November 13, 2012


Filed under: university,writing — jrice @ 10:00 am

Incentive based budgeting is hardly a new concept. It has its success narratives, which, in turn, justify a general university move toward integrating the logic into how departments and programs receive support. Though I don’t know the details yet, the University of Michigan has been touted as one such example. As a UC-Davis working paper acknowledges, the basic principle of incentive based budgeting is to “allocate tuition between the unit of instruction and the degree major” based on enrollments.  Whereas budgets, in other models, cam remain ambiguous and opaque to departments (i.e., how much will a department have on a year to year basis to spend), and whereas departments typically have to return unspent money from a given year (and thus create the image that they don’t need so much money after all and can receive a smaller budget the following year), incentive based budgeting is meant to create a more transparent system and to encourage fiscal responsibility (if you want to save money for a later project, you can).

This model is attractive to many campuses because, in some ways, it alleviates some of the financial responsibility from the campus itself and places most of the burden on the individual department or unit. Some of the logic is based on entrepreneurship and the idea that providing incentives based on enrollments will inspire departments to be more novel regarding curriculum development and teaching (and thus attract more students), but in some cases, and more specifically, what we are quickly seeing at the University of Kentucky, this logic fails because:

  • Faculty with no training in entrepreneurship  suddenly are expected to be entrepreneurs. This is like asking us to do all of our on plumbing repairs even though we have no training in plumbing. Particularly in the humanities, if we were good at being entrepreneurs, we probably wouldn’t be professors. Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, among others, are notable exceptions. But even in our business schools, faculty have not chosen the life of entrepreneurship. They write and teach. They don’t seem to have a solution for university woes, and they are the “business” experts.
  • Unnecessary competition. No matter how many students a department at the University of Kentucky attracts, the overall student body will remain around the 25,000 mark. Thus, the overall revenue from tuition is the same. But as departments fight over enrollments, they resort to tricks and attacks, they go beyond agreed upon caps, offer too many online courses and oversaturate the local market so that other sections don’t fill, work to prevent other departments and programs from developing majors or minors, and try to steal students. Where two or more departments might benefit from some semblance of cooperation or where students might benefit from taking courses across the curriculum, neither may occur out of fear of losing precious enrollments.
  • Most efforts at entrepreneurship merely mean taxing students. Higher fees. New textbooks to purchase. More required courses. Our efforts at generating new revenue often mean asking students to pay more.

Obviously, local conditions determine everything. But what incentive based budgeting does with competition, distribution of effort has already done as well. The official breakdown of teaching, research, and service, whose percentages depend on one’s responsibility, is meant as an accounting system: how to keep track of what a faculty member is supposed to be doing. Its basic problem is that anything that appears to not fall into that breakdown may not be done. There is simply no incentive to do so. Thus, when the director of composition asks someone in Theater to assist with preparing graduate students to teach speech (since speech is alien to English TAs and since Theater understands performance better than we do), the answer might be: “I can, but I won’t. There is no reward for me to do so.” Or when a project is proposed that might benefit the department or unit as a whole (provide additional revenue, bring national recognition, earn campus goodwill), there may be no reason to participate if it does not fit neatly into teaching, research, or service percentages. Or one could say:” I’ve fulfilled my 33.3% service. I’m done.”

The variation on this model is student to teacher ratios; the imaginary number by which the university believes it will turn a profit on a classroom. This variation of DOE assumes that tuition revenue is based on seats per instructor even though it is common knowledge that instructors are not paid per student nor per teaching: they are expected to do research, run the university’s activities by serving on appropriate committees, advise at times, teach graduate students and oversee graduate work, oversee undergraduate research and thesis work, handle internships at times, present at national events, network, secure grants, and so on. We are paid to be employees. DOE is a response against that logic. It says: “You are not an employee who is paid to do a variety of things; you are instead paid by taxonomies.” DOE is a variation of being paid by the hour. When the hour is up, one goes home.

Thus, when I write about frozen garlic bread, I’m also writing about the DOE problem. Every major university has the talent to produce its own online delivery system (IT, Computer Science, Engineering, Education, Writing) and to promote it (Business, Marketing). Yet, the work is outsourced. It is outsourced based on the notion of being cheaper (but faculty are already being paid, so now two groups are being paid in place of one) and because of DOE logic (“I am paid/We pay you to only do these other things, not develop in house projects). That logic makes no sense. To pretend the university is a business, and then to hire individuals because of their specific talents, and then to outsource work to groups with less or equal talent is illogical. The university already has people to do the work.  That’s why they were hired. The university, however, tells these employees otherwise.

Such is the real logic of WTF. WTF, as we know, is the shocked declaration when something absurd or stupid occurs. A man drives his car into a telephone pole? WTF! A drunk kid throws up in the street? WTF? A university hires a bunch of experts and then tells them they are not useful for project development (instead, teach 40% of the time, write 27.5 % of the time, do service 12.5%, of the time do administration 20% of the time)? WTF!

Those  numbers above, by the way, are my DOE breakdowns. I’m not sure how I manage to write 27.5% of the time as opposed to 27.8% or 27.9%. If I were to follow current incentive based logic, there would be no reason for me to engage with any of the many projects I take on. WTF tells me otherwise. Do your 27.5% writing, no more. WTF lets systems like Blackboard thrive. WTF causes departments to compete to be the big fish in the little pond, snagging one more student at the expense of another program because of the perception of competition (but the university makes the same amount of money regardless).

I have more to do regarding understanding incentive based budgeting as an offshoot of DOE. but for now, I say: WTF.

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