Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Just Can't Work Up Much Outrage on This One

According to IHE, Arizona State University has written several performance incentives into the contract for its current President, including a substantial monetary reward for improving the university's ranking in U.S. News. The usual suspects are shocked and appalled.

The quote that rang a bell for me (quoting Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who frequently negotiates presidential contracts): “it is inappropriate 'for a board of trustees to turn their own priority setting authority over to a third party'...”


Working in a cc, I'll admit a certain immunity to U.S. News rankings. They don't even notice us, so we don't really concern ourselves with them. To the extent I notice them at all, it's just to make sure that my alma mater continues to kick its rival's sorry butt. Which it does.

And I still don't quite understand who died and made Mort Zuckerman the arbiter of educational excellence. I'm not disputing his first amendment right to publish it; I'm just wondering why people take the rankings seriously. I could imagine any number of alternative ranking criteria, and not just those based on some ideological agenda (most Christian, most conservative-friendly, etc.).

All of that said, though, haven't most 'competitive' colleges and universities already effectively outsourced their tenure decisions to academic publishers? Most of which make publication decisions on (perceived) marketability?

Again, at the cc level, we're largely immune to that. We base tenure decisions primarily on teaching. Some indication of an attempt to keep active in the scholarly field is always helpful, but nobody has ever been fired for not publishing, as far as I know. So I can ask the question without really having a dog in the fight.

It seems to me that decisions about the marketability of a book are largely independent of the book's scholarly merits. (Either that, or our leading political scientists are Ann Coulter and Al Franken. Shoot me.) To the extent that's true, then basing tenure decisions on having a book or two out there is a reflection of salability, rather than quality. To that extent, ASU's move is simply the logical conclusion of a process already long-established.

For that matter, aren't the big athletic conference rankings based on polls, rather than simple win-loss records? To that extent, haven't we outsourced measures of success to journalists?

Again, I'm not defending U.S. News per se; I'm just not sure that this is the radical break it resembles at first blush.

Honestly, I don't see an argument for ignoring external measures. To a great degree, I think, enrollments function as a sort of external measure; if a college takes a seriously wrong turn, students will say so with their feet. Public colleges and universities absolutely need to respond to governmental responses, even when those responses are hamhanded, malicious, or simply stupid. So now we get indignant over a magazine?

Suggestion: those who really object to the U.S. News rankings stop trying to replace something with nothing. Instead, come up with a more valid system of rankings, and publicize the hell out of that.

For example, it's not obvious to me that there's a one-to-one correlation between, say, size of endowment and quality of education. Nor is it clear to me that it makes any sense at all to punish colleges with substantial numbers of adult students, which is what happens when 'time to degree' is a criterion. (At the very least, it should be possible to control for that variable.) And the old (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about the high ranking of the Princeton Law School (it doesn't have one) speaks to the power of the 'halo effect' of an institution's overall profile.

One of the great benefits of the blog boom has been the sudden easy-and-cheap availability of soapboxes, for those so inclined. Is U.S. News badly flawed? Okay. Do your own. The alternative to flawed measurements isn't no measurements; it's better ones.