University Wealth and Philosophical Reputation

by Kieran Healy on January 17, 2006

I’ve been looking again at data from the Philosophical Gourmet Report, Brian Leiter’s reputational survey of philosophers. Here are a couple of scatterplots showing the relationship between the size of a University’s endowment and the reputation of its philosophy department, as measured by the PGR, broken out by Private and Public universities. The red regression line in each panel shows the general association between the two variables. Only data for the U.S. are shown, and not all departments in the PGR are included. (Also available as a PDF file.)

The relationship is pretty strong for Private schools, and weaker for public ones. I believe this is because endowments better index the overall wealth of private than public schools, given that the latter get more money from the state. Of course, much as they would like to, philosophy departments don’t get to spend the whole endowment. But in a way this makes the strong tie between the two more interesting, both when it does obtain and when it doesn’t. NYU stands out. It’s a pretty rich university, but not spectacularly so. Yet it has the top-ranked philosophy department , which we would not expect at all based simply on its endowment. (Rutgers, the top-ranked public school and #2 overall, is also a very interesting case.) When it comes to investing in prestige, philosophers may be a good bet for an urban university. Occasional foodies notwithstanding, they do not take up much space compared to, say, particle accelerators or engineering labs. Also unlike particle accelerators, philosophers are fueled mainly by coffee, beer and small pastries. Rather than reflecting some conscious strategy at the university level, the strong performers might represent the existence either of substantial department-level resources accumulated over time, or the presence of entrepreneurial chairs or administrators who have managed to get their hands on extra money. Conversely, schools like Texas A&M and Yale do not do as well as we would expect on the basis of the overall wealth of the university.

Update: Here’s a plot of reputation against per capita endowment (per FTE student). I’ve only shown the private universities because I don’t think the endowment numbers for public schools are that informative. Once again, you can see NYU is a big outlier. Rice also appears as a distinctive observation with this measure. (A PDF version is available as before.)

{ 51 comments }

1

Delicious pundit 01.17.06 at 12:26 am

Of course, much as they would like to, philosophy departments don’t get to spend the whole endowment.

And, I can’t resist asking, what would you spend it on? Please say “MC Hammer’s house.”

2

Delicious pundit 01.17.06 at 12:26 am

Of course, much as they would like to, philosophy departments don’t get to spend the whole endowment.

And, I can’t resist asking, what would you spend it on? Please say “MC Hammer’s house.”

3

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 12:30 am

Based on good information, I’m pretty sure they’d buy the farm.

4

Ben 01.17.06 at 12:31 am

FYI, Syracuse is private.

5

Jim Hu 01.17.06 at 12:32 am

In the case of Texas A&M (where I’m on the faculty but not in philosophy) there are a number of factors that may explain why it’s philosophy dept/endowment is so low. It’s my sense that there’s sort of a historical division of labor where Texans looking for a traditional liberal arts education would go to Austin, while A&M emphasized agriculture, engineering, and military training. A&M doesn’t even have a law school (I grew up in California, so this is based on what people tell me, not personal experience). Also, within the institution, the deans of Agriculture and Engineering have an unusual place on the organization chart where they are both deans and Vice-Chancellors…in the latter role they actually outrank the Univ. President, and they historically have acted that way.

TAMU also grew from being a small school to being a gargantuan one relatively quickly after admitting women and “non-reg” (non military) students. I wonder if building faculty strength and reputation is harder in philosophy than in disciplines that can lure people with expensive buildings and toys.

Anyway, while TAMU is an outlier in the wealth/reputation space in Philosophy, I’m not surprised at all. It would be interesting to see this corrected for student body size, or mapped against other factors such as average faculty pay or class size.

6

Twin Earth 01.17.06 at 12:54 am

As they say, mathematics departments are the second-cheapest for a university to fund; all they need is pencils, paper and wastebaskets. Philosophy departments are the cheapest, because they don’t need the wastebaskets.

7

Sean 01.17.06 at 1:02 am

I think the bit about particle accelerators is backwards. Universities don’t build accelerators; they’re government labs. What university researchers do is build components of accelerators, not to mention smaller-scale experiments. These are funded by grants, from which the university takes a hefty chunk in the form of overhead. So having an active experimental science program is an important source of money for a research university, not a sink. Of course, to keep the experimentalists happy, the university will occasionally have to spring for a shiny new building or some such thing — so the net effect isn’t necessarily clear.

