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Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, is known for advocating a system he calls differentiation.  Others call it Rank-and-Yank.  Here’s how he describes the system as he attempts to defend it against critiques.

Another criticism of differentiation is that it requires managers to let every employee know where he or she stands—how they’re doing today, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and what their future with the company looks like. Are they a star in terms of both results and values (say, in the top 20% of the team), about average (say, about 70%), or not up to expectations (the bottom 10%)? Note: The 20-70-10 distribution is not set in stone. Some companies use A, B, and C grades, and there are other approaches as well. . . . Yes, I realize that some believe the bell-curve aspect of differentiation is “cruel.”  That always strikes me as odd. We grade children in school, often as young as 9 or 10, and no one calls that cruel.  But somehow adults can’t take it?  Explain that one to me.  WSJ

This is not a phenomenon that exists only in the corporate world.  I am here to tell you that I have been part of an established Research I department that required every faculty member in the department to be ranked, yearly.   And I dare say that there are others that require this and more might be on the way.  I say this not to scare, but to alert, for we are paving the way for this mentality every time we cheer the rankings game in philosophy.   We are actually champs here.  There are few other disciplines in the humanities (any?) that have decided to rank their own departments.  But philosophy, with all of its skeptical and critical minds, dove right in over the years.  And it did so without any organized public debate.  Without any democratic process. Without any serious evaluation of the pros and cons by the profession as a whole.   It was the doing of one fellow, Brian Leiter, and those who were willing and able to collaborate.

I don’t know many colleagues in philosophy who advocate further corporatizing of universities, but I do know many who are, shall we say, taken with the notion that quality and prudence demand that we rank of philosophy departments.  Currently amidst the brouhaha over the bad behavior of the king of philosophy’s rankings, Brian Leiter, many philosophers have taken to the net to express their outrage and to demand that the king, who has in some ways already lost his head, step down from his post as the rankings meister.  But many of these same folks appear willing to dive right back in order to continue the rankings game.

I and others have argued over the years, many years, that these systems are flawed, and that given the current make-up of the profession bound to harm members of the community.  They have been divisive and could be replaced by a sparkling new web site filled with extensive information on philosophy departments, including statistical data.  Others view rankings as essential to the profession, but both as a professor and administrator, I have never been convinced that such a need actually exists.  This, however, is all anecdotal.  And I am not here to argue about the pros and cons.  I do want to make a positive suggestion.  But before doing so I want to get something off my chest.

I have been in this profession for over 35 years, 40 including grad school.  I am embarrassed.  I don’t know any other word for it.  Perhaps shame.  I know that I am not my horse, to borrow from Epictetus here, that I am not not tied to my profession.  My profession’s faults do not fall on me.  But I still feel shame.  I can’t believe that we philosophers have allowed Leiter and the rankings to happen without rising up and demanding that all those who wish to participate in a genuine and meaningful debate get a chance to do so.  Yes, there have been voices raised against Leiter’s rankings.  But the machine has rolled on and critical voices have thus far been marginalized.  And it looks like it may happen again, even though there are those discussing alternatives.   I think my shame may have to do with the fact that I always expected something more from philosophers, perhaps foolishly so, to think more critically than most.  Yet, like children following the pied piper, we let Brian Leiter, and a mentality he imported from law schools, entrance large segments of our profession and entrench something we never adequately discussed or debated.

Ah, but you will say I am assuming what I haven’t proved.  Perhaps those who wish to maintain the rankings are not entranced.  Perhaps those who believe in them are hardheaded realists, who worry about how the humanities are being undermined and accept the culture of rankings (or branding), a handmaiden of the corporatizing of higher ed, if it can help us save ourselves from budget cuts and other nastiness that can be doled out by Corporate U.

However, I am not asking that those who believe in rankings accede to my feelings or brief critical comments.  Of course this would never happen.  I am asking them to be willing to behave like philosophers, that is, engage in a real public debate.   Show your cards in public.  Be willing to strut your stuff.  Forcing those of us who disagree to accept rankings, because the powers that be have accepted them, means letting the god Thrasymachos win, once again.  Force, not the force of the better argument, will carry the day.

Let’s have a full public debate about the topic, perhaps in a series of meetings at the APA.  Some people have already gotten into the swing of things. (See, Archive of the Meltdown.) Let’s see those much vaunted debating and analytic skills on display.  Let’s see some fireworks before we agree to drown in a version the status quo.   Let’s behave like philosophers, not like this fellow.


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