For most of the past decade, I have discussed with classes of graduate and undergraduate students the impact of unions in the private and public sectors. Although providing a number of important benefits to the modern work force, the use of seniority as the controlling measure of a worker’s value has created problems to their continued growth in this age of fiscal austerity. Unions and the public have recognized this and are moving toward systems of performance based measures of rating employees. While the rest of the world is moving toward performance based measures, it is strange in the extreme to find that the Federal Department of Education and Institutions of Higher Education are making evaluation of instructors for performance illegal.
During the week of April 4, 2011, I was summoned to a town hall meeting for my school to discuss the new regulations being implemented in July of 2011. The meeting was scheduled for 8:00AM, which was a significant problem if you had classes until 11:00PM the day before. None the less, I stumbled into the meeting at 8AM only to find out it really did not start until 8:30 AM. The early start time was to be sure we would be there for the teleconference start. That’s right, it was a teleconference. After waiting with a room full of sleepy and grumpy people for half an hour, the administration (Campus Director and Corporate Representative) entered the room.
They announced that due to recent changes in Federal Department of Education regulations, we would no longer use performance to determine compensation. Merit raises were outlawed, as were performance awards, except for time in position. Each year, and once a year only, all employees would be eligible for a single salary adjustment based on a, “cost of living adjustment” or “COLA”. There would still be performance factors attached to each job position, but meeting those performance factors could not be used to establish your rate of pay. As long as you are employed, your pay would be uniform, based on a calculation of the national cost of living for the country. There would now be two ways of getting increases beyond the “COLA”. Once each year, employees that qualify for advancement may, “voluntarily”, request promotion. If the request is made and the person making the request meets all the requirements for the job, they will be granted that position. Their salary will be adjusted during the next annual salary adjustment period. However, if they take the promotion, they must satisfy all of the new job requirements, or face corrective actions up to and including termination. There was no provision to allow employees to be demoted. If you elected to request promotion, it was succeed or…. well, you know the rest.
The room erupted in a chorus of questions for clarification, out of which came the following verbatim response:
We are revising our compensation and performance programs to comply with the Department of Education’s new Incentive Compensation regulation that goes into effect July 1, 2011. The Incentive Compensation regulation bans all payments of value, other than a fixed salary or wages, to covered employees for services rendered based in any part, directly or indirectly, on activities engaged in at any point in time through the completion of a student’s educational program for the purpose of the enrollment of students or the award of financial aid to students. The regulation also states that multiple (i.e., more than one) adjustments in any calendar year to a covered employee will be presumed to violate the prohibition.
As the realization of this change sank in, my mind flashed back to the many classes in which I had discussed this very problem with my students concerning unions, where performance was far less important than longevity. The young energetic employee, full of new ideas and eager to try them out, is often frustrated by a system that values longevity over innovation. Now, after years of arguing against such systems, I found myself in just such a system. I spend an enormous amount of time writing, studying, belonging to professional organizations to stay current, as well as working with advisory boards, and boards of directors for various businesses, so I can provide my students the best possible education. All that effort would now be considered wasted. If I sat at my desk watching movies and playing video games rather than preparing for classes, I would get the same pay as everyone else.
This strange twist of events was brought about by the effort of the Federal Department of Education to force for profit colleges to not base the pay of their recruiters on the number of students they brought into the institution. Over the last few years there has been growing concern over methods employed by these schools to attract students that use federal dollars to finance their education. While representing about 11% of total student populations, they account for 48% of student loan defaults. These figures appear ominous on the surface, until you understand the make-up of student populations in these schools. Most are students that could not, or would not survive in more traditional institutions. They are returning veterans with physical or emotional impairments. They are single mothers, or fathers, struggling to find the path to a better life. Some are mentally ill, with conditions that make it all but impossible to function in a traditional setting. Or, they are just old and uncomfortable with the college environment. These students require additional tutoring and additional attention that they will not receive in traditional settings. It is no wonder their failure rate is outside the norm.
Regulation of all educational institutions is good. In the present economic environment, every dollar is and will be precious. Safeguarding this dwindling resource is the responsibility of all of us, but instituting a regulation that institutionalizes mediocrity is not the answer. When the meeting ended, one individual made a statement that had the clarion ring of truth to it. He said, “We all have just become employees of the state.” Many of my colleges and me joined for profit institutions to avoid being encumbered with the archaic system of tenure. A system that rewards staying in the job, rather than innovation. At a time when our country desperately needs new ideas and perspectives, the promulgation of this rule by the Department of Education was a bad idea.