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Evolving the Faculty Reward System

Gros Louis, Kenneth R. R., PhD

National Policy Perspectives

Dr. Gros Louis is chancellor of the Bloomington campus of Indiana University, and is vice president for academic affairs, Indiana University. He gratefully acknowledges the substantive assistance with this article provided by Michael Wilkerson.

Universities are at a point in scholarship, teaching, and service where the media of inquiry, delivery, and action are changing at a pace far more rapid than humanity, let alone universities, finds customary. Information technology has driven and accelerated that pace; in light of its pervasiveness, it's now time to ask how we should gauge our performance, both as individual faculty and as institutions.



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Universities have evolved a promotion and tenure system that is relatively immune to partisan politics, but not at all understood outside the university and always controversial within it. How much research is enough? How good does it have to be? Does it have to be funded, at what level, and by whom? How widely cited and read? How do we know if someone is or is not an excellent teacher? What counts and what doesn't count, as service to the profession and to the university? What service does each of us owe the communities in which we live, beyond the borders of the university, and how should that service be counted in our own reward system?

These are questions that are not independent of their disciplinary and cultural contexts, nor, these days, from the opportunities and imperatives posed by information technology. For example, at my school, one of this year's tenure dossiers, from a relatively conventional discipline, consisted of the usual candidate's statement and outside letters, but the material to be reviewed consisted of six videotapes. In a field where books, articles, grants, and contracts are well defined, how many videotapes, of what length, presented in what venue, are sufficient for promotion?

In the same vein, last summer a colleague who sat on a grant panel at the National Endowment for the Arts was reviewing proposals—slides, photographs, tapes, and poetry—at a beach cottage in northern Wisconsin when he came to an application that read: “To evaluate my application for funding, please go to the following URLs.” Here the question turns from the medium of documentation to the qualifications of the evaluator. Is my colleague, accustomed to traditional art forms, able to judge interactive digital art? Will that digital artist, when her turn comes, be able to evaluate the painters and historians who also work—but in more traditional media—in her field?

A 20-something digital artist surrounded by peers a generation older who are metalsmiths and oil painters might be a dramatic example, but haven't our disciplines—and therefore the reward systems we put in place—always been evolving? Television, for example, is only about 50 years old, yet by now we know how to evaluate work in it, how to teach with it, how to incorporate it into the fabric of our lives.

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Evolving the faculty reward structure means more than tracking and adapting to alterations in media. For a long time, within English departments, for example, one could progress nicely by writing criticism about texts, but not by creating new texts; with the boom in creative writing, that has changed. Because these faculty are still writing print-based texts, we evaluate them in a semi-scientific way: how reputable the journals in which they publish, how selective their book publishers, the reviews of their works by independent magazines. It seems a fairly safe and rational system.

But here is a recent story from the Web site: “Publishing Turns New Page with Instant Books.” “Readers,” the story begins, “went wild last month over an online novella from bestselling author Stephen King, and now U.S. bookstores are starting to cash in on the digital fever with their own products: instant books.”

The story goes on to describe this amazing new technology: bookstores can now download entire books from the Web and publish them in the back of a store, economically turning out one handsome copy at a time. With this new system, out-of-print will be a concept of the past. Just as electronic commerce has raised questions about the viability of the retail store, so too will “books on demand” raise questions about what constitutes “publication” and who is a “publisher.” With journals and publishers freely admitting that the number of worthy manuscripts far outstrips their capacities, it seems likely that, for economic and speed reasons, we will increasingly turn to the Web as a publishing alternative. Therefore, what we mean when we talk about proof of research will change; Web “hits” might well replace footnote citations and even grant dollars as measures of peer respect. But how to distinguish the number of “hits” on a medical research article by browsing patients from legitimate downloads by impressed colleagues?

These kinds of questions sometimes frighten faculty, yet haven't our ratings of quality and the ways we arrive at them constantly evolved? Journals have risen and fallen; disciplines have split in halves or thirds and formed new evaluation mechanisms. Just as new disciplines create their own structures and reward systems, won't old disciplines in new media also evolve? If, as we have seen in the past few years, trends in funding of medical, biological, and social science research switch rapidly without much regard for the intrinsic quality of what's going on in the laboratories and libraries of our major universities and medical centers, should we continue to tie promotion, salary increases, and tenure to funding, even informally? If we don't face these new realities, we will lose good faculty we should have tenured, and will discourage innovation rather than encourage it.

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In addition to the scholarship of discovery (i.e., research), what about integration and application (i.e., service), the other two traditional types of scholarship? And what about the fourth category that Ernest Boyer posited, the scholarship of teaching and learning? I would contend with Boyer that there is no fourth category but rather a long overdue examination of how we evaluate teaching and learning, an attempt to establish criteria and to develop a literature that will enable all of us to teach each other how to advance the cause of knowledge. Without even establishing a body of literature—journals, publishers, Web sites, videos, and all that is happening so quickly and so dramatically—profound change in what we meant by “teaching” has come about simply because of the recognition that our main goal is to foster students' learning, not to improve ourselves as lecturers. While there is a place for the lecture, we are finding that some of the best “teaching” is minimal in nature, that in many learning environments, the teacher seems to be invisible, and that perhaps in the past we have been rewarding the “sage on stage” rather than assessing how that sage's students have achieved.

At the same time, we are saying that it is not acceptable to be a brilliant researcher who can't, or won't, teach. That was a lonely belief to hold even just ten years ago, and it is not so much new technology as an overall awareness that we could do better by our students that brought about this change. Still, technology, such as the computer clusters and the opportunity to establish list-servs and e-conferencing, has made it possible for us to create more inter-active classroom environments, even without using an actual room. And, with new and cheaper media, we can now document teaching and learning in much more complex and accurate ways than before.

Service has been affected by the new paradigms of faculty work as well. We are facing an era when loyalty to, and service within, the scholarly discipline has often counted as all the service one needs to guarantee tenure and promotion. But we find that by protecting our young faculty from too many committees and service roles, we have isolated them from each other and from a sense of the university as a multi-generational scholarly family. We need to consider moving back toward a model in which each of us also serves the campus community, and, ideally, some of the needs of the local community as well.

Finally, I would like to touch on what might be in effect a fifth area, which is the combination of the others. Last year, we saw one dossier in which the candidate essentially refused to break down her statement into “research, teaching and service,” nor would she call it “the scholarship of teaching.” Instead, she argued that her emphasis on service-learning as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a community activist essentially comprised a seamless web in which everything she did interacted with everything else. Isn't that a model for what we all would hope to strive for in our professional lives? And isn't it obvious that such a candidate would run into trouble during the evaluation process? (She did achieve tenure and was promoted, fortunately.) So it always is and will be with pioneers. In recent tenure cases where unusual documentation, arguments, or media had been used, each received a substantial number of negative votes at some point in the process.

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We evolve the faculty reward structure only by taking risks; we take them as candidates and we take them as peers; we must be open to them as chairs, deans, and chancellors, and we must challenge ourselves to let the university evolve, as it always has and always must, with the bravest of our faculty leading us.

Although Indiana University is now 180 years old, and universities are said to be conservative institutions by their very longevity, our privileged niche in the world is that we are innovators, and that when we see something truly new, we must be prepared to address it and embrace it, and to reward those who bring us into the next generation.

© 2000 Association of American Medical Colleges