Deborah L. Rhode has joined the campaign against the role of status in defining what matters in higher education. Her new book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture (Stanford University Press) questions why excellence is defined as it is today, and explores the impact that prestige has on the choices made by academics and scholars. Rhode, a professor of law and director of the Center on Ethics at Stanford University, responded to questions about the themes of her book.
Q: What drew you to to explore the impact of status-seeking on academe?
A: I did not set out to write a book on status. I began with a desire to explore the problems facing academics. The more I read, the more it seemed that an arms race in reputation was distorting the priorities of both individuals and institutions.
Q: You were educated at one high status institution (Yale) and you work at another (Stanford). How does one step back to ask whether those institutions and others like them have the right qualities aside from their status and prestige?
A: One of the more disturbing developments in contemporary higher education has been the growing importance of reputational rankings. The most influential surveys, like U.S. News and World Report, depend partly on subjective perceptions of top administrators, which depend more on prior rankings than first hand knowledge. Past recognition creates a halo effect that perpetuates prestige even if the evaluator has little current information. This explains why MIT’s law school and Princeton’s professional schools always rate so highly even though they don’t exist. Rankings also affect the applicant pool and alumni giving, which are part of what rankings measure, and which adds to their self-reinforcing impact.
Q: How does the quest for status shape academic careers these days?
A: Pressure for recognition has led to an undervaluation of teaching and an overproduction of scholarship that is inconsequential and unintelligible except to a few specialists. In many fields, the pursuit of status has put a premium on esoteric theory and sophisticated models, and diverted attention from potentially more useful empirical and policy-oriented publications. Faculty subject to these pressures may have too little time for advising, mentoring, administration, and public service, as well as writing for general audiences. Self-promotion also leads to unattractive behavior in many academic settings, such as panels, conferences and meetings. Academic novels delight in parodying professors intent on proving to each other just how smart they really are. Life too often imitates art.
Q: You note the difference between accountability and status, and yet many academics fear accountability measures being proposed by some will have as little value as status. What sort of accountability would be positive?
A: Accountability needs to be based on a broad set of criteria, both quantitative and qualitative, that are widely accepted as relevant gauges of performance. Too often, state-imposed requirements focus on a narrow range of measures such as graduation rates or test scores, which depend more on the quality of entering students than the quality of the learning environment. More useful systems include other factors including scholarly productivity, teaching effectiveness, student engagement, diversity, and contributions to the university and community.
Q: If a college president wanted to move away from status obsession and toward quality, what would be the first things to consider doing for his or her institution?
A: In partnership with the faculty and governing body, the president should develop evaluation systems, reward structures, and strategic planning processes that have widespread support and are responsive to the institution’s distinctive mission.