The tyranny of academic metrics

Jerry Z. Muller, a history professor at Catholic University, on the Tyranny of Metrics, on how colleges and universities lean on simple black-and-white statistics to determine important grey-area decisions like faculty hiring, retention and tenure. 

When individual faculty members, or whole departments, are judged by the number of publications, whether in the form of articles or books, the incentive is to produce more publications, rather than better ones. Really important books may take many years to research and write. But if the system rewards speed and volume, the result is likely to be a decline in truly significant scholarship. 


Even if you leave aside the accuracy and reliability of these metrics, consider the message they convey. Initiatives like the College Scorecard treat higher education in purely economic terms: Its sole concern is return on investment, understood as the relationship between the monetary costs of college and the increase in earnings that a degree will ultimately provide. Those are, of course, legitimate considerations. College costs eat up an increasing percentage of family income or require the student to take on debt; and making a living is among the most important tasks in life.

But it is not the only task in life, and it is an impoverished conception of college that regards it purely in terms of its ability to enhance earnings. If we distinguish training, which is oriented to production and survival, from education, which is oriented to making survival meaningful, then metrics are only about the former.