David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Ranking: Full Stop, Please

June 26, 2013:  Ranking:  Full Stop, Please 

Several years ago, I wrote of my fascination with "rateyourmusic.com," which allows a community of (mostly) popular music geeks to rate and rank albums and songs from, theoretically, all time.  Quickly, I became disillusioned with the site when I a) realized my own limitations in defining meaningful, objective criteria; and b) realized that this practice simply led to sniping and grousing about someone else's choices.

I think about "rateyourmusic.com" everytime I see a ranking of colleges.  The criteria are no better in this exercise than they are for assessing whether "Revolver" is better than "Blonde on Blonde."  I suspect the grousing is no less either; I just choose not to go look for it.

So, this week we get the "100 Under 50" World University Rankings as determined by Times Higher Education (THE) out of the United Kingdom.  You can see the list here.  The United States has 8 of the 100, although all but two of those are campuses established for major state university systems: University of California, Irvine; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Texas, Dallas; University of Texas, San Antonio; University of Illinois, Chicago; University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  I'm not sure I would consider these "young" universities, despite their births in the last half century.

When you read THE's "methodology," you are struck by their essential reasoning for creating this separate list from "Top 500 World Universities:" 

  • "older institutions can expect in general to enjoy greater global prestige based on their longer heritage of excellence. Older univer­sities have deeper, wider and more established alumni networks, with graduates more likely to hold senior positions in universities and society at large, all of which can bolster their reputations . . . (A)n analysis of younger institutions, designed to examine future potential as much as current excellence and to move away from heritage or legacy, should be based more on hard, objective ­performance indicators." 

I find it hard to fathom that U of T, Dallas and U of T, San Antonio merit consideration from the get-go because, despite their bricks-and-mortar youth, they are part of that older U of T system.  Yes, these systems are different state to state, system to system, and there are usually separate Chancellors and Presidents across these systems; however, I am talking branding--the Bevo brand.  Heritage and legacy raise awareness, much in the same way that Julian Lennon, as talented as he was, gained national prominence because of his name, while perhaps an equally talented Mark Mulcahy suffered in relative obscurity.

Even if we give these system campuses the benefit of the doubt, the criteria established by THE in their methodology is maddening.  Higher Education needs to change, but there is no evidence in their criteria.  For instance, the ranking still turns on a challengeable notion of "reputation":

  • "The final indicator in this category is based on the most recent results of our annual reputation survey. Thomson Reuters carried out its Academic ­Reputation Survey – a worldwide poll of experienced scholars – in spring 2012.

 The Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list is determined by their own self-selected "experts.  As a result, you get a pretty predictable list (especially at the top) that is hardly varied.  We see the same with the universities listed in these compilations.

 Even more distressing are two definitions for quality teaching:

  • "Our teaching and learning category also employs a staff-to-student (total student numbers) ratio as a simple proxy for teaching quality – suggesting that where there is a low ratio of ­students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from faculty members." 

Why doesn't anyone stand up and challenge this specious argument? I know of many institutions where small class sizes is an ugly indicator of low enrollment, programs in areas unsustainable.  And personal attention from an arrogant prig who really doesn't care about helping students is not a "simple proxy of teaching quality."  This seems somehow akin to saying that the fewer songs on an album, the better, as the quality is focused on the fewer compositions.  Yet, I don't see In A Gadda Da Vida anywhere on the 500 Greatest Albums list.

  • "The teaching category also examines the ratio of PhD to bachelor’s degrees awarded by each institution. We believe that institutions with a high density of research students are more knowledge-intensive, and that the ­presence of an active postgraduate community is a marker of a research-led teaching environment valued by undergraduates and postgraduates alike." 

Where the hell does one even begin with this argument?  How the heck does research and knowledge-intensity translate to "learning."  By the way, I find it interesting that in the quote farther above, "learning" is referenced,  but curiously dropped here.  And there may be much correct in this assertion, but where is the evidence to support it?  Utilizing a bevy of great musicians should produce a great album, right?  Then, why aren't there any Toto albums in the Greatest 500?  All were respected studio musicians, but that didn't make them a great band?  (For the record, pun intended, I do have a few Toto songs in my Ipod.  I did like some of their stuff.)

I don't mind the tendency to want to rank things. I like to do it all the time, but usually with the attitude of a Letterman Top 10 List:  Don't take this too seriously.  And while idiots around the world arguing about the Greatest 500 Albums of all-time is an irritation, the potential debates about university and college rankings is much more significant.  "The White Album" features some of The Beatles most glorious music ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is worth the cost alone), but any album that features "Revolution 9" is seriously  freaking flawed.  What "Revolution 9" is hiding in Cal, Irvine's curriculum?  Exile on Main Street is a universally revered album; it has a number of wonderful songs, but "Turd On The Run" is the most accurately titled song in the history of rock and roll.  What is Texas, San Antonio's version of "Turd on The Run."  Let's hope it isn't their culinary arts program.