Aligning faculty incentives to desired institutional outcomes is a challenge to university governance. One reason for this difficulty is that academic departments jointly produce and use common pool resources (CPRs). Faculty members share the costs and benefits of building and maintaining the quality of a department. Because a department’s benefits and costs are shared, there is a tendency for some faculty to minimize the time and effort devoted to improving the common pool while claiming a large a share of the pool for themselves. They may seek to freeload on the efforts of others. Department chairs will gain insights into governance by considering the resemblance between university departments and CPRs.
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The posting below looks at eight ways departments can address the issues poised by the need to share a common pool of resources open to everyone but that are also subject to abuse by "selfish" individuals. The article is by Emily A. Wickelgren, Nathaniel J. Blair, and John P. Blair and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring 2012, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp 5-6. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (email@example.com). or see: http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-DCH.html
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University Governance and Common Pool Resources Aligning faculty incentives to desired institutional outcomes is a challenge to university governance. One reason for this difficulty is that academic departments jointly produce and use common pool resources (CPRs). Faculty members share the costs and benefits of building and maintaining the quality of a department. Because a department’s benefits and costs are shared, there is a tendency for some faculty to minimize the time and effort devoted to improving the common pool while claiming a large a share of the pool for themselves. They may seek to freeload on the efforts of others. Department chairs will gain insights into governance by considering the resemblance between university departments and CPRs.
Most analyses of CPR management focus on solving the classic “tragedy of the commons.” In this exemplification, herders share grazing land. They all have incentives to overgraze the shared land because the individual herder will not bear the full cost of feeding his or her herd; the cost will be largely born by other grazers whose cattle will have less grass. The common grazing land will be overused. Recognizing that analogous situations are present in academic departments will help explain why some practices exist and also help guide departmental governance.
An Academic Department as a CPR System
The shared resources in an academic department are difficult to identify because they are more abstract than natural resources. Consider the CPR nature of a department: Quality students, a vibrant intellectual environment, a support budget, and a good reputation are among the resources that faculty members share. Each individual benefits from a quality department that is jointly built. For instance, a good crop of students represents a jointly produced resource and provides joint benefits. No single faculty member can claim total responsibility. Cohorts of good students help ensure that faculty members will be able to teach their specialty courses or perhaps have opportunities to teach in the summer or intercessions. Certainly, teaching can be more fun with a classroom of students willing and able to grasp and advance traditional course content. Better prepared students make better student workers. Similarly, a lively intellectual environment contributes to the research goals of individual faculty members and enables fruitful discussions on academic topics. A department’s reputation helps generate consulting opportunities for individual members and even contributes to promotions and external job searches. The list could go on. Within a department, faculty contribute to the web of jointly produced CPRs.
An incentive problem can arise when some faculty members attempt to use the CPRs while minimizing their efforts to produce those same resources. Faculty who extract resources from the common pool may believe they can maintain those benefits without extending their own efforts. Lags between the production of departmental resources and their visible dissipation reinforce the idea that lower effort may not reduce the CPRs. Accordingly, there are incentives for individuals to contribute little or nothing to their department’s CPRs while sharing in the benefits of ample students, intellectual energy, good reputation, and so forth. The caricature of the faculty member ignoring important duties to pursue a hobby having nothing to do with the job is well known and may be rational behavior.
Principles for Governing an Academic CPR System
Traditionally, only two solutions to inefficiencies created by CPR were considered: (1) reward individuals for the full costs and benefits of their actions (privatization), or (2) give government authority to set the rules. In a university setting both approaches imply micromanagement in the form of either developing very specific performance criteria and compensating faculty members according to their performance under those rules, or administratively dictating work duties. Both approaches are often associated with the corporate governance model. When applied to a department, these approaches are likely to be inefficient because faculty jobs are neither standardized nor routine. Attempts to make them so risk resulting in “work to the rule” behavior, uncovered tasks, and missed opportunities.
