Bucks for Buckeyes

Peter Wood

Dr. Joseph Alutto, the executive vice president and provost of Ohio State University, last week sent  a statement to the whole Ohio State faculty—a three page, nine-point declaration titled, “Principles for Faculty Reward Systems in a Higher Performance Academic Culture.”    If that sounds like management mumbo jumbo, well, perhaps it is. A more lucid title might have been: What We Pay You for and Why

But Provost Alutto comes by his management mumbo jumbo honestly. He has spent more than 35 years cultivating the art. From 1976 to 1990 he was dean of the SUNY Buffalo School of Management. From 1991 to 2007 he was dean of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. He then spent part of a year as interim president of Ohio State, before his appointment as provost. He has written lots and lots of “organizational research” in journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly and the Journal of Applied Psychology. He’s been elected the head of professional associations and served “as a consultant to banks, manufacturing firms, aerospace companies, health care agencies and educational institutions.”

And more remarkably, he did all this apparently without being able to write clear English. Exhibit A, the first paragraph of “Principles for Faculty Reward Systems in a Higher Performance Academic Culture.”   

The Ohio State University has evolved over time with a continuous focus on achieving excellence along all dimensions of research, teaching, and service. Perhaps most noticeable over the years has been a concentration on developing all aspects of a high performance culture in which outstanding achievements are aligned with carefully guided decisions about resource allocations. At its core, the assumption is that achievement of agreed upon performance objectives should provide the primary basis for allocating institutional resources. In effect, accountability is a guiding principle that should be reflected in guidance provided to individuals as well as in assessments of their performance.

I don’t propose to translate the whole document into English or to dwell on the redundancies (“evolved over time”), superfluous modifiers (“continuous focus”), tub thumbing (“achieving excellence along all dimensions”), and prolixity of the Provost Alutto. Yet it might be helpful to see what this paragraph would look like shorn of its excess. I imagine something like this:

Ohio State University encourages faculty members to pursue excellence in research, teaching, and service.   The administration allocates funds with these goals in mind. Faculty members know this and should act accordingly. 

But let’s not begrudge Provost Alutto his magniloquence.   Without mumbo jumbo, he might have not have been a mere consultant to banks, but an actual banker. Things could always be worse.

The reason Provost Alutto swims into view for us is not the magnificent awfulness of his writing, but the even more magnificent awfulness of his ideas. In this document he goes on to explain that to align resources with objectives, Ohio State University must pay attention to markets and furthermore, within markets, submarkets.”  Submarkets? He explains:

We all operate within relatively defined markets. Those markets should largely, though not entirely, dictate levels of reward differentiation. That includes initial salary levels, annual increases, and support resource distributions. Markets are defined externally and not simply by rank. Thus, faculty members in some disciplines will require higher salaries or different levels of support than those in others. Furthermore, within markets, submarkets exist based on perceived excellence. Thus, if faculty member A in market I is seen as more productive than faculty member B also in market I, the salary and support levels for A will be higher than for B, even if they are of the same rank. Such differences are a reflection of scarcity, and that applies to gender, race, or other conditions that might create scarcity. While difficult to accept for some, failure to recognize this will deprive the university of its ability to compete effectively. Interestingly, one also has to deal with the fact that markets are defined in part by like institutions. Generally, top tier institutions will respond affirmatively to markets created by other top tier institutions and not markets based on resources second or third tier institutions are willing to allocate. Indeed, it is not unusual to find second or third tier institutions over-committing resources to lure a faculty member from a top tier program. That does not mean that the top tier program can or should necessarily let that action set the market rate for the targeted faculty member.

Basic translation: We pay more to people who are in high demand. 

Sub-translation: We discriminate on the basis of race and sex. 

Did you spot that? The “submarket” Provost Alutto concerns himself with is faculty members of the right races and gender. Being of a particular race at Ohio State is therefore a form of “excellence.” Likewise excellence can be achieved by having two X chromosomes.  

Or do we have that wrong? Scarcity can be achieved by having preferred racial and/or sexual characteristics. Markets drive up the price of desired goods that are scarce. And Ohio State bases its resource allocations on competing for excellence  conformity to market fashions. 

It is hard to know just how far Provost Alutto takes this logic. Further on in the “Principles,” he recognizes that “not all faculty members will be able to contribute excellence in all evaluation dimensions.” This might mean that Ohio State recognizes a division of labor where some compete for excellence in teaching and some compete for excellence in research.   Or it might mean that some make their contribution to excellence by just being who they are. 

Lest we think the provost of Ohio State has admitted that he hires, promotes, or pays on the basis of race and sex, he concludes by avowing that this would hurt morale: 

If differentiation is perceived to be based not on performance but on prejudice, stereotyping or other bias this will affect a unit’s ability to recruit and retain the very best talent available.

But not if everybody understands that he is just doing what the market tells him. That is to say, the provost recognizes that recruiting and differentially rewarding faculty members on the basis of race and sex could become a problem if too many people notice that Ohio State is doing it. But he doesn’t draw from that the conclusion, “We won’t discriminate.” He just lets the observation float. 

Provost Alutto’s “Principles” are a rather daring admission. Seemingly he thinks the time has arrived when university authorities can be candid about their long-standing practice of ignoring anti-discrimination law, as long as they violate it in favor of under-represented minorities and women. Perhaps he buys himself some protection by the impenetrable murk of his prose, but the main point seems clear. Disentangled, this is what he says:

If the provost has two faculty members of approximately equal accomplishment in the same field (and therefore of equal scarcity insofar as different disciplines command different levels of compensation), one black and one white (or perhaps Asian), he will pay the black faculty member more. 

If he has two faculty members of approximately equal accomplishment in the same field, one female and one male, he will pay the female more. 

If he has two faculty members of unequal accomplishment in the same field, and the less accomplished of the two is a member of an “underrepresented minority group” or female, he will ensure that the race, ethnicity, or sex of the less accomplished individual will count for something in the balance. 

The chances of being appointed to the faculty at Ohio State are improved if you are a member of a minority group or female. They are diminished if you are not.

Ohio State University’s embrace of racial and gender bias can be rationalized on the basis of “scarcity” of candidates. But this is pre-textual. Provost Alutto does not mean to avow that the University would pay a premium to a white faculty member who teaches in a field that is majority African-American, such as African-American studies. Nor does he mean that the University would pay a premium to a male faculty member who teaches in a field that is majority female, such as Women’s Studies. “Scarcity” therefore doesn’t explain what Professor Alutto proclaims as policy. The only real explanation is a market externality: namely, willful bias.   

In this system dollars are not allocated on the basis of merit or scarcity, or some combination of the two. They are aluttocated on the basis on a three-part basis of merit, scarcity, and discrimination. 

I hope faculty members at Ohio State University who are concerned about the principle of non-discrimination pay close attention to what they found in their inboxes last Friday.   And those who might be thinking of taking their complaint to Ohio’s public authorities or the courts should hold on to “Principles for Faculty Reward Systems in a Higher Performance Academic Culture.”    It is as clear a declaration of intent to discriminate illegally on the basis of race and sex as they are ever likely to see from a university administrator. 

For a rich immersion in the obfuscation, doubletalk, and proud evasion of a university administrator who thinks he is laying it all on the line, read the whole document

Then, for safety, repair immediately to Fowler’s Modern English Usage

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