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April 19, 2001


University Senate Matters, Nathan Hershey

The April 5 issue of the University Times contained a fairly lengthy article about the rankings in U.S. News & World Report of professional school programs in a number of academic disciplines. From what I have seen, rankings are received with mixed emotions by those whose schools or programs are ranked. A good ranking is more likely to result in a positive view of the U.S. News rankings than a disappointing one.

In thinking of rankings, I wondered about the impact, if any, of the rankings in U.S. News or, for that matter, other rankings of academic units, on University top administration. For example, if a University department or program ranks poorly, does that assist the unit's chair in asserting the need for greater resources to enable the unit to rise in the rankings? Or is a poor ranking taken as an indication of performance failure on the part of the chair and the faculty in the unit, and grounds to consider program elimination or a change in leadership? Do the provost and the senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences attempt to determine the reasons for low rankings of units or, where a unit's ranking has slipped over the course of three or four years, the reasons for such a change?

I have no idea whether University board members attribute any importance to the U.S. News rankings or other rankings. I assume some board members come across U.S. News and note the ranking of various parts of the University. All board members receive the University Times, which has a story on the U.S. News rankings every year. I hope the rankings prompt some of them to note the achievements of the faculty and to search for ways to encourage and facilitate greater achievements.

As I understand it, U.S. News prepares its reports to assist higher education consumers — individuals who will be choosing educational institutions to which to apply. The professed objective of U.S. News is not to influence the educational institutions with regard to their planning and allocation of funds, although the reports may have such an effect.

Rankings are taken more seriously by some schools and programs than by others. Apparently, rankings of business schools gain greater attention than is the case for some other professional schools. One reason may be that business schools view themselves as businesses, with specific focus on their competitive position vis-a-vis the other schools, in attracting students who will be successful in their professional careers, bring distinction to the school and constitute a source of future substantial gifts.

How much does the excellent reputation of an institution affect its ability to recruit faculty who have already distinguished themselves at less prestigious institutions? A number of years ago I read a very impressive health services research article. The subject was important, the argument well-founded and the article well-written. I recommended that its author be contacted to become a candidate for an open position at Pitt. I don't know whether any contact was made, but she moved on to Harvard where she became a full professor. Many institutions would have considered this person a great asset to their health services research agenda. An individual who has acquired a fine reputation will almost certainly have attracted substantial research support. Funding generally accompanies the faculty member who moves from one institution to another institution. Thus, the institution that can recruit the "star" gains the benefits of both the individual's reputation and research support.

I noted that Pitt's School of Medicine was ranked 20th in the research grouping of medical schools by U.S. News despite the fact that it is 9th among medical schools in the amount of funding received from the National Institutes of Health. Although there are other sources of research funding for medical schools, my guess is that criteria other than the amount of research funding account for Pitt ranking 20th.

With regard to use of research funding as a factor in any ranking process, is the total funding of the unit's faculty as meaningful as the funding for full-time faculty of the unit on a per capita basis? A unit that does relatively poorly on both the total and per capita research funding bases may assert that funding is not as useful as other criteria for assessing research performance and for ranking units in that area of academic activity. Or, such a unit might state that its mission, established by faculty and administration in some fashion, does not assign research a high priority and that other performance elements, besides research funding, should be given greater weight in any ranking process.

A final observation about rankings: Some critics of intercollegiate athletics assert that applicants for college admission give more attention to rankings of a university's athletic teams than to its academic teams.

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