What Do We Mean by “Value”? It’s Time to Challenge the Carnegie Classifications

Peter N. Stearns, April 2016

The A. D. White Reading Room in Cornell University’s Uris Library. eflon/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY 2.0It’s no secret that these are difficult days for the humanities. Evaluations of higher education increasingly privilege the incomes of graduates, and while these measures do not uniformly favor STEM (contrary to some belief), the data certainly tend to downgrade humanities graduates. Though they typically do earn less, they are far from unemployed, as the myth would have it (see for a corrective). Yet political candidates take easy potshots at humanities programs, playing off and encouraging a sense of low utility.

Obviously, in this context, humanists worry, but we also fight back. We know we teach skills and insights vital to a healthy society, beginning with critical thinking. We know we add knowledge—for example, about how the present has emerged from the past. We know that without our disciplines and kindred social sciences, American society would lose its capacity to evaluate and address a host of crucial issues.

Amid this kind of debate, it seems one specific target has gone unnoticed: the essential neglect of humanities research in one of the most hallowed American classification systems, the Carnegie ratings, now administered by Indiana University. It’s time to initiate a discussion of alternatives, complex as this might be.

The Carnegie classifications measure research intensities disproportionally by levels of external funding. Whatever the validity of this proxy for STEM, it does not address the normal measures of achievement in the humanities.

Here’s the situation. Since 1973, the Carnegie classifications have served not only as descriptors but also as aspirational targets for a variety of higher education institutions. Their range of measurements includes undergraduate offerings and the various degree levels, most of which represent a number of disciplines and not just the sanctification of STEM.

But the high-prestige categories, not surprisingly, involve categorizations of research, with the Very High Research cluster of about 200 institutions at the summit.

And here’s the problem for the humanities—­and arguably, for a real assessment of significant research. Understandably eager to seize on purely numerical data, the Carnegie classifications measure research intensities disproportionately by levels of external funding. Whatever the validity of this proxy for STEM, it does not address the normal measures of achievement in the humanities.

To be fair, the rankings do consider the number of PhDs universities confer—­humanities fields very much included—and this weighting seems to play a role in distinguishing the three Carnegie doctoral classifications. A new system would not necessarily radically alter institutional balances, though this index will deteriorate further as a research measure as market forces contribute to the decline of the number of PhDs awarded.

But funding levels are at best tangential to assessing the value of humanities research, and this is a genuine problem in this critical period. Funding levels simply do not predictably capture value in these disciplines, at least in the United States. (See on the disproportions in funding levels—another indication of the weakness of this criterion in measuring humanities value for an entire university.) And we should be discussing value.

So let’s press the new masters of the Carnegie system to join with representatives of the humanities and social sciences to discuss additional measures that do not depend solely on funding yet explicitly embrace significant research in these vital fields. Admittedly, decisions will not be easy: I am not advocating anything as simple as a book and article count; we would not want to fall into the system the British have generated, where sheer productivity trumps substantive results. Our goal should be a manageable set of measurements that conveys consequential research across the disciplinary spectrum, but also pushes humanists to do a better job of defining the impact of their work. Objections might surface from a few institutions with weak humanities programs, but the playing field already varies a great deal—for example, depending on the presence or absence of medical schools—so this kind of additional differentiation is really not problematic. If the new criterion encourages a few places to pay more attention to serious humanities scholarship, all the better.

But the main point is a fairer representation of how much meaningful research is being done, in a nation where funding is unusually skewed toward a limited number of disciplines.

At the very least, pending some responsible reform, we can at least hope that the descriptions of the research categories will include a much clearer disclaimer about the mis­impressions that reliance on funding levels may foster. Greater clarity, and perhaps some desirable embarrassment, would be a constructive first step. But let’s try to launch an imaginative discussion that goes beyond this.

I thank Robert Townsend of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for help with this piece, though the opinions are my responsibility.

Peter N. Stearns is university professor and provost emeritus at George Mason University.

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