8

Matt 01.17.06 at 1:11 am

I was told by a friend, a former grad student in philosophy at Texas A&M, that the university administration there wanted to build up the philosophy dept. as a way of improving the over-all ranking of the university, as part of an attempt to make TA&M a “top 25” (on what scale?) university by 2025. At just about this time 4 of the better philosophers there went elsewere. But, it seems obvious to me that they will have a much harder time than, say, Rutgers for three reasons, even if A&M has more money. 1) At Rugters you can commute easily from NY City, while A&M’s location is, let’s say, rather less desirable. 2) Rutgers is close enough to several other top universities to provide for a rich intellectual life, while A&M isn’t. 3) A&M is full of Texans. Those three will trump endowment size any time, I’d guess.

9

Ben Alpers 01.17.06 at 1:27 am

FYI, Syracuse is private.

And Temple is public.

(Apparently people named “ben” like issuing corrections!)

10

rilkefan 01.17.06 at 2:21 am

That first plot looks incredibly correlated to me. NYU is an outlier, but if there’s any width on PGR that looks like a full description of the variation.

11

Dan Simon 01.17.06 at 2:38 am

Surely it’d be more interesting to find a field whose departments’ prestige correlated negatively with university endowment size, no?

(And what does it say about a field that its scholars spend their spare time investigating how well-endowed their prestigious colleagues are?)

12

Chris Bertram 01.17.06 at 3:01 am

unlike particle accelerators, philosophers are fueled mainly by coffee, beer and small pastries.

I thought that line was so good that I’d just reproduce it in a comment, …. and in the next available university committee where it is even borderline relevant.

13

Empiricist 01.17.06 at 3:50 am

Yes, the cost of a better philosophy department is low, but how large can be reputation gain of the school possibly be?

14

A physicist 01.17.06 at 4:16 am

Chris, I guess that means you haven’t heard the old complaint “why do you physicists need so much money for all that equipment? Why can’t you be like the mathematicians who only need money for pens, paper, and a waste paper basket? The philosophers are even better – they only need the pens and paper.”

15

MrM 01.17.06 at 6:34 am

Would you not want to normalize the size of the endowment by the size of the student body? It might make more sense – a small , wealthy school can just hire a handful of great professors and get a very high average score, as opposed to a large school, which needs more bodies, which will dilute the score. It may also solve the “Texas A&M issue” :-)

16

Tom Hurka 01.17.06 at 6:50 am

Kieran:

Your earlier analysis of the PGR showed that some subfields of philosophy contribute much more to a department’s prestige than others. Presumably the same happens at the university level: excellence in some disciplines contributes more to overall university prestige than excellence in others. (Is there a way of finding this out?) If so, and if philosophy (perish the thought) is a low-prestige discipline, then despite its low cost it may not be a great investment bet for universities. And of course alongside prestige among academics, which is all the PGR measures, there’s also prestige among potential undergraduates, business people, local politicians, etc. Philosophy may again not make such a great contribution to that. But of course the idea that universities care about prestige is so artificial!

17

rea 01.17.06 at 6:53 am

So–prescriptive conclusion for university administrators–if you want to build the university’s endowment, hire better philosophers!

18

Steve 01.17.06 at 6:58 am

Purdue is public (Indiana) (I assume that is the “Purd” entry).

19

rc 01.17.06 at 7:38 am

Hmmm. I think you have the axes and regression lines backward: a more interesting question is how much a good philosophy department contributes to the endowment.

20

Steve 01.17.06 at 7:44 am

Shouldn’t it be more of a bell curve? I mean, at first more endowments might result in better, more prestigious philosophers, but at some point, you become attractive to the Peter Sangers of the world, your reputation starts to decline, and endowments are actually negatively correlated to prestige. The finance folks a the university must go through a tough guessing game: spend just enough money to get the good Americans, but never enough to become attractive to the Frenchmen: if Derrida or Foucault show up, you know its time to cut the budget.

Steve

21

Jamie 01.17.06 at 8:29 am

Dan Simon,

(And what does it say about a field that its scholars spend their spare time investigating how well-endowed their prestigious colleagues are?)

Locker room stuff.
But Kieran is a sociologist, for the record.

22

Z 01.17.06 at 8:30 am

Somehow, I don’t expect Derrida or Foucault to show up. They are slightly dead.

