Political scientist Daniel Drezner has responded to my post praising the use of Moneyball hiring methods in academia. As I noted in the earlier post, Moneyball academic hiring uses statistical and other scientific methods to identify undervalued scholars who are likely to be more productive than the rest of the market (which may rely on impressionistic hiring criteria) expects. In the same way, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane has used statistical methods to identify undervalued baseball players and build a team that routinely outperforms competitors with much higher payrolls. My own school, George Mason University, has been one of the leaders in applying moneyball-like methods to hiring, and their use has been one of the causes of the school's rapid rise in the law school rankings over the last few years.
Drezner sees some merit in the Moneyball approach to academic hiring, but also posits two dangers:
1) In the end, you get poached. All approaches and areas of inquiry become fashionable at some point--even military historians. Once a department has attained a flush of prominence, the old standbys will come with their deep pockets to make lucrative free agent signings. The cream of a department's crop gets poached, leading to a slow decline.
The gain of a short-term boost might be worth the price of long-term backsliding, were it not for the second hazard of a Moneyball approach:
2) The risks of overspecialization. When a department hires a lot in a specialty or methodology that is currently unappreciated, they are essentially letting these scholars run the show. A history department dominated by military historians, a political science department dominated by postmodernists, or a law faculty dominated by critical legal theorists risks appearing unfriendly to good scholars from other traditions.
If departments overspecialize, they risk falling into a trap: they can only successfully recruit people from a particular scholarly tradition, but the best of those people will eventually be lured away to premier institutions. Because the social sciences tend to see cutting-edge scholarship emerge from different approaches over time, a department that specializes in one approach risks acquiring blinders about where the rest of the field is going.
I think that Drezner's points have some validity, but not as much as he suggests. There is most definitely a risk that a school with good scholars will be "poached" by higher-ranking institutions. But that is far better than the alternative of having scholars that higher-ranking institutions don't want to hire. As GMU Law School Dean Dan Polsby once put it: "Nobody wants a faculty that nobody wants!" A school that consistently applies Moneyball methods in its hiring processes should be able to find undervalued younger scholars as replacements for more senior faculty who get poached by higher-ranking schools. In the same way, Billy Beane found good replacements for numerous free agents whom the A's lost to teams with higher payrolls (e.g. - Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke, etc.). In fact, GMU Law School has itself lost quite a few faculty to higher-ranked law schools in recent years, but this has not (at least so far) prevented the school from continuing to improve. And the more a school rises in the rankings thanks to Moneyball methods, the lower the number of remaining higher-ranking schools that can hire its scholars away.
The danger of overspecialization is also a real one. However, the way to combat it is by applying the Moneyball approach more rigorously, not by giving up on it. A Moneyball-oriented school should be on the lookout for undervalued scholars who use a wide variety of methodologies, not just one or two. But if worse comes to worst and a Moneyball school does fall back in the rankings because it becomes overspecialized after an initial meteoric rise, that may still be better than the alternative of never having risen at all in the first place. As retired baseball players can attest, it's better to be a has-been than a never was.