“there’s no rankings problem that money can’t solve” – the tale of how northeastern gamed the college rankings
There’s a September 2014 Boston.com article on Northeastern University and how it broke the top-100 in the US News & World Report of colleges and universities. The summary goes something like this: Northeastern’s former president, Richard Freeland, inherited a school that was a poorly endowed commuter school. In the modern environment, that leads you to a death spiral. A low profile leads to low enrollments, which leads to low income, which leads to an even lower profile.
The solution? Crack the code to the US News college rankings. He hired statisticians to learn the correlations between inputs and rankings. He visited the US News office to see how they built their system and bug them about what he thought was unfair. Then, he “legally” (i.e., he didn’t cheat or lie) did things to boost the rank. For example, he moved Northeastern from commuter to residential school by building more dorms. He also admitted a different profile of student that wouldn’t the depress the mean SAT score and shifted student to programs that were not counted in the US News ranking (e.g., some students are admitted in Spring admissions and do not count in the US News score).
Comments: 1. In a way, this is admirable. If the audience for higher education buys into the rankings and you do what the rankings demand, aren’t you giving people what they want? 2. The quote in the title of the post is from Michael Bastedo, a higher ed guru at Michigan, who is pointing out that rankings essentially reflect money. If you buy fancier professors and better facilities, you get better students. The rank improves. 3. Still, this shows how hard it is to move. A nearly billion dollar drive moves you from a so-so rank of about 150 to a so-so rank of about 100-ish. Enough to be “above” the fold, but not enough to challenge the traditional leaders of higher ed.
The legislature of South Carolina has allowed a budget to pass that will shut down South Carolina State University for a single year. According to news reports, the legislature tabled debate on a motion that would defund SCSU and close it for a year while they work on the finances:
The Higher Education Subcommittee’s plan would shut down the university on July 1, 2015 for fiscal year 2015-2016 and reopen in 2017. That plan would suspend all athletics programs, fire President Thomas Elzey, dismiss faculty and state employees, terminate the Board of Trustees.
During that year of closure, a Blue Ribbon Committee would look at the school’s finances, rehire necessary staff, reconstitute the athletics programs, and set curriculum before reopening the doors.
The state would also foot the bill for the university’s debts and loans.
Satellite campuses of state schools are occasionally closed and/or merged for all kinds of reasons. But I think this is a first in that the legislature intends to continue funding SCSU at a later time, just with different management. This happens occasionally with private colleges who might close and then re-open, as has happened with Antioch College. An interesting question is (a) whether the South Carolina legislature will approve this policy and (b) if successful, how often legislatures will use this procedure to manage other state college campuses.
Higher ed geeks, use the comments.
The NY Times Opinion Pages has a forum on whether economists have too much influence. Personally, I actually think economists have a great deal to contribute. But when reading Diane Coyle’s contribution, she personified the extreme caricature of economists as disconnected. For example, Coyle wrote:
No government has a chief anthropologist or a corps of philosophers employed in its departments. The president has no Council of Sociological Advisers.
We actually do have a corps of sociologists in government who do an extremely important job – the US Census Bureau! And there actually is a high level committee where sociologists shape this extremely government agency. It’s called the Census Scientific Advisory Committee! And it actually has a bunch of sociologists on it such as NYU’s Guillermina Jasso, Michigan’s Barbara Anderson and Penn’s Irma Elo. Within the ranks of the US Census Bureau, there are actually lots of sociologists who work on policy reports and survey design, including some graduates of my own program. The Congressional Budget Office also employs a lot of social science graduates to do important work.
While Coyle may be right about philosophy, she is still wrong about anthropology. It is true that states do not have cabinet level anthropologists, many do actually employ anthropologists to study, manage, and interact with indigenous populations, which is an enormously important job. In Latin America, anthropologists are crucially important for Indian affairs. I don’t know where Coyle got her ideas when she implied that economics is the only social science discipline with a function in government , but I’m working with real data – not pie in the sky!
Everyone wants to know the secrets to academic success. But despite the sizable academic self-help genre, actual evidence on whether scholars who pursue certain strategies are more successful than others is fairly thin on the ground.
Erin Leahey has written about the returns to research specialization, and I know of a couple of papers on the characteristics of highly cited scientists (gated links, sorry). There’s probably more in the voluminous scientometrics literature.
Some of our standard theories in organization theory suggest different answers to this question — and in particular, to the question of what research topic you should pick. (Assuming maximum academic success is your goal and not, say, following your passion.)
A whole line of research following from Ezra Zuckerman’s 1999 article on the penalty to category breaching suggests that not fitting into predefined categories can hurt a product. Audiences, for example, find genre-spanning work less appealing. On the flip side, though, Ron Burt’s work on structural holes would seem to imply that academics who bridge poorly connected networks are in a good position to benefit from their brokerage.
Of course, none of this work (at least the stuff I know) has looked specifically at academic research. But both theories fit plausible narratives of scholarly success.
It makes a lot of sense that people who bridge disconnected research communities would be in a position to bring useful ideas from one into the other, and reap the rewards that result. On the other hand, I can think of several examples of folks who seem to achieve less success than they merit because their work falls outside, or fits awkwardly between, well-defined research communities. A penalty to category-breaching or genre-spanning sounds entirely plausible too.
If I had to guess, I’d suspect that these two patterns may both exist in academia but intersect in fairly complex ways. So the network-broker can benefit from her ability to borrow insights from another discipline, or community. But only if the insights are recognizable enough to her home discipline that others can mentally place those insights in an understandable location within their field — that is, in an existing category.
The question is whether there’s a sweet spot — being just enough of a broker to benefit, without being so radical as to trigger a category-breaching penalty. Or maybe there’s a benefit to brokerage, but only in certain structural holes — ones that don’t cause the category problem. Or maybe there are a couple of mutually exclusive strategies for success.
What do you think? Will academic brokers be hit with an illegitimacy penalty for their category breaching? Or are these in fact orthogonal issues for ambitious academics? Maybe there’s actual research that speaks to this.
(H/T to Tim Bartley for the conversation that spurred these musings.)