Jerry Z. Muller


On his book The Tyranny of Metrics

Cover Interview of April 16, 2018

The wide angle

I came to the subject as an outsider to the field of management: as an historian with a broad interest in the social sciences and in public policy. I was led to the subject by a confluence of my wider interests with events in my personal, professional experience. A few years ago, I found myself for the first time in the position of a manager, as chair of my department. At a certain point, I found my time increasingly devoted to answering queries for more and more statistical information about the activities of the department, which diverted my time from tasks such as research, teaching, and mentoring faculty. Over time, gathering and processing the information, in turn, required the university to hire ever more data specialists. Some of their reports were genuinely useful. But much of the information was of no real use, and indeed, was read by no one.

My experience was irritating, not shattering. But it stimulated me to inquire more deeply into the political and cultural forces leading to all of this emphasis on measurement.

The result is a work of synthesis, drawing on a wide range of studies and analyses from psychology, sociology, economics, political science, philosophy, organizational behavior, history, and other fields. But it doesn’t require prior knowledge of any of these fields. The book makes use of conservative, liberal, Marxist and anarchist authors – some of whom have surprising areas of analytic convergence.

There are chapters devoted to colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine and health care, business and finance, non-profits and philanthropic organizations, policing, and the military. The goal is not to be definitive about any of these realms, but to explore instances in which metrics of measured performance have been functional or dysfunctional, and then to draw useful generalizations about the use and misuse of metrics. Drawing on a wide range of case studies from education to medicine to the military, the book shows how measured performance can be developed and used in positive ways.

Though focused in the first instance on the United States. There is also a lot of attention to Great Britain, which in many respects was at the leading edge of metric fixation in the government’s treatment of higher education (from the “Teaching Quality Assessment” through the “Research Excellence Framework”), health care (the NHS) and policing, under the rubric of “New Public Management.” From the US and Great Britain, metric fixation – often carried by consultants touting “best practices” – has spread to Continental Europe, the Anglosphere, Asia, and especially China (where the quest for measured performance and university rankings is having a particularly pernicious effect on science and higher education).