Friday, March 26, 2010

Good Enough for Stanford Is Good Enough for Us

University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg's "The Big Questions" has a fascinating discussion about how we value our own opinions above those of people who are just as smart, capable, and well-informed as we are. This stubborness often leads us to needlessly duplicate the work of others, such as in evaluating job applicants:

[George Mason University economist Robin] Hanson's best guess is that disagreements persist because we tend to overestimate our own intelligence, and therefore tend to put too much weight on our own opinions. One sees this in academic circles all the time. Every year, the members of my department devote prodigious amounts of energy--perhaps half our working hours over a period of several months--to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for faculty positions. At the same time, the faculties of MIT and Stanford are evaluating pretty much the same pool of candidates. Yet we persist in making offers to candidates we believe are strongest, as opposed to the candidates our Stanford colleagues believe are strongest--even though they're surely as well qualified to make judgments as we are. We could save ourselves a lot of time and effort by just announcing a policy that we're willing to hire anyone with an offer from Stanford.
An offer from Stanford is a very credible signal of quality. So credible, in fact, that the University of Rochester could use it as a substitute for its own expensive and time-consuming applicant screening process.

Taking this idea one step further, if such a practice were the norm, all the universities would want some place like Stanford to do all the legwork of screening applicants, while the rest of the universities could pick up the people who decline Stanford's offer.

Of course, Stanford isn't going to make enough offers to support the rest of the system (and it might even begin to make offers strategically to hurt the copy cats). And many, if not most, people with such an offer would accept it. Even expanding the criteria to "we'll hire anyone with an offer from an Ivy League school" or something similar wouldn't cut it, either.

But I could imagine a world in which some centralized body interviews and evaluates all the candidates. Universities would then be willing to hire an applicant if he has a sufficiently high score.

Then again, such mass evaluation has proven imperfect in the past. High school students with the best SAT scores or GPAs don't always become the best college students (though there is enough correlation that these measures still have value). Law students with the best grades or scores on the bar exam aren't always the best lawyers. But does the econ department at Rochester make better hires under the current system, which brings in face-to-face contact and subjective evaluation, than it would if it just based hires on scores? More importantly, even if the current system picks applicants slightly better, is it worth the huge amount of effort the system requires?

Maybe the differences between universities and departments are more important than Landsburg lets on. Perhaps the perfect candidate for Stanford is a poor fit for Rochester, if the programs have different focuses. Also, it would be difficult to assign objective scores to rate the quality of professors in the arts and similar disciplines.