Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Strange Stability of UCR's Gourmet Ranking

When I arrived at U.C. Riverside in 1997, we were ranked 34th among U.S. Philosophy Ph.D. programs on in the widely-read Philosophical Gourmet Report. Now we're ranked 30th. In the intervening time, we have hovered steadily between the low 20s and the mid 30s.

Here's a full list of tenured faculty from 1997 who are no longer with the department:

(1.) Bernd Magnus (Nietzsche), retired.

Here's a full list of tenured faculty in 2009 who were not tenured members of the department in 1997:

(1.) Maudemarie Clark (Nietzsche), recruited from Colgate.
(2.) Peter Graham (epistemology), hired as Asst Prof from Stanford, later tenured.
(3.) Agnieszka Jaworska (moral psychology), recruited from Stanford.
(4.) Robin Jeshion (philosophy of language), recruited from Yale.
(5.) John Perry (philosophy of language, only part-time at UCR), recruited from Stanford
(6.) Erich Reck (history of analytic philosophy), present as Asst Prof in 1997, later tenured.
(7.) Eric Schwitzgebel (philosophy of psychology), present as Asst Prof in 1997, later tenured.
(8.) Charles Siewert (philosophy of mind), recruited from Miami.
(9.) Mark Wrathall (Continental philosophy), recruited from BYU.

Also in the intervening years we recruited Gary Watson from UC Irvine and lost him to USC. We also tenured then lost two Assistant Professors (Carl Hoefer and Genoveva Marti) and hired three Assistant Professors who have not yet stood for tenure (William Bracken, Coleen Macnamara, and Michael Nelson).

The tenured professors of 1997 (Carl Cranor, John Fischer, David Glidden, Paul Hoffman, Pierre Keller, Andrews Reath, Georgia Warnke, Howie Wettstein, Larry Wright) have continued to be productive. One measure of this is that all but one of them have produced at least one new book from a leading press in the period (if we count Hoffman's forthcoming book and Wright's influential textbook).

I'd hate to think that my impression that the UCR Philosophy Department has strengthed considerably since 1997 is just another of my self-serving delusions. (Not that I know what the other ones are!) The numbers above at least seem to lend some objectivity to my impression.

So what's the explanation of our virtually unchanged ranking? Not conspiracy, of course, nor the ill will of Brian Leiter (who has spoken kindly of us over the years). Some institutions (for example, USC and Yale) have climbed sharply, so it must be possible. Is the issue, perhaps, that in order to pierce the top 25 a department must have at least one full-time super-heavyweight, and no one in the department is perceived that way? Or were we too highly ranked early on? Or have our peer departments improved just as sharply? Or...? I have a feeling there something to learn here about UCR or about the ranking system....

Update, December 15, 2011:
Between 2009 and 2011 we lost about 25% of our senior faculty. We lost Paul Hoffman (death), Robin Jeshion (USC), Charles Siewert (Rice), and Georgia Warnke (UCR Political Science). Maudemarie Clark went from full-time to 2/3 time. We hired one assistant professor, Josef Muller. In 2009 we were ranked #30. Now we're ranked #31. Not that I'm complaining.


AnlamK said...

Maybe it's just that other departments are improving themselves at the same rate/relatively higher rate than UCR - and after PGR, arguably, there is a lot more competition.

I don't know. I'm a person with fairly egalitarian tendencies. I wish everybody could all be better than average. I wish everyone could all be number one. Just why do we value rank things so comparatively? Isn't there like an absolute scale ot measure everything up? (This rant is not limited to philosophy grad schools by the way - it also applies to things like grades...)

Anonymous said...

It looks like you're comparing the ordinal rankings only; but aren't the scores reported by PGR respondents the more important factor? (Leiter has always emphasized this, right?) Have UCR's scores (whether mean or mode or median) remained similarly stable over the last 10 years?

I would look it up myself, but I don't know how to see the scores from past PG reports.

Anonymous said...

Comments/wild speculations:

(1) Glancing back at old reports, it looks like your mean and median scores *have* increased over time.

(2) An abrupt dramatic change in faculty will make you move up I bet - not sure that ever happened at UCR.

(3) There may be glass ceiling which you can break only if you (i) hire super-stars and (ii) build a power-house program in a "core area" around one or more super-stars.

(4) In connection with the last point, it is interesting to note that UCR has a history of being a top place for moral psychology/phil action. That might not be seen as a high-profile "core area" by some. If they had an analogous strength in normative ethics, say - they were considered the best or one of the top two places for that - I bet the ranking would go up more.

As I said - wild speculation....

Anonymous said...

