Why research reputation trumps teaching reputation in universities

Bear with me, this is more interesting than the title suggests.

In humans we see lekking behaviour in the general rule that people like being around successful people. This is why social A-lists exist. More generally as animal behaviour, a lek is a gathering of individuals for the purposes of competitive display – competitive signalling. For universities, A-list researchers attract other high quality researchers and also crucially high quality teachers. Why is this important for attracting high quality teachers? Academics themselves are generally seen to be sensitive to reputational influences of their peer group. High quality teachers will be hesitant to join to a university who’s reputation is ambiguous (uncertainty as to rank). The solution is to have an unambiguous reputational signal. However, the signal needs to overcome the problems of asymmetric information associated with the observation (‘measurement’) of quality. It is for this reason that research reputation trumps teaching reputation. Research reputation is a less ambiguous signal as a result of the strength of external validation – active peer review in both academic and public domains (media). Teaching reputation is harder to validate outside the university in which it occurs, leading to the problem of asymmetric information.

I found this at a website called The Journal of Brief Ideas which I found from a link at Marginal Revolution. The Journal of Brief Ideas is about “…citable ideas in fewer than 200 words.” I love that because we political conservatives live in “the arena of ideas,” a phrase invented by Rush Limbaugh.

The micro vs. macro reputation problem is pretty much the same outside academic institutions. The commonality among plumbers and lawyers  [they both fix nasty problems and their customers usually don’t want to socialize with them once the problem is solved] provides an example. These professions are similar in that a good lawyer or a good plumber may have a stellar reputation within his own company or law firm, but that may be completely unknown outside his company or firm unless he finds some way to solve the asymmetric information problem. Lawyers do it by their interaction with other lawyers from other firms, and that is easier for trial lawyers because everything they do involves competition with another lawyer from another firm. Winning hard cases sends an excellent “unambiguous repetitional signal.” Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence may be the best and most well-known example. Lawyers who don’t regularly try cases in court may solve the problem by being active in their bar association [I’ll never understand why that works but it does] or contributing how-to-do-it articles to their bar journal. Denver lawyer Andrew Low has become a highly-regarded appellate lawyer in by a combination of winning appeals and writing endlessly on appellate practice.

I suspect most plumbers are too busy to spend much time thinking about self promotion outside their company, but the more ambitious among them do find ways to create a reputation for themselves in their community. Almost every small town will have several plumbers but if you ask around for a reference the same name(s) regularly come up.

Unlike university professors, plumbers advertise, and now lawyers do also.  But I don’t think advertising alone is effective to get yourself on anyone’s A-list. In fact, the lawyers who take out full-page yellow book ads and make cheesy commercials for late night television are often held in low regard by both other lawyers and potential clients.

Sean Leaver, the fellow who wrote the above paragraph from The Journal of Brief Ideas did a great job packing a big idea into fewer than 200 words.  I learned a new phrase, “lekking behavior.” I should have known that one since lawyers do it in spades. Interesting that the term comes from ethology, the study of animal behavior. Anyway, I spent about 400 words just to comment on Mr. Leaver’s idea, and that humbles me when I remember Shakespeare coined the term, brevity is the soul of wit.

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