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For and Against the Use of Rankings

I advise prospective graduate students in philosophy to use Brian Leiter’s
Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks PhD programs in
philosophy, as one source of information in choosing which programs
to apply to, and, ultimately, to attend.  However, there are others in the
profession who would warn students against using rankings such as the
PGR: See the American Philosophical Association’s statement against
the use of rankings** and an anti-PGR*** web site posted by Prof.
Richard Heck at Harvard University, which includes an open letter of
concern about the PGR that has been signed by many philosophers.  (If
you are wondering about the possibility of starting a letter of support
for the PGR, that possibility had been considered; for an explanation,
click here.)  [**Update, 10/23/04: The statement the APA has on-line
has been significantly changed, and is now fairly unobjectionable, so
I’ve removed the link.
***Update, 9/14/05: Since Heck has left Harvard to go to Brown, his
anti-PGR web site, which was on the Harvard server, is no longer
available. Update 11/4/09: Heck has now put a somewhat revised version
of his web site up at the Brown server, so I repaired the link so it takes you
to that. Keep in mind that the below was in response to Heck’s original
page. Hopefully, though, by reading both this page and Heck’s revised
page, readers can still get a decent idea of both sides of this old-but-still-
relevant controversy. Note also that Heck’s new page links to his original
criticisms, that are still available on the WayBack Machine.
One last Update: My thoughts on how to use the PGR, together with other
sources of information, to decide which graduate programs to apply to, and,
ultimately, which one to attend, are now on a blog post here.]

For a fairly extensive reply to the anti-PGR site, click here to see
Leiter’s own “Open letter.”

In defense of the PGR and generally of the use of rankings, I will
paste below (with permission from the relevant parties)

— letters, all from the Winter of 2001-02, responding to Heck’s web site from
Julia Annas,
Andrew Beedle,
Michael Devitt,
Peter Klein, written to Blackwell Publishers, on whose web site
the PGR is published, and a reply from Nick Bellorini and Jeff
Dean at Blackwell Publishers
Matthew Kramer
Bryan Van Norden
–two letters written in the Summer of 2001, one written by Graeme Forbes and
myself, and the other written by me, to the Executive Director of the
APA, in which we urge that the APA stop opposing the use of rankings.  [See
above update: The statement Forbes & I were objecting to has since been

In my judgment, the best arguments made by the APA and on Heck’s
web site do support some sensible “take it with a grain of salt”
conclusions.  And I do urge students to take the PGR with a grain of salt,
and to seek out other sources of information, like trusted faculty advisors
at their undergraduate institutions.  But they should also take these other
sources of information, including the advice of their teachers (yes, even
when that teacher is me!), with a grain of salt.  I’m sure that for many
students, the PGR, fallible as it is, will be one of the best sources of
information they have.  (It’s certainly far superior to any source of
information I had when I chose which programs to apply to.)  And even
very well-advised students will do well to use the PGR as an additional
source of information.  So I certainly would not urge students to ignore
the PGR — any more than I would urge them to ignore the advice of their
teachers, though that too is highly fallible.
But take a good look at the concerns voiced in the web sites I’ve linked
to above, and decide for yourself.
In urging students to take the PGR with a grain of salt, and to seek out
other sources of information, am I urging some kind of compromise position?
Not really.  The PGR itself already urged as much (and has done so for
years), so no compromise is needed.
Since a “letter of concern” has now been openly posted, and signed by
many, complaining, among other things, that the PGR “does a disservice to
the many undergraduates who consult it,” I would like to openly thank Prof.
Leiter for all the good he’s done for potential graduate students in
philosophy — and for all the work it must have taken to do such a great job.
I’ve spoken to many such students myself.  I believe them when they tell me
they were greatly helped by the Report.  I do not think they are suffering
from some widespread illusion of having been helped.  (Though, I suppose
if there really is such an illusion, I’m one of its victims.)  I suspect that those
who do think there is such a mass illusion going on must be badly failing to
appreciate what it is like to be very much in the dark about which are the
highly regarded programs in philosophy at a time when that information is
important in making a big decision.

