Monday, August 1, 2016

What Rankings Have Wrought

The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Steven Harper
August 1, 2016

Albert Einstein often gets credit for words he never spoke, including these: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

In 1963, the line appeared in the sociologist William Bruce Cameron’s text Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking. Two contemporary sociologists have now brought Cameron’s intuitive wisdom to life. In their new book, Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, Wendy Nelson Espeland, of Northwestern University, and Michael Sauder, of the University of Iowa, have added welcome scholarly heft to widespread anecdotal evidence that U.S. News & World Report rankings undermine sound decision making and encourage destructive societal behavior.

Defenders of the rankings argue that they improve transparency and accountability. The authors suggest a more problematic impact: Reducing any institution to a single and supposedly objective numerical slot masks subjectivity inherent in the methodology. Even worse, rankings create incentives that raise profound ethical issues. Espeland and Sauder prove their argument with a case study focused on the leading edge of higher education’s problems: law schools. Deans, professors, and prospective law students should pay close attention. But if past is prologue, most of them won’t.

Who created this mess?

"When Mort Zuckerman acquired U.S. News & World Report in 1984 and became its editor," the authors write, "it was a lackluster news weekly overshadowed by its more successful rivals, Newsweek and Time." Zuckerman — a Canadian with a law degree from McGill and master’s of law from Harvard — pursued a business career more consistent with his M.B.A. from Wharton. He decided to "expand the rankings and issue them annually as a way to solidify USN’s reputation as the magazine providing ‘news you can use.’"

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