ABOUT a week ago, I got an email from the head of a Middle Eastern university. The university is not entirely unknown and he recently became its head.

I have never visited the institution and had met the university's head only once at a conference. The email was sent to a number of academics including me, and talked about how the university under the new leader was climbing the global rankings ladder. It ended with a request.

In order for it to continue to climb the rankings further, they needed my name [and that of other people who were recipients on that email] to be associated with the university.

The reason was simple : having more research active faculty who are directly or indirectly affiliated with the university is viewed favourably by ranking agencies. Surely we could do this for him and his institution.

I am under no illusion. There are thousands of researchers who are more successful than I am. But I also know that university leaders are obsessed with rankings and are asking everyone in their network, to agree to become ''affiliated'' with their institutions so their university can score highly in various categories.

This practice has long been going on for some time with institutions in the middle East aggressively courting high calibre faculty in the US and Europe and sometimes even giving tens of thousands of dollars for lending heir name.

It's not just unethical, most of it is illegal in the US. But that is of little significance to university leaders who consider their sole mission to move up on a ladder created by newspapers, magazines or agencies that know little about higher education or a university's mission.  

The world of rankings is one where a university and its impact is a mere number, and those in charge of rankings disregard how the university shapes the local and global society, how it impacts culture and improves inclusion-

How it creates a path for upward mobility, and creates more informed, socially conscious citizens. All that matters is a mere number that reduces the moral mission of an institution to a digit.

University leaders do not have a monopoly on doing everything - right or wrong - to climb up the evil ladder of rankings and ratings News programmes and channels do the same. Ethics are irrelevant when it comes to ratings.

In Pakistan and elsewhere, televangelists have created theater around religion, journalists make a mockery of norms and decency [e.g. the nature of interviews and ''breaking news'' after a heinous crime is committed] only to improve their rankings.

The obsession with rankings and ratings has been most evident in the US where Mr. Trump's entire worldview has been shaped by them.

He has used every trick in his book - most immoral and unethical - so that he is perceived as the master of ratings. The result is a society that is fragmented, law that is tested like never before, and norms that have all but evaporated. Fortunately he lost but the fracture of norms continues.

The solution to this will not come from outside, it has to come from within. The ranking mania is destroying higher education, And university leaders need to say so openly.

Fixation with ratings is making media more unethical, and media houses need to have a clear stance on it.

Competition is healthy and important, but an all consuming obsession with winning at all costs leads to anarchy. The last four years in the US is a case in point.

As far as my response to the university leader is concerned, I sent him a polite note suggesting he should instead focus on real investment in higher education. He responded with a single,'' Thank you for your ideas.''

The World Students Society thanks author Muhammad Hamid Zaman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University.


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