Sunday, December 20, 2015

Research metrics, university rankings, and the demise of scholarly virtues

In the past two decades universities have been swept off their feet by global rankings and metrics for measuring the performance of individual staff and of departments. Commonly used metrics include the h-index to measure an individuals academic impact based on citations to journal articles and total research income. Journal impact factors are used to rank not just journals but also the value of individual academic papers. One Australian university has an “index”, a single number, which is meant to measure of the performance and contributions of an individual faculty member.

The widespread use of these metrics has been criticised because of the flawed methodology involved, the negative impact they have on staff morale, and the diminished quality of research as people “game the system” to boost their metrics. Yet, there are broader and more profound issues at stake. Single numbers cannot capture qualitative features and human virtues such as curiosity, creativity, integrity, perseverance, awe, humility, and wonder. Yet it is such virtues, and their deep theological roots, that drove not just the beginning of science and of universities but has also sustained and motivated many researchers even up until today.

On my science blog I have described the transition in university values from scholarship to money to status. On this blog I wrote about how my Christian values shape my view of the university.

There is a need for discussions about a grander vision of the purpose of education and research, the role of virtues in scholarship, and the meaning of personhood and community. Christian theology provides a distinct perspective on these issues. I am looking forward to reading work by Mike Higton on this issue, including an article Wisdom and Delight in the University, and a book, A Theology of Higher Education.

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