Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Clemson Fiasco

It's hard to avoid the buzz in higher ed circles about the supposed "gaming" of the US News college rankings by Clemson University. This concerns an IR conference, where according to InsideHigherEd:
A presentation by Catherine Watt, the former institutional researcher and now a staff member at Clemson University, laid bare in a way that is usually left to the imagination the steps that Clemson has (rather brazenly) taken since 2001 to move from 38th to 22nd in U.S. News's ranking of public research universities.
It's no secret that reputation, as rated by the mutual opinions of college administrators, is part of the stew of variables that US News uses in cooking up its menu of Top 10 Universities. The controversy comes from a particular remark by Ms. Watt about these (quoting again from the article):
And to actual gasps from some members of the audience, Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate "all programs other than Clemson below average," to make the university look better. "And I'm confident my president is not the only one who does that," Watt said.
I think there is a fair amount of schadenfreude evident in the remarks and "analysis" that follow this denouement, but I find the attention paid to it a bit bizarre. Maybe it's that college are supposed to compete on the basketball court, but not for rankings. In my mind, they're exactly the same thing: a more or less arbitrary set of rules and a payoff for winning (scoring high). A coach that didn't take advantage of time-outs to advance his or her team, for example, wouldn't last long. Why is the sentiment different when it's no longer sports, but US News rankings? Shouldn't universities compete aggressively for grants? Sure. Do the best tuition leveraging to compete for the "best" students? Sure. Rate down their competition on a subjective survey so they look better? Why not--it's the reasonable thing to do.

If US News wants to pass off their statistical goo of average SATs, endowment size, etc., as something meaningful, that's fine. The result is the fiasco--a word my wife tells me originally meant an ill-formed piece of pottery that was then broken. If US News wants to pass off this fiasco as a genuine "hard assessment" of institutions, then institutions ought to be applauded for competing as hard as they can in this artificial arena. Of course, the unfortunate IR director gets caught in the middle of this, because ethical standards will not allow the publication of outright lies.

I have a solution that will make everyone happy. Instead of sending the US New survey to the IR office, send it to the PR office instead. Let the staffers there apply the same subjectivity that applies to the "reputation" scores to the rest of the data. Fill in the blanks however feels right, in light of the image of the university that is to be cast by this--let's face it--PR survey. To pressure IR staff to do this is unethical and unnecessary. After all, if you choose a student to highlight on a big billboard beside the interstate, does the PR office take great pains to select one randomly, that best represents the student body (at least in a stochastic sense)? Of course not!

It probably serves as a good reminder that games like this are played all the time, and the sort admitted to by the Clemson staffer is particularly harmless. I'm currently reading a book by Anne Applebaum called simply Gulag, which is a history of that Soviet institution. One section deals with survival, and describes an escape attempt from a remote work camp. Two thieves were conspiring to break out, but had no food to sustain them on their long walk. Their solution? Invite a third man along.

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