Philosophy Rankings Reviewed (Chronicle of Higher Ed & Philosophical Gourmet Report); Academia rankings

May 18, 2005 at 6:55 pm 2 comments

While much of the Singapore blogosphere (those blogs that I am tracking) is focused on the Blogs vs MSM debate (a good summary can be found here), I found myself drawn to another case of mis-reporting (this time is by The Chronicle of Higher Education) regarding the rankings of philosophy departments in the US by the Philosophical Gourmet Report(PGR).

Incidentally, Loy’s discipline is Philosophy. 🙂

Brian Leiter, the founder of PGR, commented on that article in his own blog entry. For those of you non-Chronicle subscribers, I reproduce it here:

From the issue dated May 20, 2005
Deep Thought, Quantified

A unique rankings report charts (and helps make) the winners and losers in philosophy


When Edward Hafer enrolled in the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2001, the department was ranked among the top 30 in the country.

But two weeks after Mr. Hafer arrived, the faculty member he planned to study with left for another university. The next year another professor who was important to Mr. Hafer’s work moved to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Then last year one of Mr. Hafer’s most-important advisers left for the University of Texas at Austin. With each departure, Mr. Hafer lost ground in his own research.

But just as importantly, he watched Colorado’s status plummet in a popular online ranking system called the Philosophical Gourmet Report. By last fall, the philosophy department at Boulder had fallen from No. 28 to No. 36.

Now Mr. Hafer has decided that he is the one who will be moving on. This fall he is giving up his plan to become a philosopher — his dream since he was 5 years old — and is enrolling in Colorado’s law school.

“A lot of people have come to the conclusion that it’s time to get out,” Mr. Hafer says of his fellow graduate students. They are concerned about what the department’s free fall in the Gourmet Report might mean for them, he says: “Evryone thinks that as our ranking drops, their marketability as future professors drops. That scares people.”

If Mr. Hafer were studying American history or British literature, he and his classmates would not have such a clear indication that their department is struggling. Graduate programs in English or history may be able to rest on their laurels for years — or, alternatively, spend a decade trying to prove that their stock has risen. In philosophy, however, the widely read rankings report has taken hold, despite critics, and now helps determine where students enroll in graduate school, how much money deans give departments, and even, some say, which scholars get hired. The online rankings — which rate the top-50 programs every other year — have also loosened the stranglehold on prestige that elite universities have in most disciplines, allowing public universities with top-notch programs to rise to the top.

“It is just like the American Film Institute’s top-100 movie list,” says Edwin McCann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. “It can itself become a kind of focus.”


Although the country has more than 100 Ph.D. programs in philosophy, the field is smaller than many other disciplines, including English and political science. That size, professors say, makes it ripe for gossip. “One thing you can say about philosophers,” says Jason Stanley, an associate professor at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, “is that we like to talk.”

While many in philosophy lust after higher rankings, the Gourmet Report has inspired critics. Some professors say the rankings perpetuate a kind of snob factor based on which universities are doing the “right kinds” of philosophy and which aren’t. The rankings, they say, value famous analytic professors who study metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language over those in fields like continental European philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, or feminist philosophy.

“Philosophy in the United States today is far more diverse in the interests and approaches of those who teach it and study it than is reflected by the report,” says William L. McBride, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Purdue University, which did not make it into the top 50 last year.

Robert Pasnau, chairman of philosophy at Boulder, warns that graduate students in particular put too much stock in the rankings. Dropping eight places is not as big a deal as some believe, he says.

“They make the mistake of comparing 15th to 25th, but it makes no difference whatsoever,” he says. Still, Boulder has just made a batch of new hires this spring and “it will be a bit infuriating,” acknowledges Mr. Pasnau, if those don’t boost the department when the rankings come out again in 2006.

Department chairmen in other fields do not have such ranking worries. While graduate programs in other disciplines must rely on 10-year-old rankings from the National Research Council or on occasional ratings published by U.S. News & World Report, the Gourmet Report tracks the top 50 every other year, and publishes it all on the Internet. The rankings are based on the professional reputations of a department’s professors, and the gain or loss of a couple of prominent faculty members can make the difference between shame and glory for a department.

One-Man Operation

The report was born in 1989, during Brian Leiter’s second year of graduate school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Some of his friends asked him for advice on where to apply for graduate work. Although he was only 26 at the time, he thought he had a good idea about where the nation’s most prominent philosophers taught.

“There are people who know everyone’s RBI’s,” says Mr. Leiter, who is now a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. “I was never interested in sports, but I knew about philosophers.”

So Mr. Leiter assembled his own list of the country’s top departments and typed it up. Soon after he produced the first printed report, Mr. Leiter began getting requests for copies from graduate departments across the country.