Though I’m a defender of the PGR, I’d actually like to close these
introductory remarks with a defense of Richard Heck and those who have
signed his anti-PGR letter.  I’ve already heard complaints that these
anti-PGR crusaders are purely negative, disparaging the very helpful work
of others (particularly Leiter) while doing nothing positive of their own to
help potential graduate students.  I can understand the frustration behind
those charges, but let’s not be too quick to judge the anti-PGR’ers on this
score.  (And it’s perhaps a bit unkind to refer to them as “hecklers”!)  We
should eventually judge them by how they put the concern for prospective
graduate students that they express in their letter into helpful positive
action, but we should give them time and even those of us who strongly
disagree with them over the value of the PGR should wish them
well in their positive efforts.  (Of course, we have no need to wait before
countering their bad arguments or defending the usefulness of the PGR.  I’m
urging patience here with respect to the charge that they haven’t done
anything helpful in providing an alternative to the PGR.)  Let’s see what they
come up with.

–Keith DeRose

Letter from Julia Annas, originally written to her colleagues at the University of Arizona:
From Julia, to all,
By now, you have probably all received, from at least one
source, the anti-Leiter letter organized by Richard Heck, who also runs a
website, anti-pgr, which is devoted to undermining the Leiter Report. I am
personally very disappointed by this development, especially since some
people I know and respect have signed the letter. Here are some
considerations I hope you will bear in mind while thinking about the
Remember the time before the Leiter Report? The important thing to
bear in mind is that there were rankings (there has never been a utopian
time when there weren’t), and aspiring graduate students used them – and
they were inadequate and out of date, and, further, were based on the
opinions of a few people, mostly at east coast departments in famous
universities, whose rankings reflected a limited perspective and inadequate
knowledge of the philosophical world in the country as a whole. The Leiter
Report came about to correct the biases inherent in this situation. Of all
the rankings that have been proposed, the Leiter Report is by far the most
open, democratic and country-wide. It has done a lot for democratizing the
profession. Undergraduates thinking of applying to graduate programs now
take it for granted that they have access to large amounts of up-to-date
information about those programs. This was not the case before. Nor is
the Report made useless by the ready availability of information on
websites nowadays. Many of the problems remain that the Report helps us
with: out-of-date information, paper armies (these days I suppose they are
website armies), self-puffery. To the extent that these problems are less
than they used to be, this is due to the good influence of the Report
making departments be more scrupulous and open about their actual current
Heck’s attack on the Report, apart from frequent
repetition of the words ‘damage’ and ‘misinformation’, consists of
pointing out that the Report does not tell students about factors that are
useful for them to know. How good is the graduate teaching, for example?
How good are the other graduates? But since he admits that good
information about this kind of factor would require something as massive
and invasive as the British Research Assessment Exercises, he ends up
recommending that aspiring students ‘ask your advisor’, and that faculty
should ‘Let your friends and colleagues or students know’ (that you don’t
trust the Report).  This is just the sort of in-group attitude which was
prevalent before the Report, and I find its recommendation, as an
alternative to using the Report, to be deeply reactionary. Of course
students have always sought this kind of information as a supplement to
the information available in the Report. But if it is all a student has,
instead of the Report, what of students who don’t have access to a
knowledgeable advisor? What of people in departments in universities that
don’t ‘know’ what the rankings ‘really’ are? Let us think carefully before
disparaging the most open and democratic source of information that we
Heck admits that he is reacting to the Report’s influence, and no
doubt its importance has got overblown in some quarters. But it seems
excessive to turn against the Report itself, and to castigate it for the
fact that some people are taking it to show what it was never meant to
show. Let’s not go back to the bad old days because of forgetting how bad
they were.

And Merry Christmas!

A letter to Leiter from Andrew Beedle, a philosopher who received his PhD from a program currently ranked by the PGR in Group 5, before teaching philosophy at a few different places and then leaving his academic career.  (Though those who know Dr. Beedle will know which program he attended, we’ve suppressed the name of the school.  The points he makes don’t depend on the particular program he attended, and there’s no point in singling one out.)
Professor Leiter,

Alas, the PGR was not available when I was a student considering graduate
study. I’ve seen it for the first time today after leaving academia five
years ago. Wonder how I missed it.

At any rate, having read the various open letters and diatribes against the
report, and compared them to the report itself, I can only say “bravo!” to
you for your efforts. Heck’s letter is, as far as I can tell, just more of
the kind of delusional and self-serving nonsense that the profession as a
whole has thrust upon students for years.

