So, how's everyone feeling after the release of the NRC rankings? Did you sit by your computer, waiting for the magic moment when the results appeared on the internet? Or did you torture your department chair (and/or dean) to tell you the results last week, when most of them got a preview of the results? Did you get any gossipy emails before or after from colleagues in programs that were ranked higher (or lower)? Or are you wondering what the NRC is (Nuclear Regulatory Commission? National Ranking Committee?) and why you should care?
My answers: No, I was busy for much of the day until late afternoon; when I had a chance, I read an un-illuminating e-mail from the chair. I knew that he knew the results last week, but I also knew that he would not break under torture, and so I did not try. I did get gossipy emails, mostly before, including from a department chair at another university, but these emails were quite vague so all I knew was that my department would be/should be pleased. National Research Council. I don't know why you should care; I actually don't care if you care, but I'm going to write about the NRC rankings anyway because it was an Event in Academe that happened today.
And in fact my department seems to be reasonably pleased with the results, even though our department has changed in some important ways in the 5 years since the data were collected.
I joined my current department after 1995, so this was the first time the department has been NRC-ranked since I've been here. Of course, other faculty have come and gone since 1995 as well, and these rankings aren't about any particular individual. Nevertheless, to the extent that we semi-care about rankings and to the extent that we can even interpret the new NRC rankings, it's hard not to take such things a little bit personally and hope that our illustrious presence will help our program in some quantifiable way.
As I was thinking about how I feel about rankings as an individual in a program being ranked, I remembered an incident involving a report written by a visiting committee just before I arrived in one of my tenure-track positions. I was hired after the retirement of a professor who had never published much but who was much loved by students and colleagues. I also liked this man very much; he was extremely kind to me as a newly arrived assistant professor, and went out of his way to help me get started.
From my (egotistical) point of view, I believed I was going to be an asset to the department because I was an active researcher and I cared about teaching. Maybe I wouldn't ever be as beloved as Professor X, but I hoped I could contribute to the department and university in some important ways.
I was therefore kind of hurt when the report said that hiring me didn't result in any net gain to the department because I was in the same field as distinguished Professor X, whose retirement was a great loss to the department, and it was too soon to tell if I would amount to anything. Considering that I had already published more than Professor X and was arriving with a grant, I thought they could have been a bit more optimistic about me. Indeed, I kept hearing the phrase "big shoes to fill" whenever someone commented on the fact that I had "replaced" Professor X. It was depressing.
General rankings are less personal, but the publications and scholarly reputation of each of us contribute to the rankings, so it's hard not to take the results somewhat personally, for good or bad.
Of course, there are different ways you can view the results, depending on the results and on your perception of your role in your department relative to your colleagues; for example:
- If the results of the NRC or other ranking of your program are good, you may feel quite good about your contributions to this ranking.
- If the results are not so good, then you have at least two options, assuming that you care enough to have an opinion: (1) You can be annoyed at the flawed methods that resulted in the underestimation of your program; or (2) You can be annoyed that your under-performing colleagues are dragging you down with them.
So which is it? Who is happy/unhappy with the NRC results for their program? (And would you rather have A Specific Number, or do you like the way these new results are presented?)
7 months ago