In 1997 Blackwell Publishing offered to pay Mr. Leiter to produce it. (He earns a fee in the low five figures.)

For most of the report’s life, the rankings have been based solely on Mr. Leiter’s “own gestalt sense of things,” he says. The professor is a walking gossip machine and can rattle off the number of senior philosophers that Ohio State University lost this year (four) and the names of three prominent philosophers who just decided to leave Northwestern University: Terry Pinkard, Thomas Ricketts, and Charles Travis.

Mr. Leiter has his own blog, called Leiter Reports (, where he dishes about such matters, speculating on the comings and goings of prominent philosophers and about what the moves might mean for a department’s reputation. Sometimes department chairmen or members of a search committee contact Mr. Leiter about offers they have made, and sometimes information comes from the candidates themselves. Five years ago, when Mr. Leiter himself received a job offer from the University of Pennsylvania, he posted the news — and wrote an update when he declined.

Some senior philosophers find the insider nature of Mr. Leiter’s blog distasteful. “There is just no privacy anymore,” laments George Bealer, who has appeared in Mr. Leiter’s blog twice in the last year — once before his move from Boulder to Austin in the fall, and now because he has an offer from Yale University.

“I don’t even like telling people when I get a cold,” says Mr. Bealer. “That’s my business.” Although the Gourmet Report has “vastly improved the quality of information available to graduate students,” he says, online speculation about a professor’s career moves is unbecoming to academe. “We are fortunate to work in a comparatively cultivated walk of life,” says Mr. Bealer. “I am afraid that an element of cultivation has been lost.”

Mr. Bealer is not the only philosopher who is bothered by the Gourmet Report and Mr. Leiter’s blog. In 2002, 287 philosophers signed an open letter to Mr. Leiter, complaining that the rankings promoted a “narrow and inappropriate standard of departmental excellence.” Just because a philosopher was famous, the letter said, didn’t mean he or she was a good teacher or adviser. Yet students who use the rankings to decide where to enroll in graduate school don’t necessarily realize that.

“In every field there are well-known cases of individual faculty who you know are terrific researchers but who you wouldn’t want to send one of your students to work with,” says Richard G. Heck Jr., a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who drafted the 2002 letter. Mr. Heck appeared on Mr. Leiter’s blog last month when he decided to move from Harvard to Brown University.

To answer the critics, Mr. Leiter set out to make the ranking system more democratic. He established an advisory board of 70 philosophers, who help him assemble an online survey that he distributes to 400 professors. The survey asks them to evaluate the “attractiveness” of groups of faculty members — including their “talent” and the “quality of work” they do — on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being “inadequate” and 5 being “distinguished.” The survey groups professors by department but omits the names of their universities.

Even under the revised system, well-known senior professors still pack the most punch. That is why Yale’s ranking slid from No. 16 in 2002 to No. 24 last year after the retirement of Robert Merrihew Adams, a prominent scholar of metaphysics and the history of modern philosophy, and the departure of Marilyn McCord Adams, his wife, who left Yale for a distinguished chair at the University of Oxford.

The focus on senior star power also makes it unclear whether a department like Boulder’s will be able to reclaim its ranking in the top 30, even though it just hired five new junior professors this spring.

“One way the report has influenced the field is that it’s created this huge, very competitive market for senior people,” says Mr. Pasnau, the chairman at Boulder. “Now, no matter where you are, you’re thinking: We have to get a superstar.”

But state universities like Boulder can’t always compete for top philosophers, who are known to pull down as much as $200,000 a year, plus hefty housing allowances in expensive cities and money for travel to research conferences.

‘In the Dark’

While some professors lament the Gourmet Report and its influence, others clearly bask in the glow of high rankings. For years, Princeton stood out as the top philosophy department in the country. New York University and Rutgers University at New Brunswick followed close behind. But in 2002, Rutgers and NYU moved up to create a three-way tie for first place with Princeton. Rutgers did not hesitate to advertise the fact on the cover of its alumni magazine in 2003: “Philosophy Is No. 1!” it blared.

By 2004, however, Rutgers had slipped to No. 2 behind NYU, which pulled ahead to hold the top slot on its own.

Professors at Rutgers and NYU say the Gourmet Report also has an equalizing effect. “The chief positive impact the report has had on the field is to make it more meritocratic,” says Mr. Stanley, at Rutgers. “People are less afraid of moving to excellent departments at universities that aren’t elite, Ivy League schools.”

