comments on department excellence

Every dean will tell you that your program needs to show excellence. What they usually mean is that you need to hit the right journals and get recognized for research. What the dean usually doesn’t do is tell you how to achieve excellence.

In this post, I want to briefly discuss how departments achieve excellence. First, departments might choose to use the “George Steinbrenner” method, named after the baseball team owner who simply went out and paid top dollar for the best athletes of the day. This is what top private schools do, as well as a few flagship public campuses. They see who has the highest citation count, or the winner of the most recent awards, and simply woo those people.

Second, there is the “bench method,” where you realize that you can’t just buy up the top scholars in the field. Rather, you develop good scholars and promote them. You understand that you will lose a few, but that many will remain. This model can yield extremely good results. The reason is that leading private schools, especially at the senior level, will routinely ignore very good, but not amazing, scholars. Create a critical mass of such scholars and you’ve suddenly become a leader in a field.

Third, there is the strategy of focusing on teaching and department culture. This requires a different approach. It is less about whoever has the most top journal hits. Rather, it is about finding dedicated people who treat each other well, and do the daily work of a department. The fruit of the labor isn’t in awards, though they will come, but in seeing your undergraduates get top flight grad school admissions. They do great senior thesis projects and they are great in the seminar room.

But how is this third strategy pursued? It’s tricky. First, you have to apply the “no-asshole” rule. Don’t tolerate poor behavior. Don’t hire senior scholars who are jerks, or who harass women. Don’t hire juniors who show signs of early onset jerkiness. Second, take all aspects of academic work seriously. Even if you aren’t in a research intensive school, still demand consistent engagement with scholarship for promotion. Demand that people be reasonable class room teachers. If you consistently do this, you are more likely to end up with an excellent program.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 27, 2017 at 4:28 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Seems to me that the no asshole rule is pretty important for strategy #2 as well. The bench method also requires a good department culture.



    October 27, 2017 at 5:01 pm

  2. Who guards the guardians?

    Liked by 1 person


    October 28, 2017 at 4:16 am

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