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Heather Mac Donald
Merit Pay for CUNY’s Profs
Here’s how CUNY can spruce up its medocre faculty.
Spring 2000

CUNY's culture of mandated mediocrity is starting to crumble. The break-up must accelerate.

CUNY's trustees recently abolished the one-size-fits-all pay scale for college presidents; they now need to liberate faculty pay from the same enforced egalitarianism. Under the faculty union contract, a lousy remedial-reading teacher at Hostos Community College receives the same compensation as an inspiring physics professor at City College, and dime-a-dozen English teachers get the same pay as scarce and pricey accounting profs. In part because of this forced redistribution of salary dollars from the competent to the incompetent, CUNY faculty pay is inadequate to compete on the academic market. The average starting salary nationally for newly minted economics Ph.D.s, for example, is about $73,000; CUNY's mandated starting salary is $57,000, guaranteeing that most other colleges will outbid it for the best teaching and research talent. CUNY's top end is just as inflexible: the pay scale tops out at $84,000, several times below what the most valued professors command elsewhere.

Most other public university systems allow faculty salaries to vary both between and within campuses and departments. They care enough about quality to give their presidents leeway in bargaining for faculty, even against private universities: UC Berkeley just lured away a Princeton economics star.

In a wan bow to meritocracy, CUNY created a handful of university-wide "distinguished professorships" 20 years ago and a slight possibility for merit pay. Neither measure is sufficient to bring in the best new blood from outside the university.

Now CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein seeks 180 new faculty positions, a proper antidote to CUNY's devastating loss of full-time faculty since 1985. To maximize excellence, Goldstein needs to strip his request of one perverse provision. Simultaneous with the 180 new faculty positions, Goldstein also seeks 120 new "student service personnel." The notion that for every three new faculty members, CUNY needs two additional counselors and tutors for students casts doubt on the chancellor's claim to be bringing in more qualified students and perpetuates the notion of education as therapy.

Chancellor Goldstein should instead seek more full-time faculty positions with the money slated for "student service personnel." In exchange for this boon to the faculty union's rolls, he must demand that the union give up its insistence on uniform faculty pay scales and allow CUNY to enter the market for excellence.

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