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LA Review of Books: Professor Mario Biagioli in the News!
September 9, 2020

According to Goodhart’s Law, as soon as a measure becomes a target, gaming ensues, which undermines its function as a measure. Charles Goodhart, an economist, was referring to the gaming of economic indicators, but his law applies equally well to all sorts of regimes of evaluation, including the metrics that command so much authority in today’s higher education. Universities are investing ever more heavily in curating and occasionally faking figures that enhance their national and global rankings, while simultaneously keeping those metrics in mind when deciding anything from campus development projects to class size. [1] (Architecturally ambitious campuses attract alumni giving, which is a positive factor in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of universities, as are classes capped at 19 students.) Now in full swing, this trend started inconspicuously a few decades ago. Already in 1996, Northeastern University’s president, Richard Freeland, observed that “schools ranked highly received increased visibility and prestige, stronger applicants, more alumni giving, and, most important, greater revenue potential. A low rank left a university scrambling for money. This single list […] had the power to make or break a school.” [2] Freeland quickly figured out which numbers Northeastern needed to privilege. Ranked 162nd in 1996, Northeastern jumped to 98th in 2006 and, ten years after his departure, 47th in 2016.

This trend goes hand in hand with another distinctive feature of the modern university: the discourse of excellence. Because “excellence” is devoid of a referent that can be either empirically or conceptually defined — its meaning effectively boiling down to “being great at whatever one may be doing” — it can only be conjured into existence through quantitative indicators of more or less related proxies such as faculty productivity, their publications’ impact, students’ admission rates and average SAT scores, the university’s expenditure per student, alumni donations, numbers of books in the library, grant funding secured by the faculty, students’ post-graduation employment rate, faculty salary, and so on. The semantic pliability of excellence makes it like warm wax. Having no inherent form of its own, it can only assume the shapes that different metrics stamp on it. This symbiosis explains the ubiquity of metrics and rankings in the so-called university of excellence. [3] (The concept of “impact” shares the same definitional and semantic slipperiness as “excellence”; it depends on metrics for its existence, if only as a number in search of meaning. [4])

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