As you consider various replies to your detractors, you might ask them to
what extent the PGR accurately reflects *hiring* trends in the discipline. I
received my Ph.D. from ****** and observed over my
years on the market that most schools are pretty much interested only in
degree candidates from ‘the better programs’. ******’s program is quite good,
but certainly not Harvard’s or UNC’s or Berkeley’s — maybe it’s time we all
owned up to these facts and let students in on the game.  The fact of the
matter is that while ****** makes the PGR’s list, I think it would be a very
cold day in hell indeed before they gave serious consideration to hiring one
of their own graduates. Can Heck (or any of the other 170 signatories of the
open letter) seriously claim that their departments don’t “weed” their
candidate pools on the basis of name recognition or ‘institional prestige’?
No handwringing about the dismal state of the job market will change this
basic fact and to pretend otherwise with graduate and undergraduate students
is just plain mean.

Note that I would choose ****** again if graduate school still lay before me.
I studied under some amazing and talented philosophers while I was there —
it’s program was the best fit I can imagine for my studies. Are ******’s
faculty as good as Harvard’s? I’d say several of them are better than the
best Harvard can offer. Is the program as a whole (budget, students,
faculty, resources, publications, teaching load, job placements, prestige)
better than Harvards? Of course not. But the PGR indicates that they may be
catching up!

Please don’t take this as “I didn’t get a job” whining — I had three great
years at Trinity College (a department that was truly bursting with great
teachers and first rate research minds) and left with a song in my heart and
a spring in my step to take a position at Grand Valley State University. I
finished out my brief academic career as a visiting scholar at UNC Chapel
Hill with Bill Lycan. All in all, I enjoyed my years in the classroom and in
the stacks in the library.

Well done on the report. “Don’t give up the ship!


Andrew S. Beedle, Ph.D.

Letter from Michael Devitt:
Philosophy Program
Graduate Center, CUNY

January 10, 2002

Dear Professor Leiter,

I write to express my support for the Philosophical Gourmet Report (“PGR”) and
thanks to you for producing it.

The arguments in “A Letter of Concern” and associated publications are feeble,
as you and others have amply demonstrated. Indeed, they are so feeble that
surely many who signed the letter must now be embarrassed. Two further comments:

1. One of your supporters has mentioned the importance of PGR to foreign
students. I’d like to emphasize that with my own story. In Sydney in the late
sixties, when I was trying to decide where in America to apply to, there was
very little information readily available. (Australian philosophy students had
typically gone to Oxford.) However one of my teachers, Charlie Martin, had a
strong opinion: he said I should go to Harvard. I asked why. “Because it’s the
best goddamned department in the world.” That was near enough the only
comparative advice I got. I was lucky because it was very good advice. Many
foreign students did not even have that. We should not lose sight of just how
little foreign students had to go on, before PGR, in choosing a graduate program.

2. Given the feebleness of the arguments against PGR, one naturally looks for
underlying motives. “Sour grapes” is a very plausible one but I’d like to draw
attention to another. Many feel that comparisons are vulgar, perhaps even odious. They are aware that they, like everyone else, make comparisons among philosophers, departments, and programs – indeed enjoy doing so – but they find this rather shameful and distasteful. If we must do it we should do it furtively, or at least in private. We should not be brazen about it, publishing it for all to see without shame, and even with enthusiasm. I have a little empathy with this feeling and if PGR were just for our own titillation there might be a case against it. But, of course, it isn’t just for that. On the one hand, it is providing an extremely
helpful and relevant guide to students in choosing graduate programs. On the other hand, it is a very valuable tool for any ambitious department in arguing its case to a university administration (witness the wonderful success of Rutgers and NYU).

Should you want to make any use of this letter on your website or elsewhere,
please feel free to do so.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Devitt

A recent letter from Peter Klein, to Blackwell Publishers, on whose web site the PGR is posted:
Paul Edgar, Producer for New Media
Jeffrey Dean, Acquisitions Editor for Philosophy in the US
Nick Bellorini, Associate Commissioning Editor for Philosophy in the UK

Dear Gentlemen:

I am writing in support of the Philosophical Gourmet Report by Brian
Leiter.  I understand that some faculty members, primarily (though not
exclusively) at or graduates from departments that once were among a
very small group of the best departments in philosophy, are attempting
to organize some sort of campaign to influence you not to publish the
report.  Their claim is that the report is “damaging” to the profession.
Just the opposite is true, and I hope that Blackwell will continue to
support its publication and dissemination.

I think their reasons for criticizing the Report reduce to these:

(1) Faculty quality is not a good indicator of the quality of a graduate

(2) The Report does not have good data on faculty quality, so even if
(1) were not true, the Report cannot be relied upon as a good evaluation
of the quality of a program.

