Pay cuts for Bilkent University scholars who disappoint peers

Private university in Turkey neglects research metrics for external views on academics’ performance

January 1, 2015

Universities should consider reducing the salaries of academics who fail to impress experts in their discipline, according to a university president who has pioneered the practice.

Abdullah Atalar, the rector of Bilkent University, in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, said that his institution had chosen to ignore research metrics when assessing whether an academic deserved a pay rise or a promotion.

Instead, university leaders would canvass opinion from experts in the academic’s discipline from outside Bilkent about how well an individual scholar had performed in recent years. “We will ask leading universities in the US if they would hire this guy or promote him,” Professor Atalar said. “If they say they would not promote him, then we do not promote him.”

The salaries of senior professors are also contingent on these external views, with Bilkent sometimes lowering pay for underperformance, Professor Atalar added.

“If they stop performing over four or five years, their salaries will go down.”

Professor Atalar, an electrical engineer, believes that Bilkent’s pay structure is preferable to those at other universities, which link performance-related pay to research output or its impact.

“Metrics might indicate that someone is doing very well in their field, but peer review might show the exact opposite,” he told Times Higher Education.

“Our scheme might allow someone with just one very good paper to gain promotion or a pay rise, whereas someone with 20 average papers would be passed over.”

More universities should think about introducing Bilkent’s model of “peer review for pay”, he argued, although he said he was aware that many institutions – including most in Turkey – would be prevented from doing so by government regulations.

Bilkent, a private university founded in 1984, is “not limited by the same government rules in place at state universities”, Professor Atalar said.

Bilkent’s freedom to set academic salaries according to its own criteria is one of the reasons for its success over its relatively short history, the rector continued.

It was ranked as Turkey’s best university under 50 years old in the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 rankings in 2014, and the country’s fifth best overall in the THE World University Rankings 2014-15, which were published in October.

Professor Atalar, who studied for his PhD at Stanford University, said that Bilkent had also profited from looking outwards for new talent rather than seeking to hire from within its own ranks.

“It is our university’s rule that we do not hire our own graduates [straight from completing their PhD], even if they are very good,” he said. “Many leading universities are doing the same thing.”

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