Why Don’t Universities Try Something Crazy?

What if a university decided to try something crazy: What if they hired professors based entirely on the quality of their research and/or teaching?

Imagine if the hiring committee dropped all other criteria.  They ignored where the applicant got their degree, or even if they had one.  They ignored who they studied under.  They ignored which journals they were published in, or where they presented papers.  They examined in depth the quality of the research; the ideas, the writing, the breadth and implications of the work, the ability to draw on multiple thinkers to make a serious and credible case.  They tested, in front of real classrooms, the teaching skills and took seriously student feedback in person and things like ratemyprofessor.com.

If they wanted top researchers, they focused only on that.  If they wanted great teachers, they focused only on that.  If they wanted someone who was good at both, they focused on both.

This would seem common-sense in any other business, but it sounds radical in academia.  Of course there is value in the filtering mechanisms of degrees granted by prestigious programs, of publications that make it into the top journals.  There is value to the university in hiring people with prestigious repuations.  School ranking, the protective journal publication process, and all the credential hierarchies exist for a reason and they provide valuable signals.  They make the hiring committees job easier, as they have to do less serious digging themselves, and can rely on the stamp of approval given by others.

All that is well and good, but still I wonder what would happen if a pioneering university just scrapped it all. Would they suffer?  In what way?  If a university made very public that they no longer cared about anything but excellent teaching, excellent knowledge of subject matter, and excellent research, wouldn’t it attract some excellent job applicants, some of whom may not have PhD’s at all?  Wouldn’t it attract some interesting and excited students?

I understand the basic incentives in the university system, but it still seems to me there would have been by now some entrepreneurial president who would have tried to break free from the institutional norms and tried something like this.  Maybe the time is near.

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