September 11, 2009

University Takes 15th Place in Annual U.S. News Rankings

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The annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, which grade the nation’s top universities, always elicit a flurry of excitement from students and administrators wondering how their respective schools stack up. The most recent batch of rankings for 2010 — released at the end of August — named Cornell the nation’s 15th best university, representing a one spot drop from last year and a three spot drop from two years ago.
Cornell has jumped around dramatically in recent years, garnering as high as sixth place in 1998, before which Cornell was ranked number 14.
In the standings, Cornell also ranked sixth in economic diversity, ninth for its undergraduate engineering program and 10th for best undergraduate business program.
Though Cornell’s 15th place overall finish may be a relative drop in the University’s standings, the rankings system itself may be witnessing a similar drop in credibility.
The U.S. News rankings have come under fire in recent months after a spokesperson for Clemson University admitted that her school “games” the rankings by, among other things, ranking itself higher than other schools in the “peer evaluation” section. The university-submitted peer evaluations — which account for 25 percent of each school’s total rankings — allow each school to rank itself in comparison to other top universities, a task that allows room for potential gimmickry.
Recent news coverage, including an investigation in Inside Higher Ed that looked at the peer evaluations submitted by top public universities, showed that many administrators treat the peer evaluations with an air of deference and bias towards their own schools. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, gave most all other schools an “adequate” ranking while giving itself a “distinguished” marking. The University of Iowa ranked itself and its Big Ten peers higher than nearly all other universities. The University of Florida gave itself and only three other institutions “distinguished rankings, while ranking the rest of the schools “good” or lower.
Former Provost Biddy Martin, in her final state of the university address last March before becoming chancellor at Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about how meaningless rankings were in actually determining the quality of a university.
“Rankings are based on wealth and manipulating data,” Martin said in her speech. “We can worry about our ranking or we can be who we are and take advantage of what makes Cornell unique.”
Nonetheless, few question the impact rankings have on potential university students — and thus, the universities themselves.
“You’ll never hear me trashing the rankings because to pretend the rankings don’t matter is silly,” said President David Skorton in an interview last week. “People love rankings, absolutely they do.”