(3) The Report is misleading to undergraduate students applying to
graduate programs.

With regard to (1), I grant that outstanding faculty quality (taken to
be what the Report means by that — namely, the quality of the research
and scholarship of the faculty) is neither a sufficient nor a necessary
condition of an outstanding graduate program.  I could conceive of a
program in which the faculty quality is very high, but the overall
quality of the graduate program is not very good at all.  Further,
although it is much harder to imagine, I could conceive of a good
graduate program administered by a faculty whose own work is not of a
very high quality.  In such a fictitious world, students would learn the
art and science of philosophy, and one could even imagine that many of
these students obtained good jobs.

But we are not dealing with some made-up world with weird causal
tendencies, coincidental collections of properties and outlandish
initial conditions.  Unless one thought either that there was an inverse
correlation between faculty quality and the other important good-making
features of a graduate program or that faculty quality was such an
unimportant good-making feature that it was swamped by the other
determining features, it is reasonable to believe that faculty quality
is a good indicator of program quality.  Indeed, I take it that some of
the very features that the protestors point to as good-making qualities
of a graduate program correlate positively with faculty quality, i.e.,
the general quality of the graduate students matriculated in the program
and the job placement record of the program.

Is faculty quality a defeasible indicator of program quality?  Of
course.  But Leiter calls attention to that fact over and over again.
He says that prospective graduate students should check the placement
record of the graduate programs.  Indeed, it is almost solely through
Leiter’s goading that most graduate programs now list their placement
records on their websites.  Is that damaging or beneficial to the
profession?  In addition, Leiter mentions that graduate students should
check out the graduate-student communities of the various programs they
are seriously considering.  Indeed, he conducted a survey of graduate
students at various of the highly ranked programs and reported on the
results.  Is that damaging or beneficial to the profession?

Let me mention something that was damaging to the profession before the
Leiter Report.  The halo effect was almost insuperable.  The best
undergraduate students automatically applied to Harvard, Princeton,
Berkeley, Cornell, UCLA, Yale, etc.  Of course, there was a reason for
the halo effect.  Those universities were/are great in large part
because of their overall faculty quality (as Leiter uses the term).  In
the latter half of the 20th century, philosophy departments at
Pittsburgh, U. Mass-Amherst, and Arizona demonstrated that the halo
effect could be partially overcome.  But even then, some excellent
liberal arts college departments still routinely succumbed to the halo
effect when choosing which candidates to interview for beginning
assistant professor positions and when recommending graduate programs to
their undergraduate students.  (I know because I was an assistant
professor at such a college from 1966-1970.)  But now, because of the
Report, a department in a university (like mine or NYU or Arizona or
Pittsburgh) whose halo does not shine as brightly as the one at Harvard,
Princeton, Berkeley, etc., has a much better chance of being appreciated
for what it is; and, what’s more important, job candidates from such
departments – though still at somewhat of a disadvantage relative to
those benefitting from the brighter halo – have a greater chance of
being interviewed by the good liberal arts colleges.  I am virtually
certain that some of our students have secured good jobs in part because
of the Leiter Report. Thus, the Leiter Report has helped those
departments and their students. Is that damaging or beneficial to the

In sum with regard to (1): I think faculty quality is a good, but
defeasible, indicator of graduate program quality.  Rankings based upon
faculty quality have helped the profession.

With regard to (2).  Of course, the long range impact of any person’s
work will only be known in the long run.  But students can’t wait for
the long run to occur!  They need to have the best information available
now about the quality of the work being done by faculty.  And a careful
look at the results of the survey done by Leiter shows that there is a
strong, general consensus that emerges about such matters.  Now, of
course, some minor adjustments in the “raw” scores are required.  One
such adjustment concerned department size (large departments seemed
unfairly advantaged).  Leiter took account of that.  Perhaps there are
other minor adjustments that should be taken into account in the way the
departments are ranked.