I also suspect that School prestige and historical prestige of phil departments play a role...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

That's an interesting suggestion, to look at the absolute numerical rankings rather than the comparative ones. The first year for which I can find absolute rankings is 2001. In that report, we were ranked 2.6. In the last two reports we were ranked 2.9. Perhaps that's a significant improvement -- yet if we'd been ranked 2.9 in 2001, we still would have been only #26 in the comparative rankings (instead of #31 as we were that year) -- still within the same general range. So I don't think the phenomenon can wholly be explained by the difference between relative and absolute rankings.

Moral Psychologist: Your other points seem like possibilities, too; though I must say that I'm impressed by how comparatively little the Gourmet Report seems to be influenced by historical and institutional prestige compared to other such rankings, as seen by the swift rise of institutions such as NYU and Rutgers after their aggressive hiring. I'm also inclined to think that it's much harder to become a top department in a "core area" than in other areas, if nothing else simply because of the number of people working in those areas; so institutions that manage to become top in "core" areas probably do deserve a disproportionate boost in prestige. (As an extreme contrast case to illustrate my point, consider classical Chinese philosophy, in which a single half-decent scholar in the area pretty much automatically puts you in the top ten.)

Brian Leiter said...

The 1997 ranking wasn't based on a comprehensive survey, so I fear the simple explanation is "too highly ranked" then. Also, of course, some schools improved their standing vis-a-vis you folks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Brian. You may be right. Though it seemed to me in 1997 that we were ranked appropriately or even a little low, perhaps that seeming reflected a natural bias toward my own department.

Another thought: If the 1997 UCR faculty don't seem like they would rank near 30 when compared to the 2009 schools (a thought which might tempt someone toward the "overranked in 1997" explanation), another way to interpret that would be as evidence for a nationwide improvement in faculty quality -- at least among mid-ranked Ph.D. programs.

Anonymous said...

Several thoughts:
1. I suspect there has been some global reputational improvement. During boom years there is, I suspect, more conference travel, and since '97 there has been a big shift to electronically accessible information about philosophy (both journals but also things like blog discussions). This has meant a rising tide for reputations everywhere, I suspect.

2. That said, I think Riverside has improved more than most, even adjusted for the global rising tide.

3. But Riverside also has the reputational disadvantage of being on the West Coast. If my time on the East Coast this year has convinced me of anything, it is that the densely networked East Coast schools will always have a reputational advantage over schools on the West Coast because travel, colloquia, going to the Eastern (disproportionately important for hiring and network, etc.) will always be so much easier to do. Even in California, good universities are relatively remote from one another, and there is nothing like the Cambridge or New York areas in terms of clustering of campuses to heighten awareness of each other, and to heighten awareness of those philosophers going through the region. (It would be interesting to see if the reputational ratings reflect geographic biases, and if so, whether there is a stronger reputational bias for or against various areas. . . . Brian?)

4. Suppose that reputational difference cost Riverside a mean of .1, or even .15 (I suspect the costs get bigger as one moves down the Report, but maybe not). If .1, then we get UCR at tied for 26 and with some rounding on .15 we might have UCR at 25. Which, to me, seems about right. Of course, one should also note that I'm a left coast philosopher with the attendant bias.

I've got some ideas for you guys about how to build a more highly ranked department, for a reasonable consultation fee. :-)

Rob Wilson said...


I think that the main hunch that you and Moral Psychologist share is correct: that to move up dramatically you need a dramatic change, and the most obvious of these is the superstar blitzkrieg that we've seen, successively, at Rutgers (80s), NYU (90s), USC (00s), and most recently Yale (back from the dead?). Other departments fit your pattern of hiring, I think, and subsequent overall stability (even if there has been year-by-year variation) in rankings; UC Boulder comes to mind. When I look at such places, I think, "Wow, they've really got good folks here ...", and while I suspect that that thought is shared by many PGR evaluators, it does little to push a ranking up significantly. Not as much as the hiring of as few as 2 superstars for overall rankings or, for certain areas, even just 1.

So to that extent, I don't think Brian's own explanation gets to the heart, even if what he says is right. That's just one of the ways that a reputational survey works. I think of it as a bias, like others that have been mentioned here and elsewhere. But given that that's how own field (indeed, I suspect, all fields) operate, it may not be a bad bias if one of the primary roles of the PGR is to guide graduate student choices beyond the very crude biases that operate via the glow of the name of the institution, and nostalgia for the past--which is pretty much what we had before the PGR.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Manuel and Rob! I'm inclined to agree with almost all of what you say.

Manuel, your interpretation of the global increase in reputation in terms of travel and the easy availability of work on the internet is interestingly "strong program" sociology of science. I like it! However, I also have my own demographic theories....