23

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 8:36 am

Whoops, Temple, Purdue and Syracuse miscodes are fixed now. Thanks. (It was pretty late last night when I did this.)

Sean: yes, really big projects in physics have to be funded by the government, so the particle accelerator thing was kind of a throwaway joke. I do think that the general point holds, though, and that in comparison to many hard sciences that require lab space, philosophy is not nearly so resource-hungry. (The same would be true of many fields in the humanities, of course.)

As mrm says, I should also look at endowment per-capita, but I was just messing around with this stuff yesterday evening and didn’t look for good data on enrollments.

If so, and if philosophy (perish the thought) is a low-prestige discipline, then despite its low cost it may not be a great investment bet for universities.

This suggests that the entrepreneurial chair/dean theory is more plausible when it comes to explaining why some philosophy depts get hold of the money. Of course, maybe the relative lack of prestige of the the field might be offset by the ability of philosophers to make unlikely arguments (in this case for money) sound plausible :)

24

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 8:38 am

Somehow, I don’t expect Derrida or Foucault to show up. They are slightly dead.

I wonder if that would make them less expensive to recruit, or more.

25

Tad Brennan 01.17.06 at 8:49 am

“unlike particle accelerators, philosophers are fueled mainly by coffee, beer and small pastries.”

Yeah, but only the philosophy fueled by coffee holds up the next day.

I think rc has an excellent point: reverse these axes, and you can show how a private university can gain a few extra billion in endowment just by going from a 4.2 to a 4.7 on the Leiter rating. (I mean, we all knew about Brian’s god-like powers controlling the entire discipline of philosophy. Who suspected he was also controlling alumni donations this way, too?)

26

Kramer 01.17.06 at 9:22 am

Sean (7) and Kieran (24):

I think the point (re physicists, chemists, whatever) is best made in terms of start up costs for new faculty. I don’t know Physics well but in Chemistry and Earth Sciences (two disciplines I do) it’s not uncommon that new faculty recieve a newly renovated lab (new sinks, fume hoods, counters etc.) as well as ~200,000 dollars worth of equipment.

While eventually the faculty member brings that back to the university in the form of research overhead the costs for attracting a lot of new people (or expanding) seem pretty high.

I would guess that new philosophers (although I’m not familiar with hiring here either) are happy if they get a newly painted office, some new furniture and some travel money.

27

JR 01.17.06 at 9:26 am

“schools like Texas A&M and Yale”
What on earth can that phrase possibly mean? What category is defined by the phrase “schools like Texas A&M and Yale”? Schools that have students? Schools that grant degrees? Schools that have only the vowels a and e in their names? What?

28

Cryptic Ned 01.17.06 at 9:34 am

Schools that have only the vowels a and e in their names?

Bingo.

You’ll notice the same pattern affecting Pace, LaSalle, Earlham, and Alabama State.

29

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 9:39 am

What on earth can that phrase possibly mean?

I just meant with respect to the scatter plot — the residuals for those schools are the biggest, that’s all. No implication that explanation have to be the same in both cases.

30

PersonFromPorlock 01.17.06 at 9:44 am

Um. Is this ‘impressive = rich’ or ‘rich = impressive’?

31

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 9:50 am

Is this ‘impressive = rich’ or ‘rich = impressive’?

Well, this is why we need theory, or much more data (depending on whom you ask).

32

eweininger 01.17.06 at 10:04 am

It’s amazing how well-behaved the privates are (data-wise, that is) vis-a-vis the publics.

Without wanting to assume too much about the underlying process, the lesson I would take away is simply that philosophers at the privates are roughly equally efficient (or, I suppose, inefficient–it’s relative) at translating material resources into symbolic ones, NYU excepted.

Am I the only one who has a vision of deans and provosts sitting around a table comparing regression lines for different disciplines, and then allocating budget lines with rulers and protractors?

33

decon 01.17.06 at 10:05 am

I’ve long thought it would be a good strategy for not quite top shelf private schools (i.e. Emory, Duke, Washington St. Louis…) to raise their perceived rankings by recruiting the best faculty in the humanities and social sciences.

What premium would Emory need to pay, for example, to attract a top five faculty across the board in the humanities and social sciences? 10%, 20%….?

34

Tom Hurka 01.17.06 at 10:10 am

Philosophers make unlikely arguments sound plausible? Never. In Plato it’s the sophists who make the bad argument look good, and philosophers are different because they don’t do that.(Ignore the fact that in many Platonic dialogues Socrates persuades his audience with hopelessly fallacious arguments.) So university funding, on Kieran’s new theory, should go disproportionately to the Department of Sophistry — whichever that is.

