The Chronicle reports on a new ranking of “Faculty Media Impact” conducted by the Center for a Public Anthropology. The ranking “seeks to quantify how often professors engage with the public through the news media” and was done by trawling Google News to see which faculty were mentioned in the media most often. The numbers were averaged and “and then ranked relative to the federal funds their programs had received” to get the ordering. (Erik Voeten sensibly points out that dividing media citations per faculty member by percent NSF funding amongst participating departments to generate a ranking “is, to put it mildly, an odd choice”.) As you can see from the screenshot above, the ranking found that MIT came in third overall and that the top unit at MIT was the Sociology Department. This is fantastic news in terms of impact, because MIT doesn’t actually have a Sociology Department. While we’ve known for a while that quantitative rankings can have interesting reactive effects on the entities they rank, we are clearly in new territory here.
Of course, there are many excellent and high-profile sociologists working at MIT in various units, from the Economic Sociology group at the Sloan School to sociologists of technology and law housed elsewhere in the university. So you can see how this might have happened. We might draw a small but significant lesson about what’s involved in cleaning, coding, and aggregating data. But I see no reason to stop there. The clear implication, it seems to me, is that this might well become the purest case of the reactivity of rankings yet observed. If MIT’s Sociology Department has the highest public profile of any unit within the university, then it stands to reason that it must exist. While it may seem locally less tangible than the departments of Brain & Congitive Sciences, Economics, and Anthropology on the actual campus, this is obviously some sort of temporary anomaly given that it comfortably outranks these units in a widely-used report on the public impact of academic departments. The only conclusion, then, is that the Sociology Department does in fact exist and the MIT administration needs to backfill any apparent ontic absence immediately and bring conditions in the merely physically present university into line with the platonic and universal realm of being that numbers and rankings capture. I look forward to giving a talk at MIT’s Sociology Department at the first opportunity.
Update: The page for MIT on the rankings site now contains a Note acknowledging that there’s no Sociology department at MIT. It was added after this post was originally published.