Academic Moneyball

It’s funny how a word can catch currency and all of a sudden you see it everywhere. The latest term of note is “moneyball.” Michael Lewis invented the idea with his book about the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane. Brad Pitt recently starred as Beane in the movie of the same name.

The idea of “moneyball” is deceptively simple. Coaches, general managers, and managers evaluate the quality of a baseball player by old-fashioned know-how, otherwise known as a hunch. Old-timers had a hunch that so and so had what it takes to play in the major leagues and based on the hunch they offered the kid a contract.

Enter sabermetrics, otherwise known as statistics. The assumption was that with a vast array of data the sabermetrician could more accurately predict who would succeed and who would not, than the old-timer’s hunches. Billy Beane used sabermetics to enable a poor major league team (the Oakland A’s) to compete against rich teams like the New York Yankees. Granted, the A’s never made it to the World Series but the use of sabermetrics has revolutionized how talent gets evaluated in baseball.

In the last six months I have heard the call for “academic moneyball’ in numerous arenas: Let’s have the equivalent of moneyball in evaluating young academics for tenure. We don’t simply want to give someone tenure based on our “hunches;” we want a more scientific way that we might predict whether the candidate will be a successful academic and gain promotion and prestige. Indeed, why have faculty evaluate graduate student applications for the Ph.D.; we need a moneyball approach to admitting grad students so we are able to predict whether the individual will complete his or her dissertation and win numerous awards in doing so. Why should we even admit undergraduates without more data to ensure that we are being efficient and effective in crafting our freshman class? Why should a decent SAT score and a compelling essay enable an admissions committee to admit a kid? We could get much more complete data that will accurately predict whether the youngster will graduate on time with a good GPA via a moneyball approach.

In our need for greater metrics to predict how students and faculty do, we should also acknowledge that even more urgently is a need for a moneyball approach to administration and boards. Perhaps the least scientific of all of our activities is in choosing a president. A committee gets together, reads a statement or two, perhaps reads some letters of evaluation that extol the quality of the individual and then we listen to the candidate. Based on that information the committee decides that the person will be the next president. Jeez, can’t we develop more complete metrics to predict whether the individual will be successful? If we can do that with presidents, then we will also be able to do it with provosts and deans. And while we’re at it, let’s choose board members in the same manner. How many times has a university chosen a trustee only to find out that the individual is a blowhard or entirely ineffectual—or both? Surely, we can utilize more complete data to predict the effectiveness of our boards of trustees.

One part of me gulps with this sort of approach to higher education. Academe is based on intellectual judgment. I read articles and research for quality and make a determination. I’m uncomfortable if everything gets reduced to a list of numbers on a page. But if we are going to start evaluating tenure candidates via this approach, then I am determined to ensure that we do the same with regard to deans, provosts, presidents, and boards.

I also recognize that we need greater deliberation than we currently make in most of what we do. I would be uncomfortable if a doctor determined my health without at least drawing blood, checking my blood pressure, and the like. I also would think it foolish if the doctor determined what my course of action would be based solely on my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Difficult decisions are informed by data, but ultimately, humans still need to make the judgment call.

William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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