35

Matt 01.17.06 at 10:26 am

Tom Hurka said,

“university funding, on Kieran’s new theory, should go disproportionately to the Department of Sophistry—whichever that is.”

I think it’s the law school. Thankfully, like the sophists of old, they make their students pay large sums of money for the lessons.

36

MJ Memphis 01.17.06 at 10:31 am

“unlike particle accelerators, philosophers are fueled mainly by coffee… and small pastries”

Which is an example of lovely symmetry, since many philosophy grads seem to end up working at Starbucks producing coffee and small pastries. :)

37

Richard Bellamy 01.17.06 at 11:11 am

Rutgers’ outlier status likely results from the fact that it was a private school through World War II, and then went public and started accepting public funds on top of an already successful private entity.

It managed to retain its private school cache in a way that I don’t really see attached to other public universities other than, say, Berkeley.

38

Matt 01.17.06 at 11:44 am

I think the story at Rutgers isn’t what Richard says- rather, they had a philosophy faculty member (Richard Foley, I think, now at NYU, but not the cause of NYU’s rise, since he moved there after that) who had a high administrative position (maybe dean) and was willing and able to send large amounts of money for senior hires to the philosophy dept. The proximity to NY city also helps, of course. (It would be harder to do the same at, say Iowa.) And, nothing is succesful like success, so once you hire Jerry Fodor and some others, other top people are happy to come along. (The actual facilities at Rutgers are nothing to get excited about- compared to, say, Princeton, the offices, rooms, etc. at Rutgers look like a high-school.)

39

greensmile 01.17.06 at 11:58 am

Speaking as a life long software engineer [though trained in physics, I must tell you I am offended by your insensitivity to the value of those disciplines betokened by your remark that “…When it comes to investing in prestige, philosophers may be a good bet for an urban university. Occasional foodies notwithstanding, they do not take up much space compared to, say, particle accelerators or engineering labs.

Allthough philsophy comforts many afflictions of those who do their homework, it is still the case that “philosophy bakes no bread”. Are we to amend this old saw? perhaps “Philosophy bakes no bread but it gets a lot more bang for the buck than an engineering department.”?

40

Jacob T. Levy 01.17.06 at 1:27 pm

I’m amazed that Princeton can manage to outscore the line on endowment per student– no matter *what* the dependent variable. But then, I’m just perpetually amazed at Princeton’s endowment per student.

41

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 1:36 pm

I’m just perpetually amazed at Princeton’s endowment per student.

Yeah. It’s about 1.2 million dollars per head.

42

bza 01.17.06 at 2:47 pm

Another miscode: Washington University (I assume that’s what “WshU” is) is private.

43

Tad Brennan 01.17.06 at 3:23 pm

Wow. The new per capita graph makes the correlation look even stronger.

Add into that the fact that Leiter urges people to treat numbers within 0.3 of each other as rough ties on the aggregate ranking, so that you could “fatten” the regression line to about 0.3 thick along its length (or put vertical error bars on the university-points, or what have you). That would put even more schools on the line.

Of course, this whole thing raises the specter that Leiter could dispense with asking philosophers what they think of other philosophers and the merits of their philosophical work, and just ask them to assign numbers directly to the institutions’ endowments. “In your considered judgement as a philosopher, which institution do you think has the higher per capita endowment?” Sure, it would miss a few nuances here and there, but not that much, apparently….

44

Kieran Healy 01.17.06 at 3:34 pm

bza – fixed.

45

radek 01.17.06 at 5:02 pm

“Is this ‘impressive = rich’ or ‘rich = impressive’?

Well, this is why we need theory, or much more data (depending on whom you ask).”

Instrumenting prestige of the philosophy department with the general ranking of the university should cut down on some of the simultanity, at least as a first cut. Or at least it should be controlled for if yer regressing prestige on endowment.

Also the state funds the publics get could potentially be an instrument, to the extent that they’re not related to prestige but to other factors.

46

Jacob T. Levy 01.17.06 at 9:22 pm

Have I ever mentioned how aesthetically offensive I find the use of “to instrument” as a transitive verb?

