Rank Irrelevance

How Academia Lost Its Way

Red chairs in a lecture hall.
Lecture hall. (al Taqi / Flickr)

Ranking universities might seem like intellectual inside baseball, an academic game of interest only to professors and to prospective students. But these rankings are more important than most people realize, particularly since institutions of higher education are meant both to engage in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and to serve a broader societal purpose -- in the case of international relations, to inform good policies.

The National Research Council (NRC) rankings of Graduate Programs are today’s gold standard; climbing them is one of the most important goals there is for a university. But the NRC approach siloes academic disciplines and discourages real-world relevance among scholars. It encourages political science departments, in particular, to slight the subfield of international relations and other policy-relevant areas in favor of narrower academic concerns.

This trend worries some distinguished political scientists, including MIT’s Stephen Van Evera, who deplores that much of academia is now in the thrall of a “cult of the irrelevant”; New York University’s Lawrence Mead, who bemoans the “new scholasticism” of much of contemporary political science; and Yale’s Ian Shapiro, who fears a “flight from reality” in the social sciences more generally. But it should also be a concern outside the ivory tower that international relations scholars are being pushed to the sidelines in policy debates by the discipline, ignoring the concerns of policymakers, members of Congress, and the citizens who pay the taxes that ultimately fund university research.


It is impossible to abandon rankings outright, since the impulse to grade things seems hard-wired into human nature. Rankings also serve an important bureaucratic purpose. University administrators crave simple metrics of performance, which help guide decisions on where to invest scarce resources. They steer students and their parents toward some institutions and away from others. Finally, they help government and philanthropists make decisions about where to award lucrative grants and donations. In other words, rankings save work, eliminating the time-consuming tasks of reading of book manuscripts or carefully learning about the substance of academic fields.

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