For example, some of the departments very near the lines between the
groupings could have been grouped either higher or lower.  The lines are
somewhat arbitrary.  The only alternatives are to have a simple ordinal
ranking w/o any groups or no rankings within groups.  My own view is
that it really doesn’t matter all that much about the way in which the
data are summarized as long as the raw results are reported.  (If I were
to express a preference, it would be for a strict ordinal ranking – with
“ties” where appropriate.  Let students do their own groupings if they

My point is that no one is claiming – nor need they – that the methods
of acquiring, analyzing, and summarizing data about faculty quality
cannot be improved.  Leiter is constantly revising the Report in
response to suggestions from a very large body of faculty members with
whom he is in regular contact.  He has added new sections, removed some,
and revised almost every aspect of the report over the years.  The
result is a good way  — and one that is constantly improving — of
collecting, analyzing and summarizing the considered judgment of a large
group of philosophers about the faculty quality at various institutions.

So, the question now becomes this: Given that Leiter’s way of
summarizing the data is a good way to represent the considered judgment
of a large group of philosophers, is that judgment a good indicator of
faculty quality?   I think the answer is clearly “yes.”  And I won’t
even bother to defend that claim.  If the protestors think otherwise,
what would they suggest in the alternative?  Citation indexes?  The NRC?
– god help us!

Finally, (3).  I suppose that the best reasons for (3) are (1) and (2).
So, presumably if (1) and (2) are false, some second-best reasons need
to be put forth.  What could they be?

Possibility 1:  Students don’t realize that faculty quality is a
DEFEASIBLE indicator.

Leiter goes out of his way to say to students that they should not take
the ordinal rankings as the determining factor in choosing a graduate
program.  He recently dropped the ordinal rankings within the
specialties in order to downplay their significance.  And given that the
protestors (correctly) stress the importance of student/faculty
interaction, I assume that they make certain that students do realize
that the rankings are defeasible, and where they think there is such
overriding evidence, they present it.

Possibility 2: Students after reading the report concentrate on the
rankings to the exclusion of everything else.

I can only report that my students don’t do that.  My students realize
that they might not get into their very top choice(s) of graduate
programs.  My students typically apply to at least five or six
programs.  Then, once they are admitted, they talk with me and others in
the department in some detail about the advantages of the various
programs.  They contact the departments, and try to visit them – or at
the very least, they check out the webpages carefully.  If there are
some alumni from Rutgers currently enrolled in the various programs,
they often contact them for their advice.

Possibility 3: ???

Frankly, I can’t think of any others.

In sum: Since faculty quality is a good indicator of program quality and
since the Leiter Report has a good way of collecting, analyzing and
presenting information about faculty quality, the Report provides
valuable information to undergraduate students who are applying to
graduate programs in philosophy.  In addition, it has been beneficial to
the profession in many ways mentioned above.

Please continue to support the publication and dissemination of the
Philosophical Gourmet Report.

Peter Klein
Professor of Philosophy
Rutgers University

Reply from Nick Bellorini and Jeff Dean at Blackwell Publishers:

We take criticism of any part of our publishing programme seriously,
and so we rely upon the considered views of professional philosophers to
form a balanced picture of the impact of what we do, and of the ways in
which we could improve. It is clear from the many notifications of support
for the quality and value of the Report that we have received and continue
to receive that this campaign does not reflect a majority view of the
professional philosophical community in the US. We can assure you that there
are no plans to discontinue its publication with Blackwell, and that we are
committed both to its dissemination and its development.
Nick Bellorini
Jeff Dean

Letter from Matthew Kramer:
Dear Professor DeRose,
I wish to join those of you who are supporting Brian Leiter’s
Philosophical Gourmet (henceforth the “Leiter Report”).  You are welcome
to post these comments:
(1) Even if someone does not share my view that rankings are
salutary — much more salutary than harmful, if taken with the grain of
salt which your letter mentions — he or she should recognize that they
are inevitable.  Leiter’s rankings, compiled by a highly knowledgeable
member of the philosophical profession, have not entered an untouched
field.  Instead, they are helping to offset the significantly misleading
rankings compiled by poorly informed people at organizations that have no
stake in the profession.  If the Leiter Report were to disappear, it would
leave prospective graduate students to rely on the profoundly
unsatisfactory alternatives.  Students desperately want rankings and will
seek them out;  Leiter is to be commended for striving mightily to ensure
that the rankings to which these students turn are based on solid and
relevant information.
(2) In fact, so long as the Leiter Report is taken with a grain of
salt (as Leiter himself prominently suggests), it is splendidly
informative and helpful.  I have referred a number of my undergraduates to
the Report, and every one of them has found it invaluable.  Particularly
good is the fact that the Report ranks departments not only overall but
also according to specific areas of philosophy.  Likewise, the detailed
information on faculty moves and retirements is immensely useful for
students who will be entering departments for several years.  Similarly,
the extensive advice to prospective students throughout the Report
(especially in some sections specifically designated for that purpose) is
incomparably superior to anything else available on the market.  Of
course, Leiter’s advice should be supplemented — and sometimes
contradicted — by one’s own advice and by the advice of any relevant
colleagues.  So long as it not treated as unimpeachable, however, it is an
enormously beneficial counterweight to the misleading and uninformed
assessments on which students would rely in the absence of the Leiter

