In October 2019, I attended a three-day workshop on Driving Institutional Change for Research Assessment Reform jointly convened by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) on the beautiful HHMI campus in Chevy Chase, Maryland. My time with the 60 or so participants in the workshop, which included researchers, librarians, administrators, funders, members of learned societies, and a wide range of colleagues from across the sciences, afforded me an opportunity to reflect further on the transformative power of a values-based approach to higher education reform in general, and to research assessment in particular.
Although the HuMetricsHSS initiative has grown out of work in the humanities and social sciences, it was encouraging to see the extent to which our emphasis on being intentional about identifying values, disciplined about enacting them in practice, and focused on aligning them with funding and reward mechanisms resonated with the scientists gathered at the workshop.
Having been assigned to read “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishization of excellence, many of us arrived at the workshop with a healthy skepticism of the rhetoric of “excellence” in relation to research assessment. The article argues that the pervasive appeal to “excellence” in University mission statements and strategic plans is vacuous because it is deployed without qualification across a wide variety of contexts and it’s pernicious because it creates cultures of competition inconsistent with qualities of good research. Yet, however limited they may be, appeals to “excellence” express a desire for quality that is the central concern of all research assessment.
One important thread of discussion that ran throughout the workshop involved the deep connection between the question of quality and the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Over the course of three days, we returned again and again to an important point:
Diversity, inclusion, and equity are constitutive of good science.
If diversity points to the quality of difference itself, and inclusion names a respect for difference that commits us to create welcoming environments in which power is shared, equity speaks to the structures — policies, guidelines, and practices — that ensure just access to resources that shape the research endeavor. We maximize opportunities for discovery in contexts of equity where diverse perspectives are not only welcomed into the investigation, but empowered to guide it.
Until diversity, inclusion, and equity are understood as constitutive of good research, we will not make progress in creating the more diverse, inclusive, and equitable research communities we need to produce scholarship of the highest quality.
If we embrace the problematic rhetoric of excellence, we might say:
There is no excellence without diversity, inclusion, and equity.
To excel means to do something well, and one of the reasons the rhetoric of “excellence” can become meaningless is because one cannot be excellent in the abstract — one is always excellent with respect to a specific activity. Excellence is context specific; its qualities depend always on the activity in question.
Even if the abstract appeal to “excellence” contributes to a corrosive culture of competition, perhaps it is possible to identify the characteristics of quality in a way that has integrity. Perhaps, in fact, the experience of integrity itself affords us a way to articulate the qualities of quality. Perhaps quality shows itself as integrity.
An activity has integrity when it is honest, coherent, internally consistent, and holistic. These qualities are most readily nurtured in environments that are equitable, that is, under conditions in which a rich diversity of experiences are not simply included but empowered to shape and enhance the endeavor. To identify integrity as the beating heart of quality is to infuse the meaning of quality itself with an ethical dimension that prevents us from divorcing the manner in which research is pursued from the results produced. Assessing research quality requires us to identify indicators of integrity.
To put it more succinctly:
Equity is the condition for the possibility of integrity, and integrity is the principal indicator of quality.
If research assessment reform is going to transform the culture of higher education, our efforts must focus on establishing the conditions of equity under which high-quality research can take root and grow.