Reward rankings, and colleges will seek rankings

There is a controversy brewing around tenure standards at Northeastern University, where three faculty members have appealed the provost’s decision to deny tenure. The faculty members claim their applications for tenure were “judged against unclear, inconsistent standards – particularly about publication,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

Shelley McDonough Kimelberg, an assistant professor of sociology, was informed in a relatively short letter of denial from the provost that her publications “have not appeared in the most highly regarded journals in the field and have not yet had a clear impact on the field.”

The other faculty who were denied tenure were given similar reasons.

The opening article implies that some involved suspect a quest for higher rankings is at play:

Some of the aggrieved professors and their supporters say that a new, unclear standard about publication impact, designed to improve the university’s research standing, could cost three good professors their jobs.

I don’t know whether Northeastern actually is changing tenure requirements in order to appeal to some rankings system. It’s entirely possible that, as a Northeastern spokeswoman told Inside Higher Ed, that this is part of a general rise in the requirements for earning tenure. You don’t want to hand out tenure like candy on Halloween. But the faculty members quoted in the article seem to be mystified by this tenure requirement to have work published in the “most highly regarded” journals.

But this story highlights something that everyone going to college—and the parents of the college-bound—should understand. If you value a college’s rankings, then college’s will value their rankings more. They will take the actions that give them rankings boosts, but not necessarily help students. A College Advisor article about “US News’s Corrupt College Rankings” lists several actions that colleges can take to raise their rankings—such as increase applications so they can increase rejections to appear more selective, spend lots of money per student, offer more financial aid to students with really high SAT scores, etc. “These strategies should carry warning labels, however, because most contribute to bad public policy and undermine the integrity of the institution itself.”

A college, first and foremost, should be about helping students learn. Rejecting more applicant and giving scholarships to students with SAT scores do not help students learn. Neither does having faculty (some of whom rarely meet the students as graduate assistants teach their courses) who published in the third most highly regarded academic journal rather than the fifth.

Student learning can be hard to measure, so it’s easy to put ranking weight on the things that are easy to measure.

But factors that are easy to measure are easy to manipulate.

That is why many college presidents and faculty (and I) are concerned about the Obama administration’s proposal to create a national college ranking system. Such a ranking system would encourage colleges to do things that raise their rankings—such as focus on training people only for higher-paying fields and not accepting students who might take a while to get their degrees—rather than focus on fulfilling their mission to provide the best education as possible.

I would recommend anyone who is looking for a college to not place too much emphasis on college rankings, especially those that actually rank colleges from best in the nation and on down. (Those that do not put the colleges in order but just say which ones are among the best in the nation are more trustworthy and inspire less competition for a rise in the ranks.)

When we create, or value, a rewards system—whether the reward is a college ranking or tenure—we have to consider what we are encouraging others to do. In the case of a college or a professor, I place low value on any reward that would push the institution or the individual to do something other than educate students.

Read the full Inside Higher Ed story here.

Read the full College Advisor critique of rankings systems here.