Sunday, June 25, 2006

Goal: To Be Amongst the Top 100 Best Universities

On Thursday, 31 May, Magnús Halldórsson invited some of the participants at our second ICE-TCS theory day for a barbeque at his house. This was a very pleasant evening, and a fitting end to a very satisfying day from both a social and a scientific point of view.

During the course of the evening, Moshe Vardi regaled us with some of his interesting opinions on all kinds of academic issues, some of which he has aired in a very stimulating SIGMOD RECORD interview. (See Moshe Vardi Speaks Out (on the Proof, the Whole Proof, and Nothing But the Proof) by Marianne Winslett. SIGMOD RECORD, Volume 35, Number 1, March 2006. Do read it!)

One of the things Moshe said was that the goal of improving a department's/university's ranking in one of the many rankings of academic institutions that are available today is not a realistic one. One should focus on measurable goals that one has some form of control over---for instance, increasing the number/quality of graduate students, or the number of papers published by members of staff in, say, I&C and TCS, or whatever else is deemed to lead to a measurable improvement in the institution. Moshe says in that interview that he never felt that the goal of ranking improvement was attainable or useful.

While hearing him air these opinions, I was reminded of the recent pronouncement by the rector of the University of Iceland, who said that by 2010 that university should be ranked amongst the top 100 in the world. This is a very tall order, and I believe that it is not achievable with the economic and human resources that are available for that institution, or any other university in Iceland for what matters.

What might turn out to be useful in setting the university such a lofty goal is the process of change in its daily academic life that this will entail. To be a top 100 university, the percentage of "research active" members of staff will have to increase considerably, the quality of the publication outlets of most members of staff will have to improve, and there will have to be a push towards research that is recognized internationally. Publishing scientific articles in Icelandic in the single Icelandic scientific journal won't be enough for getting tenure or promotion.

However, setting an unachievable goal may also have a negative psychological repercussion. What will the reaction of the staff members be when they will double, say, their scientific output both in quality and quantity, and then discover that their university is still not ranked amongst the top 500 in the world, let alone amongst the top 100? I would not be amused myself. Worse still, people might feel that their efforts have been in vain, and get back to the old, cosy mould.

University administrators, like army generals or chiefs of staff, should also think about the morale of their troops, who are, after all, those who do battle in the classroom and in the scientific arena on a daily basis.

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