As university employees, professors have a fiduciary obligation to act in their employer's best interests. The number one interest of a university is financial survival, and the key to survival is reputation, because reputation attracts students, faculty, and donors.
A university's reputation, to the extent that it is at all malleable, can be enhanced by serving students well, and by moving up various university rankings. These rankings are, in turn, driven by metrics such as student/faculty ratios, research funding, journal publications, citations of journal articles, and - because this is all somewhat circular - reputation.
University professors, as a rule, work hard. But some of this work aligns more closely with the employer's interests than others.
Research that leads to highly cited journal articles is valuable, because it enhances the university's reputation; research published in outlets not measured by external ranking agencies (for example, book chapters) is of little value from a reputational perspective, thus does little to further the employer's interests. Refereeing, acting as an external evaluator on a tenure file, serving on professional committees - these only matter to the extent that they enhance reputation. But no external university ranking counts the number of referee reports a professor writes. These professional service activities don't even enter into university rankings indirectly, through the "reputation" component of the ranking. The reputational data used in external university rankings is typically gathered by surveying, for example, high school guidance counsellors, CEOs, and recruiters (the Macleans rankings), or asking distinguished scholars to name the ten best universities in their field (Times Higher Ed rankings). None of those people knows or cares about the referee report you spent all of last Sunday crafting so carefully.
In my contact with senior administrators, I have heard little explicit criticism of how faculty members allocate their time. Sure, there is discussion of the mid-career slump, and talk about faculty engagement and leadership. But I have never heard the view, expressed for example here (summary here), that some professors should be reassigned from research-oriented positions to more teaching-focussed ones (like other Canadian universities, Carleton does hire people into teaching-stream positions, but we almost never move people from the research-stream into teaching-stream). Yet, at the same time, I have a pretty strong inkling that the university president would rather I spent my Sunday mornings writing for the Globe and Mail than typing some obscure blog post.
How can universities persuade professors to act like employees, and focus their time and energy on activities that directly benefit the university enterprise?
It's tempting to answer this question by pointing to the principal-agent literature, and say "it's just a matter of incentives." Introduce merit pay, for example, and all problems will be solved.
Unfortunately it doesn't work like that. Take the case of merit pay. First, to the extent that it is based on observable metrics, like teaching evaluations or number of publications, merit pay creates incentives to focus on measurable outcomes at the expense of valuable, but not so readily measurable, activities. For example, merit pay based on teaching evaluations creates strong incentives to inflate grades. Second, merit pay does little to fire up the deadwood. If I know that I'm the least productive person in my department, I know that I'm unlikely to get any share of whatever merit pay is going. So why even try?
No, basically the only thing universities can rely on is professors' intrinsic motivation - the fact that most professors will strive to be good professors, whatever that means.
I've been thinking about these issues this week as I've been reading Akerlof and Kranton's book Identity Economics. Akerlof and Kranton argue that a person who identifies with her employer - an insider - will think "she should work on behalf of the firm. Her ideal is to exert high effort."
Professors exert high effort - or, at least, this is what the sketchy data available about professorial work hours suggests (here or here). But my own personal impression is that these long hours are motivated by our disciplinary and professional identities, not our identities as university employees. We care more about the invisible college of those who share our research interests (and control our access to academic journals and research money) than the visible college that pays our salary.
Anecdata? Professors who don't come to the annual Employee Appreciation Day because they're not employees (the university even changed the name of the event to University Appreciation Day in an attempt to lure in professors). People who identify themselves in conversation by their disciplinary affiliation, rather than their institutional one. ("I'm an economics professor" rather than "I teach at University of _____"). A recent THE survey, which found academic staff did not have the same level of institutional pride as professional and support staff (here and right). The misalignment of professorial effort and university priorities described above - with professors putting energy into activities that are valued by their disciplinary colleagues, not their employer.
So how can a university get the average professor to self-identify as a university employee? I've been going through Identity Economics, also Akerlof and Kranton's 2005 JPE piece, trying to find some answers. Unfortunately, what I've learned is that the invisible college has a huge advantage over the visible one when it comes to creating a shared sense of identity. There is no magic recipe for creating group loyalties, but there are some reasonably good, tried-and-true, methods. Create initiation rites and harsh training rituals (comprehensive exams, PhD thesis). Keep the group together in an isolated setting, cut off from the outside world (academic conferences). Have loose rather than tight supervision, allow employees to set their own priorities (research).
But perhaps that's not a problem, because an engaged and motivated professoriate might be more trouble than they're worth. They'd probably want to start fights at Senate. Introduce high cost teaching innovations. Expect to have regular performance reviews.
Much easier to keep things as they are.