Moving to

I'm moving to Mostly.

I plan to use that site as a "self-marketing website" of sorts and to manage content in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do on blogger alone.

This blog will stay, ostensibly for more provisional ideas prior to refinement. I'll be gradually moving content (I still like) over to the other website. =)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On Effective Incentives at Universities

University faculty members have different profiles. Simplistically, there are (i) those focused on research and/or industrial collaboration, (ii) those who emphasize teaching, and (iii) some who blend the two in a relatively balanced ratio. Both the functions of (i) and (ii) are important, but the former is seen as the more glamorous among faculty members and university promotion boards and search committees. Coming from the perspective of the university as a tool to support a nation's sustained competitive advantage, teaching edges out research and industrial collaboration in importance.

To develop effective incentives, we have to be a little hard nosed and be willing to bruise a few egos. We must face the fact that the "university system" has used the inventions and discoveries of a few talented individuals to justify the "contemplative life" for manifold numbers of others. The proliferation of uninteresting journal articles and conference papers is but a symptom of this.

"Research" takes pole position in universities as search and promotion preferences make clear. Those with personal leanings towards teaching advanced subjects effectively are edged out of the faculty or are forced to do "research" that turns out to be uninteresting (and they probably never get tenure anyway).

In Singapore, government ownership of universities allows changes to be made to align incentives in universities with national economic objectives. One way is to allow all faculty members to do what they do best. There are two related ways of measuring performance: absolute and relative (rank order). Additionally, there are different metrics by which performance can be measured. For instance, (i) the research productivity-industrial grants ruler, (ii) the teaching evaluation-student performance (in later courses) ruler, and hybrid metrics. Faculty members should be evaluated on all measures in absolute terms, and also have his/her rank on each measure computed. Remuneration and promotion should be based on all those measures.

To give a sense of what I am alluding to, consider the following. In principle we want to reward the top ranked performers, but at the highest levels of academic research performance, rank means little, so all top tier researcher (by absolute performance) should be rewarded highly regardless of rank; rank should only come in at the "lower" tiers. This conduces to the creation of a group with many top tier researchers and encourages faculty to move into the top rung. On teaching, similar incentives should be in place. Appropriate performance measurement logic should be there to "determine" the "role" each faculty member has crafted for himself/herself and use only the appropriate performance metrics.

The illustration in the above paragraph may seem a bit sketchy, but should give a flavor of what I am thinking. Incentives should be there to encourage faculty members to perform at the highest levels of performance of research and/or teaching. Staff who are mediocre at both over a sustained period should be let go. The university system should not be a place where only the forms of research are aped and knowledge is purported to be transferred. It should be a place where research is done and knowledge is transferred effectively.


Postscript: I'm writing this while "stuck in Rome". My passport was stolen from my left pant pocket on a crowded train 4h before my flight. The embassy was closed, and the police report was not accepted as a valid document for traveling out of Europe. When I got in touch with MFA, and through them the local Singapore consulate, it turned out the Italian Honorary Consul General had died and consular authority was transferred to Geneva. I was stunned to hear that. It all made things more surreal. Even stranger was when, today, I got an SMS from DBS Cards telling me that "I" had charged $15xx.xx for a United Airlines flight from the Las Vegas, Nevada branch. Woo.

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