Wednesday, June 17, 2009

the rankings game

Yes, it's true – every year J & I pick up a copy of the new US News & World Report "America's Best Colleges" issue. Yes, we know the rankings are largely subjective, perhaps even bogus – but it's always entertaining to see whether Our Fair University (of which we are both wage slaves) will pull itself out of the fourth (lowest) tier, & the issue does after all provide a wealth of interesting statistics about colleges around the country.

But how do they arrive at those rankings, a ladder so controversial that one non-profit organization has started a grass-roots movement for colleges to entirely opt out? Well, they ask college presidents to evaluate a list of peer institutions on a scale from "marginal" to "distinguished." These are meant of course to be confidential documents, but thanks to Florida's "sunshine" law, the Gainesville newspaper has obtained a copy of the survey submitted by Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida. Eye-opening indeed, as the snippet below shows.

Hmmm. Well, I'm not surprised that Machen consigns Our Fair University – along with five other institutions – to the "marginal" category; nor am I surprised to see the U of Miami & Florida State in the "good"category. But what in the world was he thinking in rating the University of Florida – his own institution – "distinguished"?

To put this in perspective: Of course, Machen's out to pump up his own school's rating, no doubt about it. But who else made his "distinguished" list?: Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, & Yale. (He had to think twice about Stanford & Berkeley, which he originally marked "strong." You can see his entire list in PDF here.)

Which means that, in the mind of the president of the U of Florida, UF is better than: Cornell, Duke, Dartmouth, Georgetown, the U of Texas, Johns Hopkins, & the University of Chicago. In what bizarro universe could this possibly be the case?

Methinks there is a serious disconnection from reality happening in a presidential mansion in Gainesville these days.

[Our local paper, of course, is distressed that the prez of UF has been dissing our hometown school – even as the prez of OFU hastens to dismantle whatever shreds of credibility we have.]
UPDATE: Actually, Bernie Machen doesn't look quite so bad when compared to Clemson's president James Barker, who appears to have given his own institution the only "strong" score on the form, consigning the majority of the other universities in the country to the "marginal" category. Margaret Soltan's been following this one.

1 comment:

Sherman Dorn said...

The US News ranking surveys obviously induce some irregular verbs: "I am distinguished; you are good; they are all marginal."