The Philosophical Gourmet rankings (hereafter: "Gourmet" or "Rankings" or "Gourmet rankings") are said to be "primarily measures of faculty quality and reputation" of selected institutions. These Rankings aggregate expert judgments by way of a survey of selected, expert faculty. These Rankings serve multiple functions in the profession. In addition to measuring quality, one of the main purposes is to guide student choices in graduate education. Several tabs in the report are directly related to and informative about graduate education, choosing graduate departments, as well as job placement (and "employment"). It has been a true service to the profession that the report "was used to encourage all departments to provide comparably candid and thorough information." So, one non-trivial impact of these rankings is to create far more transparency about professional philosophy in North America, the UK, Irelands, Australia, and New Zealand. By and large, the advisory board and the evaluators are drawn from members of the profession who were trained and work in these countries. (I counted four exceptions to this claim in the 2011 list, but I may have missed a few.) In addition, the vast majority of evaluators are drawn from PhD/MA granting programs. (My eye-ball guess is that this is true of around 90% of the evaluators)
In the report the coverage of Gourmet is described as "The English-Speaking World," even though it excludes quite a few populous English speaking countries (South Africa, India, Pakistan, Nigeria etc.). It is, especially, worth nothing that much professional philosophy in Europe and increasingly Asia and South America has switched to English as its lingua franca during the last decade. Perhaps I am biased, but there is now considerable interaction between European philosophers and North American ones; they share professional journals in common and increasingly the job markets are becoming integrated.I mention this not to nit-pick but because it helps us see thatthe Gourmet's experts are judging their own professional ecology (henceforth: "ecology" or "Gourmet ecology" or "the ecology.") In particular, they are judging the institutional elite within this particular ecology.*
Of course, these institutions have many different characteristics (e.g., private/public) and they inhabit different funding regimes. But on the whole, the Gourmet ecology shares – what I will call – competitive emulation as a key axiological commitment. Relative quality is the scarce good, and by increasing (relative) quality one moves up in the rankings (itself another scarce good). Within this particular ecology, the rankings, thus, also serve to alert outsiders (Deans, Administrators, Alumni, foreign observers, potential students, etc.) to the aggregated expert judgments and can also helpguide policy – for example, hiring and curriculum decisions – in the area. Given that Gourmet offers both overall and niche rankings, it has created a variety of 'markets' and 'market strategies' for (relative) quality in lots of areas of philosophy within the ecology. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is my opinion that the existence of Gourmet has helped increase the average salaries of quite a few professional philosophers that have benefitted from the possibility of competitive bidding of their services within the ecology; I believe I have benefitted from this mechanism. It has also helped that thanks to Brian Leiter's efforts, professional philosophy has been a first mover in these areas, and that neighboring disciplines have been relatively slow to catch up. Moreover, as anybody that is old enough to remember can attest, the existence of Gourmet has undermined, in part, a more close-knit old-boys-club centered on the Ivies, Oxbridge, and a few Midwestern/West Coast Institutions; from a low base-line, it has promoted a more meritocratic ethos within the profession. By updating the Rankings relatively frequently, it has also undermined folk resting on their laurels and, thereby, promoted increased activity within the profession.**
While there have been serious and more minor challenges to the Rankings emanating from within the Gourmet ecology, by and large it has been embraced within the ecology. It offers a means toward maintaining considerable professional autonomy – a non-trivial factor in an age in which the technocrats and businesses are increasingly encroaching on professional issues within higher education – and it generates, I think, non-trivial financial benefits toward the privileged within the ecology. Alternative rankings have been more clumsily designed and have not found a way to generate an alternative to ecology.
Yet, the academic job market for professional philosophers with degrees granted within the ecology is larger than the Gourmet ecology. Among the potential employers of its graduates are lots of non-degree granting institutions and also institutions from outside what Gourmet describes as "the English-Speaking World." In some places professional philosophers with degrees granted within the ecology compete for jobs with folk from degrees granted outside the ecology. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the hiring decisions outside the ecology are driven by other perceived needs than the judgments of quality by the experts within the Gourmet ecology. In particular, lots of institutions within and outside the Gourmet ecology make hiring decisions based on enrollments, interdisciplinary opportunities, public policy significance, and (in some environments) judgments about grant-making potential. These considerations may, of course, be informed by judgments of quality (in the Gourmet sense), but need not do so wholly. To give one potentially non-trivial example: I am familiar with quite a few professional philosophers that end up in a whole variety of 'applied' areas, but these are not central to the ranking (for example, applied ethics is just one niche in the Gourmet rankings whereas medical ethics and business ethics are fairly large professional communities with their own journals and certificate programs; other applied areas are military ethics, engineering ethics, and climate ethics, etc.). So, if one wishes to have information on broader patterns of hiring in professional philosophy one is left with very incomplete guidance. For, in addition to the market in quality, there is also a related market in jobs.
