  In addition to the usual academic considerations, however, he would also receive $250 in dollar-designated vouchers that he could distribute anonymously to his teachers as he wished.

Assume that Snoozy has five teachers. He thinks two are first-rate and two are breathing disasters. Much as he likes the fifth, Snoozy recognizes that this final teacher is a cut below his top two.  As a result, Snoozy would distribute $100 in redeemable vouchers to each of his two most favored teachers. The third teacher, who has done a respectable but not outstanding job, gets the remaining $50 voucher. The two real disappointments get nothing.

Of course, Snoozy also has substantial discretion.  He may decide to distribute his entire semester’s worth of $250 in vouchers to only a single, especially outstanding teacher or  to entirely postpone distribution until later.  Such a postponement or “voucher banking” allows time for deliberation. Though all vouchers must be distributed, let’s say, within five years from course completion, Snoozy could still benefit from growing maturity, work experiences and greater comparative perspectives.  If Snoozy defaults and neglects to distribute his confidentially coded vouchers, he would simply be billed by the University for the dollar amount of the undistributed vouchers. Where a teacher takes another job, retires or dies,  the redeemable vouchers can follow him or be transferred to her estate.

Even university teachers, who are critical of this new pay plan, could slightly relax since no one could lose more than 10% of their normal salary.  Even the worst teachers, as judged by students, would avoid starvation. But wouldn’t  a few teaching stars become very rich?  Not necessarily, if the system sensibly capped the annual amount of voucher income that could be redeemed by even the best.

  The new model should also be tolerable for Hofstra University.  In calendar year 2001, Hofstra spent about 27% of  total tuition revenue from full-time undergraduates on salaries for all full-time university teachers, excluding the law school again. No higher percentage of total tuition revenue would be spent under the new voucher program.  Nor would the current total university salary budget of $30.5 M be changed. What would change, however, is the individual incentive for better teaching.

For the newly empowered student population, the prospects would be equally notable.  Student Snoozy’s new individual dollar power for 2001-02 would be a relatively modest $500, or little more than 3% of his current total annual tuition of $14,920.  Even if he is a weak judge of teaching excellence or biased in some way, there would be an obvious limit to the damage that he could do alone.  In the aggregate, however, the total student-body dollar power would be more impressive.  If all 8,400 full-time undergraduate students received vouchers, the entire group would wield total annual dollar-power in the millions.  Of course, the dollar amounts could be changed.

Additionally,  Student Snoozy might be “treated” to a thorough description of the new program, with ample opportunity for questions and discussion. Adequately consulted, he might actually contribute to the design or re-design of the program. Snoozy might also be required to submit anonymous written answers to a well drafted questionnaire about a particular teaching performance.  His ability to wield new dollar-power might depend on his mandatory compliance.  Finally, not all undergraduate students might be entitled to wield this dollar-power.. Perhaps only more mature seniors and juniors, currently constituting only about 45% of full-time undergraduates, should qualify for the privilege and responsibility. Perhaps even the size of this sub-group of 3,766 should be further reduced by allowing only honors students to participate.

Of course, many such details invite discussion and debate. Nonetheless, this kind of student-directed merit pay might well appeal to young people, including present and prospective students. Such a new program might also appeal to some current and prospective faculty members as well; especially those inclined to exaggerate their teaching prowess until proven wrong by voucher-wielding students. The appeal and wisdom of such a new merit-pay program, however, may ultimately depend on two final sorts of analysis. What are the likely or possible benefits? What are the likely or possible problems?

First, the new program may better cope with monopoly teaching.  Tenured teachers, in particular, constitute a kind of entrenched bureaucracy with individual teachers, even pre-tenure, possibly benefitting from a kind of  “flowering monopoly.”  Professor Middling may compete for students at the beginning of a semester with three or four colleagues teaching the same introductory survey of Ancient Cosmology.  But after a student enrolls in her survey, practical student options to drop or officially withdraw from the course may be limited by a variety of factors, including requirements for a major or even for graduation.  Middling, who begins by competing with colleagues for students, grows into a position of monopoly leverage because her students, in modern terms, lose their exit powers as a semester proceeds to conclusion.

