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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2004

Why 'Merit' Flounders

I agree with Donald Savage ("Performance Lessons," Bulletin, April 2004) that merit is a cumbersome system with dubious benefits in the workplace. But the merit system is also among those corporate mechanisms that break down in the academy for simple structural reasons.

In the conventional workplace, the boss who hired you is the boss who can fire you and can evaluate you in a performance review. The governance structure of universities and the principle of peer review greatly complicate this. As faculty members we answer to chairs and deans but, from department committees to senate, we also approve the appointment of administrators, evaluate applications for tenure and promotion and in myriad other ways shape our colleagues' working conditions. In a union we must both follow the collective agreement as managers and know our rights as workers.

As a consequence we are regularly in conflicts of interest so common in daily academic life that they are nearly invisible. To take one of the more striking examples: we are entrusted with the responsibility of hiring colleagues who will make decisions about our own working lives as well as vie with us for internal research support, "plum" courses, and so forth. Hiring the "stellar" candidates that Christine Daigle ("Star Search," Bulletin, April 2004) suggests are winning the job wars might appear to be against some of the professional interests of faculty on hiring committees because it is feared that it will intensify the competition for scarce resources. Tying internal, non-anonymous performance reviews to salary increases only compounds the problem.

While it might seem strange to some for a CRC to argue against "merit," I would suggest that by adding to internal competition it puts pressure on an already ethically fragile system in ways that need to be more fully examined and widely discussed.

Julia M. Wright
Canada Research Chair, English, Wilfrid Laurier University