With best wishes for 2002,
Matthew Kramer
Matthew H. Kramer
University Reader in Legal & Political Philosophy, Cambridge University
Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge

Letter from Bryan Van Norden, originally to his colleagues at Vassar College:


******** mentioned a website critical of Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet

As someone who was on the job market not so long ago, I know how difficult
it is to get a job today EVEN with a degree from a highly respected program
and multiple publications.  I have on more than one occasion met despondent
job seekers at the APA who were very surprised to learn that (1) it makes a
big difference to their job prospects how highly regarded their graduate
program is by others in the field, and (2) the reason they got no
interviews may be that their graduate program is NOT  highly regarded in
the field.  This is a nasty surprise to pull on someone after they have
worked hard for at least 6, and in many cases 8 or more years to get a

Consequently, I think Brian Leiter has done a great service to the field
and to those considering graduate school by producing his report.  I don’t
agree with everything in it, of course.  Any substantial report would be
controversial.  But I know that he goes to great lengths to be accurate in
the impressions that he reports.  When we hired for *******’s position, we
looked at everyone’s application, but did we actually interview anyone who
wasn’t in what Leiter reported to be a highly regarded program?

One constructive way to address any concerns with the accuracy of the
report is to give Leiter feedback on what programs you would recommend to
students, and why.  His email is The site
itself is at

Best wishes,


Letter from Graeme Forbes and Keith DeRose to the Executive Director of the APA about the APA’s statement on rankings, written in the Summer of 2001 (before Heck’s anti-PGR campaign).
Professor Elizabeth Radcliffe
Executive Director
American Philosophical Association

Dear Professor Radcliffe:

We are writing to you about one of the “APA Statements on the
Profession”, the one entitled “Rankings of Departments and Programs”.
We find it surprising that the apa would try to speak for the
profession on such a matter, without polling the membership. There
must be a considerable range of opinion on the matter of rankings,
and many reasonable members of the apa would surely dissent from this
very one-sided Statement. We therefore propose, not that a different
statement be issued, but merely that the present one be removed from
the website, and some announcement be made that the organization no
longer takes a stance on the matter.

A fundamental problem with the statement is that it is clearly
out-of-date, having been written before the emergence of the
World-Wide-Web. It seems to us highly questionable that, to quote
from its critique of “impressionistic assessments of programs by
polling samplings of the philosophical community”,

Few members of the profession know enough about departments and
programs other than those with which they are or have been associated
to be able to rank more than a few of them in relation to each other
with any warranted confidence of doing overall justice to them.

Nowadays, almost all departments with Ph.D. programs have websites
from which it is possible to glean a great deal of information with
very little effort: the current make-up of the department, the range
of interests of its members, the number and breadth or narrowness of
course offerings, and so on. It is certainly true that someone
compiling a ranking of departments based on impressionistic
assessments relies on his or her assessors to acquire such
information before making judgments, but it cannot be an objection
to the enterprise that it requires conscientiousness on the part of
those involved. What is there worth doing that doesn’t?

At the moment, the ranking of departments to which most attention is
paid is Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet. Someone reading the apa
statement today could hardly avoid drawing the conclusion that the pg
is objectionable to the apa. But while some may find it
objectionable, others will see a very positive side, which nowhere
emerges in the Statement. One of us (Forbes) can assure you of the
pg’s positive side for a graduate program. Tulane’s philosophy
department has made a strong and quite successful effort to increase
its strength in ethics and political philosophy. This has been almost
immediately reflected in the pg, where our department has risen
dramatically in the political philosophy rankings. This in turn was
reflected almost immediately in our graduate applications. We
received a number of applications from students who said that they’d
applied because of the ranking in the report, these students
constituted the bulk of our best applicants, and their presence was
responsible for a marked increase in the pool’s strength over
previous years. The rise in our rankings was justifiable, we think,
and we are pleased that there is a mechanism by which the news of our
improvement gets out quickly. Any program which has made real
improvements will tell you the same thing. For the apa to advise
prospective graduate students that rankings “often are detrimental to
the very purposes they purport to serve”, in effect to encourage them
to ignore rankings, simply undercuts efforts to improve programs.