;-)

47

Jim Hu 01.18.06 at 1:19 am

#8 Matt,

…But, it seems obvious to me that they will have a much harder time than, say, Rutgers for three reasons, even if A&M has more money. 1) At Rugters you can commute easily from NY City, while A&M’s location is, let’s say, rather less desirable. 2) Rutgers is close enough to several other top universities to provide for a rich intellectual life, while A&M isn’t. 3) A&M is full of Texans. Those three will trump endowment size any time, I’d guess.

Yes, but Texas is much higher and also meets at least 2 out of 3…although Austin is probably more appealing to most philosophers than College Station, it ain’t NYC and it’s not surrounded by other top schools.

Note that the only other cases I can see with the multiple state universities, Arizona v Arizona State, and Indiana v Purdue, the one I think of as being the Ag school is lower. I didn’t see Michigan State or Iowa State. Davis ranks higher than some of the other UC schools (but not others)…maybe it’s not at the bottom due to the appeal to philosophers of the oenology program!

48

Kenny Easwaran 01.18.06 at 6:20 am

In response to Tom Hurka’s worry that philosophy might be a low-prestige discipline, I recall something someone told me once about why NYU chose philosophy to build up over the last fifteen years or so. (Misremembered hearsay of a conjecture might not be reliable, but at least this theory sounds explanatory.) They wanted to build their overall reputation, so they wanted to build a “core” department – the natural choices would be the prototypical ones (like English, History, Math, Philosophy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Economics, Law) that basically every university has to have. Out of these philosophy seems prima facie to be by far the cheapest to improve – the lab sciences need expensive equipment, law and economics need to compete with industry, and math, history, and english are huge departments where you’d need to pay the salary of dozens of big names, where in philosophy you can get by with barely more than a dozen total. So philosophy seems like the easiest way to trade money for prestige, unless its prestige factor were substantially less than that of these other disciplines (which it might be with biology or physics, given the extra newspaper mentions every breakthrough generates, but unlikely with most of the others).

49

Nigel Sedgwick 01.18.06 at 6:33 am

Are you perchance advancing the hypothesis that university endowments are dependent more on the reputation of each philosophy department than on that of each university as a whole?

If so, please may I suggest that more evidence is needed. For example, scatterplots and linear regression lines for endowments against overall reputation, or plots of endowments against: philosophy department reputation divided by overall reputation.

Best regards

50

Matt Weiner 01.18.06 at 10:19 am

Kenny, I think that explanation is also why Pittsburgh has such a good philosophy department; an ambitious president wanted to build its reputation, starting with philosophy, but there was a financial crisis before he could build other departments to a comparable level.

Incidentally I believe that Pittsburgh was private when this started, and only became public a few years after the philosophy department made its first significant hires (when the state bailed it out of this crisis). But I’m not sure of the chronology.

51

deborah kazazis 01.21.06 at 3:37 am

A very interesting series of hypotheses was put forth in the comments. If one looks at universities using the metaphor of the family, then the overall correlation (there will always be exceptions which will have to be accounted for on the basis of individual “taste”) is as follows: the wealthier the university/family, the more it will tend to invest in/consume high-prestige items. These may be quite costly in economic terms (particle physics labs) or quite conspicuous by virtue by their absence of economic pay-off (philosophy departments). // There is, I believe, general agreement among academics that philosophy is the highest-prestige humanities field; therefore, it makes good sense for a university with excess wealth (spare endowment) to spend a small portion of this to maintain prestige (Princeton) or for an aspiring university (NYU) to mimic this state of affairs (cf. the spending/consumption habits of the nouveau-riche family). // An interesting side-issue relating to high-prestige humanities fields concerns the male-female distribution of faculty within these. On the whole, philosophy is a male-dominated academic discipline (and therefore, higher-prestige)as opposed, e.g., to the philology disciplines (English, French), where there obtains a somewhat more balanced distribution of male-female practitioners. Thus it would seem that there is also a correlation between high-prestige humanities disciplines and male-dominated humanities disciplines, which in itself constitutes a (latent) sub-argument in favor of investment in philosophy (rather than French or English) by universities, which tend to behave overall in a patriarchal fashion when viewed through the family-structure metaphor.// Again, there will always be exceptions which closer familiarity with a particular institution requires to satisfactorily explain. For example, to account for Yale’s low philosophy ranking (vis-a-vis Princeton and Harvard), one might respond that Yale’s high-prestige humanities “surplus” has for several decades now been ciphoned off to its French Department, probably the best in the country.

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