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From the News column in the April 1998 Perspectives

A Hierarchy of History Programs: The U.S. News & World Report Rankings

Robert B. Townsend, April 1998

Despite concerns by many in the academy, U.S. News & World Report published new rankings of PhD and professional programs late last month. The lists (which are also available at http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/beyond/bcphd.htm) rank history programs using "reputation ratings."

The reaction to the rankings among historians in the academy was decidedly mixed. A number of history department chairs and directors of graduate studies said prospective PhD candidates would find some utility in the rankings, but all agreed that many other factors should be given primacy. Jerrold Siegel, chair of the department at New York University, reflected the view of many, commenting that "I don't think the rankings are necessarily 'wrong,' certainly not as an assessment of the prestige that degrees from various places carry with them. That, after all, is not an irrelevant consideration for people thinking about graduate school and eventual academic employment in the current climate."

Rosemary Zagarri, director of graduate studies at George Mason University, said she is more likely to rely on the rankings of the National Research Council (published most recently in Research Doctorate Programs in the United States, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996), but she does consider the U.S. News rankings a useful measure. She noted that "rather than objective statements about quality, they should be regarded as perceptions about what schools are considered in the top tier, second tier, etc. The point is that your best shot for getting a job in history is to go to the best school you can get into."

The rankings are based on questionnaires sent last year to department heads and directors of graduate studies at schools that had granted a total of five or more doctorates between 1991 and 1995. Recipients of the survey were asked to rate institutions in their own doctoral disciplines based on "a school's reputation for scholarship, curriculum, and the quality of the faculty and graduate students." Programs were rated on a five-point scale, ranging from five points for programs considered "distinguished" down to one for those viewed as "marginal." The survey received a 45 percent response rate from those in the history discipline.

A number of department chairs expressed concern about the methodology underlying this study. Kinley Brauer, history chair at the University of Minnesota, said that "I suspect that those who did respond based their judgments often on a vague, unscientific sense of the strength of the programs, knowledge of a few of the more prolific scholars in the various programs, and the traditional, popular reputation of the institutions rather than any serious kind of analysis."

Richard Soloway, former department chair and now senior associate dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that "when as chair I was asked to rank a whole string of departments it was evident to me how little I knew about what was going on in most of them, and how impressionistic my responses were." Seigel conceded that he had refused to take part in the survey, and noted that "I doubt that everyone who did respond really has an up-to-date knowledge of just who is where, and what the conditions of study and teaching are at various places."

Alongside general ratings for 60 history PhD programs, the U.S. News survey also ranks the top 20 programs in the fields of U.S. colonial, modern U.S., European, Latin American, African American, women's, and cultural history. Brauer singled out the specialty list for particular concern, noting that "I also do not find much value in the subspecialty list. I assume modern U.S. history covers the period from 1776 and that European history includes medieval to modern, and I am not sure how cultural history is defined. Why is Latin American history included but not Asian, African, or ancient history? The specialties are so broad and narrowly chosen that they could be highly misleading to prospective graduate students."

Most faculty consulted emphasized that the most important factor should be the match between the particular interests of a prospective PhD candidate and the particular strengths of a department. Isabel V. Hull, chair of the department at Cornell University, said, "I can't imagine graduate students making a choice on the basis of these rankings, since they should go to the school which has the most or best specialists in their intended field, and the best library and material support for their studies. Everything else is secondary, tertiary, or irrelevant."

Judith Ewell, chair of the department at William and Mary, concurred, noting that she would advise students "to consult catalogs and web pages for places they are considering, to consult with faculty in the field they wish to study, and to look at a range of serious and less-serious rankings of graduate programs. They should probe closely the issue of the kind of funding they might receive and the placement record of the different programs--factors that may not enter at all into some of the 'quality' rankings."

David Owusu-Ansah, director of graduate studies at James Madison University, said that when he advises a student looking to move on to a PhD program, he will "consult with the student's academic advisor and see who the scholars in their field are. We will recommend to that student a list of those respected scholars. If such scholars happen to be in a highly ranked program, then that is fine. But, in several cases, that is not the case."