The recent study that placed Hopkins' undergraduate International Studies at 19th in the nation might raise some eyebrows among students and faculty alike. We were not even aware that so many universities had designated undergraduate international relations programs.
The results of the survey, of course, amount to little. College ranking is an absurd concept and always has been. This week, several smaller colleges made their opposition to the practice known and we support that perspective. While we are disappointed that Hopkins will probably not take a stand against the rankings, particularly the inordinately powerful U.S. News and World Report list, we also understand that the University's hands are, for the most part, firmly tied. To defect from the rankings would be a death knell for a University that competes for students with better-known Ivy League institutions.
However, while we feel that these IR program rankings lack credibility, the poor showing is not entirely at odds with reality. IR at Hopkins is unquestionably problematic.
The most significant difficulty facing the students and program is generally the lack of fulltime faculty devoted to the subject. Only four full-time political science faculty devote their energies exclusively to the International Studies program. They are all extremely capable and well-qualified scholars. They have devoted student followings, impressive bodies of work and a tireless commitment to teaching and study.
But, as of the fall of 2006, IR was, with 240 declared majors, the most popular discipline within the School of Arts & Sciences. Can four professors really handle that load? The answer is no, which is why the IR program relies on visiting professors and those who specialize in comparative politics to make up much of the IR curriculum. But the fields are not the same and IR students are under-served as a result. Classes are too large and the number of offerings too few. The dearth of professors is probably an even greater strain on graduate students who work closely with individual faculty.
If the University is going to have an IR program, it should be one that complies with the standards of excellence that we have come to expect from other majors offered here. The good news is that the student body is not a limiting factor in this instance. If the political science department is able to hire more IR faculty, students will certainly take advantage of them. Many IR majors are unsure what exactly they are doing in the discipline, but many more are dedicated to the field and would leap at the opportunity to take part in an enhanced curriculum.