And what about pricing powers?  While Middling can’t vary the dollar burden of tuition herself, she can charge certain “implicit” course prices. A monopoly teacher may inflict low grades, stiff assignments and ambitious course coverage on her resentful student-consumers, perhaps tempting them to exercise a kind of so-called voice in protest. In fact, the new student power to anonymously distribute redeemable vouchers may constitute a kind of anonymous and protesting voice. Even more timid and anxious students may participate in anonymously restraining various abuses by monopoly teachers.

As if this antidote to the worst aspects of monopoly teaching weren’t enough, the new model also copes with the RATIONAL passivity of students.  An agitated student-consumer like  Snoozy may still be disinclined to complain. Without the new dollar-power, he may wish to avoid being a trouble maker, especially since he has already found an unofficial  way to drop out by sleeping his way through many of Professor Middling’s most boring classes. Even if Snoozy is not averse to causing trouble, he may realize that a group complaint is more effective. Even a bold Snoozy may hesitate to incur the transaction costs involved in organizing a group of protesting classmates and bringing the group to agreement on voicing strategies and tactics.  Finally, a rational, and therefore cost-minimizing, Snoozy may ultimately realize that even a well organized group protest is more likely to benefit Professor Middling’s future students, not himself. Suffering the burden of protest costs for the sole benefit of others is not all that smart or rational, except for the very rare altruist among us. No wonder Snoozy reasonably chooses not to make a fuss.

The new model may also cope with so-called monitoring problems. Over-burdened academic administrators are poorly suited to evaluate teaching.  Smith was right.  Even the best intentioned dean or department chair is bound to suffer from partial or weak information about teaching. Even the best dean, department chair or senior faculty colleague may be confused about the right evaluation standards.  And what of their ability to imagine how professionally inexperienced, often relatively young student-consumers are receiving or processing teaching?  You deans, department chairs and senior faculty are seriously handicapped.  You do not “own” adequate monitoring resources and never will. But what about written student evaluations? Are they helpful? Perhaps. But are such questionnaires well drafted and submitted by most students?

There is, however, a ready alternative.  Our student-consumers regularly attend our classes, as we scrutinizing administrators and colleagues do not and cannot. At least some students do, especially if they are  forced to attend as they are in some law school classes. Only our students know whether a particular teacher is getting through to them with the right combination of information and organizing principles, with the right intellectual balance and provocation. Furthermore, only the students are currently taking courses from several teachers at once.  Even if some students, like a Snoozy, are unsophisticated and distracted,  they know more, by far, about what bores and confuses them.  They know more about such key matters than even the best administrators, deans and faculty. Such professional monitors and evaluators may be further disabled by the blinders of accumulated professional experience and further tempted to do professional friends important favors.

And what of a fourth possible benefit? The new merit pay program encourages us to re-examine the allocation of academic resources despite our many past and barren considerations of a classic tension. Clearly, the new program may well encourage better teaching at the expense of scholarly publishing. But, once again, what is the key to a proud and improving university future?  Good teaching or published scholarship?  Choose right now. Can we have both? We can if we assess their real relationship.

  Might we live without producing published scholarship?   If you believe, as I do, that most such scholarship contributes little to the public welfare, your answer may be “You bet!”  But not so fast.

While most university teachers hardly need another new and time-consuming insight to tax their teaching resources, scholarly publication may still be worth doing at least sometimes.  If good teaching requires verbal coherence and well-crafted organization, then the preparation of published scholarship may contribute to good teaching; a good means or instrument to a worthy end.  Even for more senior faculty, there are good reasons for producing published research.  Such production may re-vitalize Professor Senior by  infusing his teaching efforts with a general spirit of discovery.  If the new merit-pay proposal threatens scholarly publication, perhaps good administrators can tilt the balance back with grants from a special fund.

 

Finally, consider one last problem involving Professor Fading Star.  How, especially after the sad abolition of mandatory retirement for university professors, can we humanely meet the challenge of a growing number of university teachers in decline. The unhappy appearance of Fading Star has much to do with a number of converging factors like age, ill health, boredom and a variety of senior distractions.

Will the new merit-pay model provide a perfect cure for the limitations of the Fading Stars?  Of course not. But it may help by passing a direct message from student-consumers.  The students might be taken as saying collectively: Your time has come and passed. It’s time to yield to younger, more energetic teaching successors. Some Fading Star Professors  may actually listen.            

Finally, what of the problems from this modernized model for merit pay?  There are some, though fewer than many sneering critics believe.  Smith, himself, deals with several.  Here is a suggestive list.  My published article, available to you all, deals even more thoroughly with them and others too.

