Hiring and Firing for the Sake of Rankings


To what lengths do departments and universities go to improve their rankings? In one case, a school is being accused of firing a number of its philosophy lecturers and using the funds to give contracts to professors elsewhere so they can have honorary appointments at the school to improve its research profile.

 The Australian reports that Australian Catholic University (ACU)

gutted its philosophy department in favour of hiring overseas professors on $90,000-a-year part-time contracts as part of a “ruthless” strategy to artificially boost its research rankings…  there are as many lecturers with strict teaching loads as there are foreign academics being paid for their ­existing research output.

The rankings in question are Australia’s Excellence in Research (ERA) program for evaluating academic scholarship.

Here are the honorary appointments in Philosophy and Theology and ACU. (It does not appear to have been recently updated, as it lists Marilyn McCord Adams, who died in March.) [Note: Daniel Nolan remarks in a comment, below, “The honorary appointments list is not the list of outsiders brought in on part-time positions: many, and probably most of those appointments are of people who do not get any pay in return for their honorary status.”]

How does the school get away with it?

The practice relies on a loophole in the federal government’s ERA system that allows universities to hire academics on fractional packages and still have their work output count towards the ratings system. The rule was originally designed to allow career researchers who had children to return to work part-time and have their publishing continue. Instead, institutions are, to varying degrees, bringing in overseas academics with full-time positions elsewhere to bolster their ratings.

Signing one professor from another country on such arrangements allows a university to count their entire research output for a six-year period as being connected with the Australian organisation and, in essence, produced by them.

The ACU pays its overseas hires between $70,000 and $100,000 a year each and pays for their business-class travel and ­accommodation should they be required to visit. Deputy vice-chancellor (research) Wayne McKenna conceded the “recruitment of overseas academics” was a ­deliberate part of the university’s strategy.

Not all of the faculty are on board with the strategy. Stephen Buckle, who is quoted in the article in The Australian, recently resigned after his attempts to challenge the practice had the ACU administration calling him “insubordinate and unrepentant,” according to a letter to the editor he wrote.

Further information here. Comments from faculty in Australia and other places (like the UK) that have similar national research output measures are especially welcome.

guest
11 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Some Postdoc
Some Postdoc
3 years ago

I think it’s worth mentioning that the ERA (like the UK’s REF) is not merely a ranking in the sense of Leiter or US News, but is a significant component in deciding the relative amounts of central government funding awarded to universities.

This practice is also becoming increasingly common in the UK , which also allows academics on fractional contracts (i.e. research stars from abroad whose involvement can in practice be as little as a week or two a year) to be put forward for research assessment on a par with full time academics. (Crooked Timber had an interesting discussion a few years ago: http://crookedtimber.org/2014/12/18/research-excellence-framework-the-denouement/).Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Our department was able to hire a very talented teacher and researcher who had been washed out of a school engaged in a mercenary quest for Leiterrific status.

The further into my career I get, the more grateful I am that I did not wind up as a professor at a top tier school. I have far greater freedom in what I teach and write, more space in which to do it, and far more contact with undergraduates, the teaching of whom represents the greatest social and cultural effect people in our profession can have. I’ve been able to engage in substantial side projects, and, in my later years, devote a substantial amount of time to public outreach by way of publishing an online magazine as well as hosting an online philosophy program, both of which have a large audience. None of which I could imagine if I was trying to meet the publishing and other standards imposed by the top schools.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

They may not have quite the power of a government initiative like the ERA or REF, but let’s not pretend that the Leiter rankings and the US News rankings don’t create similar perverse incentives. University administrators at public colleges know that higher US News rankings will get you more out of state students, which will bring in a lot of money. Administrators at private institutions know that higher rankings allow them to charge more in tuition. Things like the Leiter rankings both display the perceived prestige of a school as well affect it, and perceived prestige is one of the major determining factors in the U.S. Rankings. Shortchanging teaching in favor of research, or even just getting some big names attached to your school, whether they ever actually teach any classes or not, are both proven strategies for moving up the Leiter and US News rankings.
There are a number of other ways the rankings create perverse incentives besides the big one of gutting teaching to support research. Even the metrics that are supposed to reflect good teaching can be gamed in ways that are actually quite harmful to teaching. I used to teach at a large state university as a lecturer, and for a while the admin was pushing this outrageous idea of replacing practically all of the Gen Ed classes, most of which were taught by lecturers but capped at 25 students, with 200 person classes that would be taught by lecturers and graded via scantron tests. It seemed insane to me until I realized that doing that could actually help their US News scores on teaching. The same number, if not more, students would have been taught by lecturers and they wouldn’t have been taught nearly as well, but the school could have said fewer classes were taught by lecturers over all. Moreover, they could have easily gamed the numbers so that there were many more small classes even though exponentially more students would have been in large classes.
Anyway I’ll echo Daniel Kaufman’s point. I’m very happy to be at a community college where I’m completely out of the rat race for Leitterrific status. Teaching is actually respected and valued here (unlike my previous job) and I’m free to focus on only the research I find interesting rather than trying to hit some arbitrary number of publications.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

“Administrators at private institutions know that higher rankings allow them to charge more in tuition.”

You don’t mean that private universities charge higher tuition when their philosophy departments climb in the Philosophical Gourmet rankings… do you?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
3 years ago

Of course not. In fact, I explicitly said “US News rankings.” But Leiter rankings do reflect perceived academic prestige, which does play a major role in US News rankings. Report

Daniel Nolan
Daniel Nolan
3 years ago

I don’t want to comment about the story in general, but I’m worried the way you present things here is misleading. The honorary appointments list is not the list of outsiders brought in on part-time positions: many, and probably most of those appointments are of people who do not get any pay in return for their honorary status. Comparing the list of honorary appointments (who I guess are largely unpaid) with the list of teaching faculty isn’t a good proxy for comparing the people on the generous positions described in the article with the people who have standard academic appointments.Report

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
3 years ago

I had a multi-year contract in Australia at 0.4 FTE. So did most of the other people in this unit. You could not report your publications at below 0.4. So I think the thought was to take 2x 1.00 lines, and then make 5x 0.4 lines. Your publications went up 150% (from 2 people to five people). It was great in North American summer when there were five of us down there (plus others who weren’t part of this scheme–I don’t think we understood it at the time, to be honest). But then there was nobody to work with the graduate students once we left (for 8 months). It was fairly bizarre, but I really don’t see the ACU thing being that different.Report

Julia
Julia
3 years ago

In ACU’s case it appears to be a practice that was devised and implemented by senior management and not by the faculty of the Philosophy Department. When senior managers are expected to run universities with ruthless neoliberal practices , and are awarded big bonuses for doing so, is it any surprise that this kind of gaming of the system is going on?Report

lew
lew
3 years ago

If I had to pick one metric for the decline of intelligence applied effectively, it would be the number of institutions and policies done to death by their own actions taken to raise their standing in some ‘objective’ ranking system.  Report

آزمون های استخدامی و شرکت ها
3 years ago

I had a multi-year contract in Australia at 0.4 FTE. So did most of the other people in this unit. You could not report your publications at below 0.4. So I think the thought was to take 2x 1.00 lines, آزمون آنلاین and then make 5x 0.4 lines. Your publications went up 150% (from 2 people to five people). It was great in North American summer when there were five of us down سوالات there (plus others who http://test.gozineha.ir/?a=estekhdami weren’t part of this scheme–I don’t think we آزمون استخدامی understood it at the time, to be honest). But then there was nobody to work with the graduate students once we left (for 8 months). It was fairly bizarre, but I really don’t see the ACU thing being that differentReport