So, it is extremely useful and welcome that over the last few years (recall) Carolyn Dicey Jennings, a former colleague at NewAPPS, has started aggregating reported hiring results (see here for her aims). She, too, focuses primarily on degree granting institutions in the "English Speaking World," but she also includes institutions that are not evaluated in the Gourmet Rankings. Her data-set is still incomplete and may well suffer from unreported shortcomings (that's not unusual for new data-driven enterprises) in a whole variety of ways. (To her credit Dicey Jennings has opted for transparency in these matters.) In addition to aggregating reported hiring patterns, she has also compared these to Gourmet rankings. The Jennings rankings have already revealed (see here, here) some notable issues: first, that some departments at the fringes of the Gourmet ecology have very decent placement records; second, that some elite departments at the heart of the ecology do not serve their own graduate student populations equally well when it comes to placement within professional philosophy. (This is why her decision to track "the number of reported placements divided by the number of graduates" is so significant. Down the road, one would also like to know something of attrition rates at various schools.) While judgments on the second issue may be revised for some or all of the departments in light of further data,+ the first point is unquestionably revealing.
Brian Leiter has called the Jennings rankings "nonsense ranking." Maybe it's because I do some research on social scientific measures, but I do not find the Jennings rankings nonsense. From reading and re-reading his post, I think that what Leiter objects to primarily is the "ranking/comparison" by which he seems to mean (a) the comparison between the Jennings ranking and the Gourmet rankings embedded in the presentation of the Jennings rankings, and (b) the mere fact that Jennings is making her ranking public at all based on her incomplete data. Sadly enough, so far Leiter does not seem inclined to use his institutional power – it is, of course, not irrelevant that he is almost certainly the most influential blogger in the profession as well as the editor of the Gourmet ranking -- to nudge and arm-twist departments into providing Jennings with better data. This strikes me as a huge missed opportunity, especially because Leiter, who is uniquely placed to help, claims to know of lacunae in the Jennings data-set. (This post is designed to nudge Leiter into this constructive nudge!) It strikes me that if Jennings didn't go public with her incomplete (and suitably qualified) rankings, it would be extremely unlikely that a fuller data-set could ever be generated.
Brian Leiter's main objections to (a) seem to be that even if the Jennings ranking were based on complete data, (i) not all jobs are alike, and (ii) she has chosen the wrong base-years for the comparisons she makes (the second and fourth reason for why he takes her rankings to be "misleading"). I am not very moved by (ii) because if one does find the Jennings rankings misleading, one can generate variants on the Jennings rankings with alternative comparisons to the Gourmet ranking with relatively little effort. This is as true for outsiders as it is for Leiter and Jennings. It would be a very useful exercise because one may start investigating and understanding to what degree the Gourmet rankings are predictive of and, perhaps, cause or are caused by hiring patterns within and outside the Gourmet ecology. (Of course, over time the Jennings rankings may themselves become part of the causal nexus.)
On (i): it is unquestionably true that not all jobs are alike, so there is a non-trivial sense in which the Jennings rankings are comparing apples and oranges (etc.). But I am baffled why Leiter suggests it is "misinformation, to equate them all in purporting to measure job placement." Leiter has thought deeply about these issues, but I find this claim untenable. First, while there are huge differences among professional philosophy jobs, the difference between a job and no-job is huger yet if not existential; in general, it tends to mean the difference between staying in the profession or not. (Yes, there are exceptions: folk with tenured jobs that are not really professional philosophers anymore, and folk that manage to contribute without an academic appointment.) As somebody who now works, in some part, outside the ecology (although in some other part still within it), I tend to crave measures that give a sense of the profession at large not just the Gourmet ecology. So, I welcome the Jennings rankings and I hope she will develop them in ever more expansive ways.
Second, in so far as reported job placement tracks actual job placement, the Jennings rankings do measure, well, some non-trivial part of actual job placement. It would, indeed, be very nice to know more about the properties (salaries, teaching load, research accounts, etc.) of the jobs in the profession. But such information would all follow from improved versions of the Jennings rankings. Like all attempts at aggregating market information, there are non-trivial axiological commitments in the constructed measures of the Jennings rankings.
I would hesitate to advocate an exclusive focus on reported hiring outcomes. (That may because I am not looking for a job, although I supervise quite a few PhD students that are about to enter the academic job-market.) These outcomes tend to reflect values that are, I suspect, less tied to autonomous professional judgments. But having said that, we should also not ignore the fact that hiring a colleague can also be extremely revealing about one's deepest philosophical, qualitative, and personal commitments even if these are shaped and influenced by administrators, student enrollments, and ad hoc funding opportunities. They may also reveal existing patterns of patronage, and a whole variety of intra professional networks. Either way, in an era of relatively limited number of total jobs in professional philosophy, it is no surprise that some of our peers may – to paraphrase Brecht—adhere to this motto: "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Qualität."
*Here I leave aside how well these Rankings do so and I do not mean to comment on possible intentional and accidental statistical and axiological biases introduced into these surveys unless I am illustrating my claims.
**Obviously, the story is more complicated; I note just two factors: (i) there have been huge technological changes, so that access to each other's work has become much easier. In addition (ii), air travel has become much cheaper so that professional philosophers can encounter each other in person a lot more than a few decades ago.
+ I would be surprised if the second issue would disappear in light of fuller data because it chimes well with my own (perhaps increasingly dated) experiences in the Gourmet ecology.