Finally, one cannot help wondering what alternatives those who
approved the Statement had in mind. The pg’s current rankings are
based on the input of sixty prominent philosophers, expert in various
areas. Without such a ranking, prospective graduates are left with
their own best guesses and the advice of the two or three of their
undergraduate professors whom they may ask. Even if they do fairly
thorough research they could easily miss many programs that would be
a good fit for them, and, as undergraduates, are not in the best
position to make judgments of quality. Wide-ranging and broad-based
rankings by experts allow all schools to compete for students on a
fairly level playing-field, and provide students with an invaluable
source of information. It is time the apa stopped opposing this.

Sincerely yours,
Graeme Forbes
Keith DeRose

Follow-up letter from Keith DeRose, also written in the Summer of 2001.

Dear Prof. Radcliffe,

Thank you for acknowledging the receipt of the letter I faxed to your
office today.  (I also put a paper copy in the mail.)  I was very happy to
join Prof. Forbes in advocating that the APA drop its opposition to rankings.
If it’s not too late, I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own, that pick
up on the line of argument that’s in the last paragraph of the letter
signed by Forbes and myself.

When I was a college senior looking to go to graduate school in
philosophy, I didn’t know much about the (then-) current state of the
discipline.  I was a philosophy major, but at a college where I was taught
almost exclusively about long-dead philosophers.  I had close to no idea
about which were the better graduate programs in philosophy, and since I
also had close to no idea as to which were the important current
philosophers, lists of faculty were of little use to me.  I think those who
oppose rankings must never have been in a situation where they needed to
know which were the better programs, and were so ignorant of such
matters.  I did what many others in a similar situation must have done: I
went into the office of the philosophy teacher I most trusted, and asked
about which programs I should apply to.  He got out a sheet of paper, and
wrote down the names of about ten schools that he thought had good programs
for me.  I’m certain he did his best (and I’m certain that many get
significantly worse advice than I received then), but it would have been a
disaster if I had followed that list — as I almost did.
What saved me was finding a copy of — believe it or not — the Gourman
Report in my college’s library!  In my (current) opinion, the Gourman
Report was about the worst set of rankings you’ll ever find.  But even that
sorry set of rankings was a life-saver for me.  I went back to my advisor,
and asked him about Pittsburgh and UCLA, which were highly-ranked in the
Gourman Report’s philosophy rankings.  He said something along the lines
of, “Oh, yes.  Those are good programs.  Maybe you should apply there,
Today, students have easy access to rankings far better than the Gourman
Report.  (I’m thinking here primarily of the Philosophical Gourmet Report.)
But even if the sorry Gourman Report was the only set of rankings
available, I would still oppose the APA’s discouraging the use of
rankings.  With the far superior rankings available, my opposition is very
strong indeed.
Those who support the APA’s stance should keep in mind that if potential
students really were to heed the APA’s warning and ignore the rankings,
many would be left in a very bad situation — the situation I was in before
discovering rankings.  The APA advice simply leaves them in that bad
situation.   I’ve looked at the APA publication to which the APA statement
refers students, “A Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy.”  That would
have been close to zero help to me in my situation — precisely because it
is nothing like rankings.  Like it or not, what I needed to know was which
were the better programs.  We may feign that there is no such thing as
better or worse programs, but when students come out of those programs, you
can be assured that many of those evaluating their job applications will be
using their ideas of how strong a program the applicant is coming from, and
we should at least inform potential students of how strong the various
programs are generally thought to be.  We (most APA members) have a pretty
good idea of that already, and so can easily imagine that rankings are
unnecessary and crude — making all-too-precise what everybody has a good
enough idea about already.  But not everybody does, and among those who
don’t are some who need to make a very important decision for which some
decent idea of the comparative quality of the various programs is essential.
I wouldn’t want the APA to get into the game of ranking programs, or of
endorsing the rankings of others.  But I do very much want us to drop our
opposition to rankings — at least until we can come up with some viable
alternative to them.  As to what an alternative might be like, I have
little to offer, except the negative observation that the APA’s “Guide to
Graduate Programs in Philosophy” does not even come close.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely yours,
Keith DeRose
visits to my web site (not necessarily to this page) since 6/8/03

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