First, consider the general opposition to unsettling change. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it” cry the prudent and those who wish to be left alone.  But it is “broke.” Teaching, and university education, are freighted with human imperfections.  This general hostility to change is reinforced, especially among academic employees, by a special hostility. Characterizing a university teacher as a provider of goods and services to student-consumers is the heart of the crime.  Max Weber put it memorably. He strongly disliked the notion that a university teacher sells a student “his knowledge or his methods for [his] father’s money, just as the green grocer sells my mother cabbage.” Some modern commentators have similarly opposed a system of rewards because such a system “reduces the psychology of human motivation to a branch of economics.”  For others, the essence of professionalism is self-regulation. To call this naive is something of an understatement.

Nonetheless, there are still good causes for concern. It can hardly be denied  that at least some student consumers, like consumers in many markets, will be lousy judges of their own teachers.

In fact, this partly deserved reputation for incompetency leads some faculty members to reject written student evaluations of university teaching as “inappropriate” and misleading.  John Stuart Mill might well agree.  Unlike Adam Smith, he believed that:

The uncultivated cannot be competent judges

of cultivation. Those who most need to be made

wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they

desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to

it by their own lights.

Shall we disagree with the great Mill?  Yes, for reasons already noted, we tend to underrate student competency to judge teaching quality, even though some individual students will reach flawed conclusions. Who knows more about learning confusions, boredom and the pain of unreasonable teaching demands than the victimized students themselves, at least as a group?

Students are also accused of bias. Some student judgments doubtless reflect either positive affinities or, in contrast, various unfair aversions. Some students are too quickly impressed, or deceived, by energetic, even charming professors who seem to care about them as people. Clearly, Veblen had a point when he observed that some university students tend to treat professors as a kind of “priestly class.”  Some students may indeed crave nothing less than a “leader.” While some students may over-reward their teachers who share certain gender, racial or ethnic characteristics, others may driven by  negative prejudices. 

Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to be unfair about unfairness.  Many student-consumers, even or especially the younger ones, may be genuinely determined to make fair and unbiased judgments.  Newly armed with dollar-power, in voucher form, these post-adolescent warriors may surprise many of us and do the right thing, more often than not.  Few, I believe, will take much pride in reaching prejudiced conclusions.

Finally, and I mean it, believe it or not, some critics of a student-directed merit pay system have charged that nothing less than the quality of university education will be threatened. Again, such critics have a point. The point, however, is far from perfect.

Here is what we, on the faculty side, already know.  We know, with near certainty, that some students, particularly unseasoned teenagers and slightly older students, want an easy ride.  Some university students have developed tastes for easy grading, diluted course content, trendy new electives and permissive or easy-going instructional behavior. But some of our students have different appetites.  Besides, tastes and appetites can be changed over time, even if it sometimes takes considerable effort.

While we faculty wait for a collective student transformation, there are corrective strategies that may minimize some of the academic risks.  Grade standardization, or mandatory grading curves, may help to avoid or to minimize grade corruption.  University teachers, tempted to “sell” high grades in exchange for dollar rewards from students, can be stopped in their unprofessional tracks.

There may also be surprising benefits if teachers really reassess their approaches to course coverage and content. After all, Professor Old Style may be overly thorough to the point of tedium and may casually continue to rely on the same old and tired pedagogical ways.  For those Professor Old Styles who simply cannot change their demanding teaching styles, it may be comforting to recall the following.  Many students, and alums, seem to prefer, and to remember with gratitude, their more demanding teachers.

On reflection, there may be a larger gain from a modernized version of Smith’s proposal for teacher pay.  While no seller of services, including teaching services, relishes the pressure, if not pain, of competition, most university teachers seem to know how privileged they are. While most university teachers would not put it quite this way, most are well aware that a university teaching career often provides an ultimate kind of monopoly profit: A Very Quiet Life. Perhaps, the time has come to resist the seduction of an overly easy vocation.

I share many of your questions and reservations but surely the time has come for a worthy university experiment of a so-called structural kind. Like many of you, I continue to be a cheerful-pessimist. Perhaps we cheerful pessimists can join together for a worthy experiment. If the Hofstra story has a happy ending it will not be through modest or microscopic advances. Rather, it will be because our planning has been bold and imaginative.

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