Elinor Ostrom received the 2009 Noble Prize in economics for her analysis of successful CPR governance systems that were biologically based (such as fisheries and irrigation systems). She concluded that institutions can successfully govern CPR systems without either detailing a reward structure or centralized task assignments. She identified eight design principles that characterize successful CPR systems. To the extent that academic departments have CPR characteristics, Ostrom’s design principles may be recognized in departmental policies and provide guidance for departmental administration. A caveat, however, is that the design principles cannot be implemented in a mechanical manner. They should be customized to fit the characteristics of individual departments.
1. Defined beneficiary of success.
In academic contexts, this principle implies that individuals who benefit from the accomplishments of a strong department must be limited. The restrictions prevent other claimants in the university from totally dissipating the rewards earned by another department’s efforts. This design principle does not negate the possibility that some benefits from one department spill over to other units, but it ensures that a certain portion remains with the department. Clear boundaries are necessary to make certain that departments can be effective units from which to launch the efforts needed.
2. Convergence between rules and environmental conditions is necessary.
In the case of academic departments, this principle implies that governance rules should conform to the characteristics of the discipline and the university. For instance, the rules governing student performance, external service, or publications should differ among departments because they function in different environments.
3. Individuals affected by the rules should have a voice in modifying the rules.
This principle is satisfied in most departments, although the degree of “voice” does vary between strong and weak chair systems. Within university contexts this principle is important because of the variety of specialized tasks that faculty perform. When departmental standards are modified, faculty members probably know the consequences as well as or better than higher level administrators.
4. Contributions necessary to develop and use common resources should be monitored by individuals who developed and use the CPRs.
This rule puts the responsibility for monitoring activities closest to the individuals who have knowledge of those who are shirking activity and the incentive to avoid it. For instance, faculty members are likely to know the value of their colleagues’ scholarship, teaching, and service better than anyone else. The principle is manifest in peer review evaluation processes.
5. Sanctions for inadequate performance should be graduated.
Suppose a faculty member is cutting office hours in order to consult—a relatively minor infraction at most universities. If no sanction occurred, the violator may decide that no one’s behavior is monitored and so others are freeriding. Thus, he or she will too. Graduated sanctions may curtail the nonconforming behavior, inform violators that others who disregard the rule will also be sanctioned, and increase the expected costs of future violations. An initial sanction might be as small as “I noticed you missed office hours. Is anything wrong?”
6. Conflict resolution mechanisms should be available.
Good administrators know there are at least two sides to every story. Yet some management models implicitly assume the existence of an omnipotent judge. Faculty members violate rules for a variety of reasons including willful, honest mistakes, or the vagaries of circumstance. Lacking a conflict resolution mechanism, all violations would be treated the same.
7. Individuals producing CPRs should have the ability to devise their own ways of achieving ends.
This principle implies that departments should have a degree of rule-setting authority and the chair should support individual faculty members’ decisions of authority. If a central administration assumed that only they have rule-setting authority, it is likely the department members will refrain from introducing new, more efficient ways of doing things.
8. Governance systems are organized in nested enterprises and each organization must conform to larger systems.
This design principle clearly applies to biological systems where interdependence is the touchstone of ecological perspective. Departments are nested within colleges, which are in turn nested within universities, which are nested in statewide systems. Establishing rules at one level that are inconsistent with rules at another level will create inefficiencies or a systems breakdown. For instance, if a department has a travel policy that differs from the university’s, faculty could build plans around a conference, only to find that their plans will not be funded.
Ostrom’s design principles reflect features common to many long-lasting CPR governance systems. Like other CPR systems, academic departments rely on resources that are jointly produced and shared; thus, departments must address efficiency problems common to other organizations that use CPRs. The recognition of the CPR nature of academic departments helps explain the reasons many departments are governed as they are. Chairs can also use the design principles to create and modify concrete rules and processes tailored to their unique and changing contexts.
------------------------------------ Emily A. Wickelgren is associate professor and vice chair of psychology at Sacramento State University. Nathaniel J. Blair is lecturer in psychology at Sacramento State University. John P. Blair is professor of economics at Wright State University. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
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