It’s just a typical Monday morning in the year 2015. In universities across the land economists are sitting with anticipation at their computers, counting the minutes until 10:00 a.m., when the latest weekly rankings will be available at the Financial Times. As usual, the server is overloaded and initially breaks down under the storm of requests. But after several minutes of excruciating delay, the hit parade is finally online. For each researcher and faculty, an exhaustive list of peer-reviewed publications and citations can be viewed, precisely subdivided into A, B and – horribile dictum – C journals, along with a competitive ranking, updated for the week.

The economics faculty at University X is alarmed. It has slipped from 11th to 13th place; the embarrassment is intolerable. Professor Y is responsible once again, of course. For the second consecutive week he hasn’t been cited or published in any big name journals. The dean promptly convenes an emergency meeting of the faculty board. After begging for forgiveness, Professor Y musters a few words in his defence. The importance of his recently submitted article, which will have a profound impact on the field, has simply not yet been recognised, he says, and the editor of the A Journal who rejected the article is, as everyone knows, an ignoramus par excellence. All of which demonstrates, Professor Y argues, that the ranking is seriously flawed. But Professor Y has apparently gone too far. "The ranking? Flawed?" the faculty chair guffaws, excusing Professor Y from the room.

But the faculty isn’t satisfied with merely chastising Professor Y. In its funding negotiations with the administration, it had promised a ranking of at least 10th place. Thus, to save the faculty’s reputation, a new chair for economic policy is promptly established, and a search committee formed. It is argued that the new chair will need to overcompensate for existing deficits, and for this reason only Professor Z from Ivy League college H could possibly fit the bill. Objections are cast aside. One dissenting faculty member notes that Professor Z only studies economic theory and has no interest in applied economics. Another protests that Professor Z always writes the same thing, just with a different title. Yet a third states that Professor Z is a notorious introvert, virtually incapable of communication with humans and totally inappropriate for such a key position. Yet to no avail. Professor Z is appointed and freed of all teaching requirements, undergrad or otherwise. As a punishment Professor Y is shouldered with additional teaching responsibilities – the students will just have to grin and bear it, the faculty decides.

Back to the year 2010. Caricatures such as the above are of course exaggerations. Thus, no faculty should feel it is being directly described. Yet caricatures do normally possess a kernel of truth. Here, this truth is the fear that too much importance is being given to publication output in the assessment of academic performance, with the result that a faculty might seek in its hiring policy to simply buy a better ranking, no matter what the cost. By the same token, there is fear that many activities are often overlooked or undervalued – particularly teaching, but also responsibilities in faculty administration or in economic policy advising.

There are certainly many academics who are both successful researchers and teachers. Such individuals are a benefit to every faculty. The problem begins with academics who are true talents at research, but who refuse to make the effort required to give good lectures. Such individuals help to boost a faculty’s ranking, but the quality of teaching suffers as a consequence. Freeing such individuals from teaching responsibilities creates bad blood in the faculty, as others must pick up the slack. Yet creating a general division of labour between researchers and teachers is also a poor option, as this would establish a two-tiered society, in turn undermining faculty solidarity.

Date

15.10.2010

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