nrc redux redux

This started as a comment on the previous post, which notes that the NRC rankings give virtually no premium for faculty size. The rankings almost entirely work on the premise that if you take a good department and randomly eliminate half its faculty, the resulting department is equally good. This is fairly nutty for the purposes of ranking for the purposes of graduate programs in a field as sparse as sociology, where student interests often change and many students have to make a big substantive reach in putting together committees even in reasonably-sized programs.

If NRC was going to do regular rankings using this methodology and a department wanted to game their ranking, the single best thing a department could do would be to revoke tenure and fire the least productive-and-award-winning half of their faculty. Thing is, after they’ve done that, the single best thing that department could do is fire the bottom half of their faculty, and so on, until you have a department of one (but, oh, what a highly-ranked one!).

Which raised a question for me that I’ve thought about from time to time: how bad does a faculty member need to be before they actually make a department worse? I mean, to my mind, there is a big difference in my mind between “below-average colleague” and “this person is actively harming our department with their presence.” Can a faculty member actively harm a department simply by being non-productive, via a contagion of sloth, by leeching away at a sense of excellence, or by setting a bad example for students? Or do they have to be a source of strange faculty votes and timesuck-for-everyone bomb-throwing battles of righteous indignation?

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

6 thoughts on “nrc redux redux”

  1. It isn’t entirely true that the NRC rankings give no benefit to size. One of the measures is the absolute number of graduate students enrolled in FA05, another is the average 1st year cohort size. Both measures are presumably a function of faculty size, even if the relationship is imperfect by the time the politics of university resource allocation are done with it.

    On the more general point, the way you frame the question glosses over the opportunity cost, if you will, of weak faculty. In the world of fixed FTE lines, where most of us live, deadwood IS costly insofar as it prevents departments from hiring livewood. Of course, this assumes that there is a pool of live wood that could replace the deadwood, and moreover that your university would win the competition for them more often than other departments that have the same idea.

    So, yes, a department could optimize some of the NRC measures by firing all but most productive faculty member (all the better, according to the NRC, if she is a person of color who studies a topic that is of particular interest to mathematically oriented international students), but it would lose on other measures. Far better, it would seem, to be a large department that produces a lot of PhDs and has nothing but highly productive (no books, sorry), grant-getting, citation-generating, medical sociology machines.


    1. I did say “virtually” and “almost entirely” for a reason. It’s not clear to me how much those measures counted for in the weights. It doesn’t look like programs with a large number of graduate students made out well from that fact.


    2. Yes, I saw the hedge words in your post, Jeremy. I just thought it was worth explicating before the hedge words disappeared in the game of telephone that is teh Internets.

      If I’m correctly reading the table that my uni’s IRP produced for each discipline (it’s for internal use and not well labeled), the number of PhDs produced had the third-largest R weight of all the measures. It had the 6th smallest S weight (smaller than the # of student activities, uggh), but still positive.

      I’d guess large programs that produce a lot of PhDs were hurt on the funding and completion rate measures, both of which had higher S-weights than # of PhDs produced. Or at least, I don’t know of any huge grad programs that are able to fund 100% of their students for 5+ years.


  2. There’s non-productive and non-productive. Some people who don’t publish contribute to the collective good as teachers, or as interesting people who give good feedback to their colleagues and students, or as public-spirited folks who do a lot of committee work in the department or college, or as people to are involved in connecting the college to the wider community. Many departments are made more humane and vital and livable as work communities by people who don’t publish but do other things. It is possible that you could improve the department as a whole for swapping out some people for others who might be available, but there are frequently huge transaction and search costs. Not everybody is going to be as high-energy and multi-talented as the very best performers.

    At my first job, there were some folks who were all-around non-performers: bad teaching, refused to do service, no publications, hostile to others. Not to mention the people who were purposely seeking to foment dissent and conflict among their colleagues. Some departments have been torn about by genuinely toxic people.

    But I reflect that some people who end up as hostile non-performers started as decent people who were treated badly and became embittered. My college has an official policy about promotion from associate to full professor that reminds us that it is a bad for the institution to embitter tenured colleagues.


  3. I have always wondered what a department gains by making it hard for Associate Professors with tenure to be promoted to Full Professors.


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