Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

9 thoughts on “Rating Professors is Arbitrary

  1. ” Is a Harvard prof more worthy of reading than one from North Carolina State? ”

    1. In what subject? Hawaii, Arizona, and Berkeley are more important than Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in astronomy. Writers for CHE still think the humanities matter in a university. Very quaint. Perhaps the should, but reality is that business and STEM are far more important. If most universities eliminated degrees in the humanities and out sourced the gen-ed to khan, I am not convinced anyone outside the readers of che (now out of work) would notice much less care.
    2. Ehrman (UNC) > Pagels (Princeton) , but Princeton is better university…more faculty, better students, more resources. The faculty at Princeton might notice if the humanities vanished…they would find parking improved.


  2. It is rather difficult to prove that practice trolls theory when the only practice is hypothetical at best.

    As for pastors, perhaps there is no absolute ranking but rather best match measurement. This is not to imply that pastors need to compromise on preaching God’s Word to be a good fit. It is to say that some pastors are a better fit for ministering to certain urban churches than they are for other urban churches or churches in the suburbs or rural areas and vice-versa.

    But the attention given to the prestige of an institution, given a college or a particular church, is sometimes a sign of authoritarianism. That includes judging by appearances which the Scriptures warn against.


  3. sdb, you sound like a bitter STEM major who works for a humanities major. The truth of it is, humanities majors often have a much higher career ceiling because they know how to learn on the go, something most college grads don’t know how to do these days. Let’s be honest – you can’t possibly learn all that much in 4 years. The skills you learn on the job are infinitely more important than what you learn in college, regardless of your major. A humanities degree (from a college that at least still does humanities the right way) teaches a student how to learn from their experiences in a way that STEM degrees don’t. Business degrees are just a joke – easy way out for people who wanted classes that weren’t challenging.

    This past weekend in the WSJ: https://www.wsj.com/articles/soft-skills-and-hard-problems-1495829788

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “A humanities degree teaches a student how to learn from their experiences in a way that STEM degrees don’t.”
    Most STEM degrees still require some humanities classes. And hopefully most Hum. degrees still require some college-level math. Any normal four year college teaches students how to learn from their experiences, and most schools offer pretty good and well-round learning platforms. The problem is typically with the student and not the course plan.


  5. ” The problem is typically with the student and not the course plan” Maybe, but you left out the problem with the professor. I’ve run across less than a handful(maybe a handful) of good teachers in my all life.


  6. @BM
    “sdb, you sound like a bitter STEM major who works for a humanities major.”
    Ha! Not sure how you got that. I’m pretty sure that I will always work for a STEM major. If you are interested in the data on career ceiling by majors, you might check out this source. At any rate, you misread my comment (all that training in the humanities was for naught). I agree that the humanities are valuable. Unfortunately, they don’t matter to the university – all STEM/business all the time.


  7. sdb, I guess I did misunderstand you. I apologize for that. I should have also said liberal arts rather than humanities majors, since its really the liberal arts degrees that have a higher career ceiling, not necessarily the humanities.

    Joe, most major universities do not offer well-rounded platforms. That’s just a joke. Most STEM people I’ve come in contact with can’t write well to save their lives, and they have no idea who Augustine, Aristotle, Dante, etc. are. A truly well-rounded program would teach all students the basics of western culture, because reading those authors challenges students and helps them to think for themselves. The real issue is the universities are run by and populated with leftists who don’t want students to think for themselves. They want the government to make all decisions for the people, and that requires having students who can’t think for themselves.


  8. How shall anything in history escape being arbitrary? Only the authority of the first Adams to federally represent all the elect also represented by the last Adam is something truly justified by the sovereignty of God. God’s imputation of Adam’s first sin to all His people, both elect and non-elect, was not gracious but neither was it capricious or unjust.

    Romans 3: God must be true, even if everyone is a liar, as it is written: In order That You be justified in Your words
    and triumph when You judge.
    5 But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, what are we to say?…Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? 6 Absolutely not! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? 7 But if by my lie God’s truth is amplified to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say, just as some people slander, “Let us do what is evil so that good may come”?
    Their condemnation is deserved!

    David Gordon: It was necessary for there to be a covenant that, at a minimum, preserved two things: memory of the promises made to Abraham and his “seed,” and the biological integrity of the “seed”itself. Sinai’s dietary laws and prohibitions against inter-marrying with the Gentiles, along with Sinai’s calendar and its circumcision, set Abraham’s descendants apart from the Gentiles…until the time came to do away with such a designation forever.http://www.tdgordon.net/theology/abraham_and_sinai_contraste.pdf


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