Setting the cat among the pigeons

In this case the cat is Randy Cohen, the NY Times columnist.  Asked about equitable ways to determine who gets what offices in a university department, Cohen in his Ethicist column says:

It is tempting to favor job title or seniority as criteria for distributing these goodies: rank has its privileges, and reasonably so in a meritocracy. Alas, to use either assumes a more egalitarian world than ours and risks further rewarding the beneficiaries of past discrimination: older, whiter, manlier men who began their careers in an era when many colleges were reluctant to hire or promote women and African-Americans, for example.

Initially this looks like a delightful thought.  However, I’m not sure whether I agree finally, or more to the point, what the principle is.  So please add your clarifying ideas. 

For starters, is  the principle “If X occupies an academic  position because of beneficial discrimination against others, then they are not entitled to the privileges accruing to the position”? 

This would seem to mean that making base merit pay a percentage of one’s salary is wrong.  There’s no reason why a senior person who doesn’t publish should get more merit pay than  a beginning faculty member who is earning tends of thousands less.  Or does the principle not imply that?  Or are there other  overriding principles?

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Setting the cat among the pigeons

  1. O dear. I was afraid that that might not be clear. In some US universities a department might get (in happier times) a 5% raise to be distributed with everyone getting 2.5% and the rest divided up on “merit” alone. Supposing you have someone with $100,000 and someone with $50,000, then one would get $2,500 and the other $1,250, regardless of merit. Of course, if the rest is awarded as percentages, then equal output might get the senior person, say, $5,000 and the junior $2,500.

    It might then seem to be better to distribute the pay in lump sums, so that everyone gets, say, a 2K raise and then high achievers might get another 2.5K raise. Some departments in my university do it that way. However, it has a lot of problems, since the junior faculty member will get a 9% increase and the senior person a 4.5% increase. In the more realistic terms of today’s financing of higher education, it means that the senior productive people end up with something like a yearly raise of 1.5% in poor state universities, the details of one of which I know too well. That’s well below the cost of living increases.

  2. For starters, the principle “If X occupies an academic position because of beneficial discrimination against others, then they are not entitled to the privileges accruing to the position”?

    There’s clearly no necessary connection between antecedent and consequent here; but I doubt that there would even be a probable connection except under rather bizarre conditions (which is, alas, not to say that bizarre conditions never exist in our academic world). There are just too many factors involved with both.

    But I don’t have a clear idea of what set of principles would work best in this sort of context. One of the attractions of focusing on something like seniority, I take it, is that it gives you a fairly precise, objective way to make the distribution and yet can still be reasonably justified as non-arbitrary (in terms of, say, rewarding how much the academic has already invested in the department); and having such a method in place is beneficial to everyone, if only because it gives a lot of room to protest if there are any shenanigans. All the alternatives I can think of give a bit on one of the two points, and are either less objective or more arbitrary. This need not be problematic, but it might depend fairly heavily on the circumstances (e.g., is there bias against women or minorities now, is the department more heavily focused on teaching — with its considerable and at least roughly consistent time investment — or on publication — where the time investment can vary wildly depending on the topic and type of publication, etc.).

    I find Cohen’s assumption that academia is a kind of meritocracy interesting. I think this can only be true in a very, very loose sense — real academic merit is far too amorphous (and sometimes difficult to see in the short term) for there to be any system that reliably rewards it — and it’s possible this is relevant, too: the problem may be complicated by the fact that the first (although not only) imperative in this sort of case is just to make the job a job worth having and doing. You aren’t going to solve a problem of not having enough minorities and women in senior positions by making senior positions less worthwhile goals, for instance.

  3. There’s another problem with awarding percentage increases. If you start out underpaid (as many of us women did), you will never catch up, because 3% of your much lower salary will always be less than 3% of your male colleagues’ higher salary. And then you will have a (relatively) even lower base the next year, and the next year, and the year after that…

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