The Impactful University

The Times Higher recently published their 2020 ranking of the top universities in the world for impact. I am ordinarily skeptical of university rankings because the criteria used are often suspect. But these impact rankings are, in my view, the only rankings we should be taking seriously. Everything else is just fluff and should just be ignored.

The impact rankings assess the extent to which a university positively changes the world. What else could matter, really? In conventional rankings, some of the “best” universities offer very little to society. An institute of higher learning is considered a top university because of the high volume of peer reviewed research it produces, but—let’s face it—the reality is that much of this research contributes to knowledge (which may be cute and interesting), but nothing to practice.

Ironically, many universities (and many scholars) pride themselves on the uselessness of their research. Applied projects are somehow viewed as profane and lacking in intellectual rigor. Maybe that’s why business schools are often looked down upon by “real” academics in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that everything we do has to have immediate implications for the improvement of the economy and society. Basic research has its place and is often a precursor to useful applications later on. But I do think that every academic, regardless of expertise, should make a concerted effort to produce research that has the potential to make existence, broadly construed, better. Granted, the downstream effects of one’s research aren’t always evident at first glance, but let’s not pretend that we can’t make some educated guesses on what is likely to matter in the long run.

“But I do think that every academic, regardless of expertise, should make a concerted effort to produce research that has the potential to make existence, broadly construed, better.”

This isn’t a critique of those in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Well, maybe it is, but not in the way that you think. Much of the research coming out of these fields is fairly esoteric. I like to refer to such research as “mental gymnastics,” where the final written product appears intellectually impressive, yet is meaningless in the broader scheme of things, for example, this. But there is nothing inherently useless in any field of research. Philosophers, literary scholars, artists, astronomers, and classicists can all add significant value to society. A philosopher might show how philosophy can be used to solve a modern problem, as I did in this article. A literary scholar might afford us a deeper understanding of Heart of Darkness than we could attain on our own reading. An arts professor might produce a work of art that moves us affectively and inspires us. An astronomer might someday warn us of the dangers of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. A classicist might inform today’s politicians how the ancient Greeks used to solve a shared collective action problem. No matter what your field, you can have a positive impact, but only if you choose to do so.

If you are keen to make your research more impactful, the best place to start is to make your writing more accessible. Too many academics get caught in this trap of thinking that the longer, more complicated and indecipherable a sentence, the better, a la Foucault. In reality, our attempts to write impenetrable prose mask the fact that we have nothing meaningful to say.

So, let’s all commit to a future research agenda that can somehow, in some way, benefit life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We owe as much to future generations, don’t we?

Prof. Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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