Graduate students agree that the report has helped steer them to places that they wouldn’t necessarily have expected. Joshua Schechter used the rankings in deciding to enroll at NYU in 1998. “Without knowing from the report that NYU was considered so strong, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought,” says Mr. Schechter, who will finish his doctorate this summer and begin working as an assistant professor at Brown this fall. “As an undergrad, you think the top schools are Harvard and Princeton,” says Mr. Schechter, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the latter. “The idea that NYU would have a world-class philosophy department sounded a little bizarre.”

Before the Gourmet Report became popular, philosophy students interested in graduate school had little to go on. “People were just in the dark,” says Ned Block, a philosophy professor at NYU. “Many people I know who are prominent in philosophy today picked their graduate school on the basis of the most shoddy evidence. One person told me he picked his program because it was mentioned in a Simon & Garfunkel song.”

Besides attracting good students, top ratings can also earn a department kudos — and more importantly, more money — from university administrators.

Stephen Schiffer, chairman of the philosophy department at NYU, says his department’s No. 1 ranking has earned it special treatment. “The university is nice to you,” he says. “They are supportive of your recruiting. We have credibility.”

As of next year, the department will also have new offices in a fancy Victorian building on the campus that has been gutted and redesigned specifically to fit the department’s needs.

Even philosophy departments that are lower down the ladder try to use the rankings to their advantage. Professors at Tulane University have informed the graduate-school dean that their department is on the cusp of the top 50. “It is one of the things I keep in mind in terms of the budget,” acknowledges Michael F. Herman, the dean at Tulane.

Mr. Herman says he wishes there were a Gourmet Report for every discipline. “The more information, the better,” he says. “Knowing how people in the field view your people is important.” Allocating money, he says, is a zero-sum game. “If there were rankings in history, our history department would do well, I think, but I don’t know for sure. It would be better if this data were more widespread.”

Morale Booster

A rise in the rankings can be as much a boon to a department’s mood as it is to its bottom line. After Washington University in St. Louis hired three prominent philosophers and climbed from outside the top 50 to No. 36 last year, graduate applications to the philosophy program skyrocketed. For this coming fall, applications are up by more than 70 percent.

To celebrate its success, the department’s office manager gave Mark Rollins, the chairman, a T-shirt. “We made the Leiter Reports,” it says. “And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.”

Says Mr. Rollins: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that it has boosted morale.”

Likewise, a drop in the rankings can make everyone depressed. And it can be a dangerous sign unless a department moves quickly to turn the situation around, professors say.

“The result in terms of the intellectual life of a place might not really be that dramatic,” says Mr. McCann, of USC. “But from the outside, it will look like a huge thing. Then you have to do something, make some dramatic new hires, to counteract the sense of a department on the skids.”

After an exodus of high-profile professors ejected the philosophy department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from the top 50 last year, the mood among graduate students has been grim. Mr. Leiter announced on his blog last month that Illinois’s department was in “desperate shape.”

A first-year graduate student who had read the post sent Mr. Leiter an e-mail message that same day asking for advice. Faculty members are “leaving at an alarming rate,” wrote the student. Should students stick it out or transfer to other universities?

But the next day, the outlook for Illinois suddenly changed. The department announced it had recruited Robert C. Cummins, a distinguished philosopher of mind, from the University of California at Davis. That should kick the department back up into the top 50 again next year, says Mr. Leiter. With luck, he says, it may even make the top 40.
Section: The Faculty
Volume 51, Issue 37, Page A8


Like what Sivacracy had mentioned, I wished there is a Leiter report for my academic discipline. (It would have greatly helped me in my choosing the school; thankfully I got the advisor I wanted) There are too many graduate students who regret their grad school choices – they had primarily based their options on the strength of the universities’ rankings in popular guides like the US News & World Report. In the case of a certain Singapore government agency, the rationale behind selecting certain universities for their PhD scholars to go to still befuddles me.

I know of a similar rankings guide for potential Econs PhD graduates. It is worth a read.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Interesting journal titles Life Choices

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Huichieh  |  May 19, 2005 at 1:53 am

    It’s been a while since I followed the ranking stuff. Nowadays, I tend to tell friends/juniors thinking of applying to grad school who ask me about such matters that they should not put too much store on the rankings beyond the first glance (to get a sense of the broad terrain), but do serious research on the school’s strengths instead. Just who are the faculty members? Any ideas who you would like to work with? Contacted him yet about possibilities yet? What about other related departments in the same school? How’s the grad student culture like? Etc., etc.

    Since we are on this topic, seen the parody Lighter Report? And not to mention this site “Dedicated to Counteracting
    the Excessive Influence of the
    Philosophical Gourmet Report”.

  • 2. Huichieh  |  May 19, 2005 at 1:55 am

    Oops, looks like the lighter report is no longer available. A real pity.


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