Saturday, January 02, 2010

Is the University of Iowa 'World Class'?

January 2, 2010, 8:00 a.m.

And Why We Shouldn't Care;
Reconceptualizing the UI for the 21st Century

(brought to you by*)

Quiz: "Is the University of Iowa 'world class'?"
(a) Yes
(b) No
(c) Because that is an inherently unanswerable question, efforts to "answer" it inevitably will be as frustrating as they will be futile.

As you may have guessed, I think the best answer is "c."

Asking answerable questions.

General semanticists warn us about the consequences of attempting to answer unanswerable -- or what they call "non-sense" -- questions (that is, questions for which there are neither external referents nor sensory apparatus for finding answers). Useful, constructive questions are those that contain a suggestion as to how one might go about finding an answer -- such as, "which college football teams won every game during their 2009 season?" or "is this generic statin as effective in lowering cholesterol as this proprietary, heavily advertised drug?"

Indeed, they warn that asking unanswerable questions regarding our personal lives that involve non-sense (i.e., vague, immeasurable, and therefore unattainable) ideals, can lead to the repeated frustration that results in demoralization, or depression -- the I (ideals) F (frustration) D (demoralization) characterized as the "IFD "disease." Examples might be the pre-teen girl who agonizes over whether she is "popular" or "pretty," or the young businessman who is driven to run ever faster in his personal squirrel cage in the hopes of capturing the mirage of "success" that always seems to lie just beyond his grasp. (Or, one might add, politicians' insistence that we "win" in Afghanistan.)

The folly of the pursuit of "world class."

(1) So it is, I believe, with educational institutions' efforts to become "world class." How would they know if they were ever to arrive at that destination? If an educational administrator asserted that her institution was "world class," and was then challenged on that assertion, how could the dispute ever be resolved?

(2) How might a somewhat related answerable question be framed? How about: "Is there any ranking of the world's "best" universities on which the university in question is listed as one of the top 10 -- or top 100 -- universities in the world?" That question can be answered by looking for such rankings to see if there is any in which the university is listed -- once you'd agreed on how high in the ranking a school needs to be in order to be considered "world class."

(3) But the fact that a question is answerable does not automatically make the effort to answer it either sensible or worthwhile.

In "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008 (one of this blog's most continuously popular entries), I address a number of the problems associated with reliance on US News' rankings of law schools. Here is a tiny sampling of them: (1) there is no agreement regarding the most appropriate criteria for evaluating law schools, (2) the choice of which to use can make enormous differences in where a school is located in the "rankings"; and (3) it is very easy to "game the system," (4) which a number of law schools try to do. For example, if one of the criteria is the percentage of your school's recent law school graduates who are "employed" (which one would assume means "have jobs in law firms"), that number can be manipulated by a law school's choice (which some have made) to "employ" every graduate who hasn't found a job in a law firm (or to count as "employed" those who are working at McDonald's, or driving cabs). The range of opportunities to manipulate one's ranking is limited only by the inadequacies of the human imagination.

(4) Even if there was an agreement on an operational definition of "world class," and the criteria to be used in comparative evaluations of universities, and the accuracy of the data could be closely audited, my own view (which I would imagine few share) is that a focus on "competition" and "rankings" could well detract rather than contribute to the attainment of a university's mission. (Similar concerns have emerged from the "no child left behind" test-score-driven effort to improve the American K-12 educational system.) Quality may more likely result from concentrating on how well you are doing what you've set out to do (on the assumption you've clearly set out, with metrics, exactly what it is you think you have set out to do). Conceptualizing your mission as a competitive race, in which you are constantly looking over your shoulder to see where you are in the pack, is more likely to result in a trip-and-fall than reducing your time to the goal.

What's a "state university" in the 21st Century?

There is some question as to whether the notion of a "state university," educating the children of residents of a given state, makes much sense in the 21st Century. (a) Many such schools are open to all, providing education to citizens of 100 or more countries, not to mention many of the 50 states, receiving federal government research grants, and can more accurately be thought of as "national" rather than "state" universities. (b) They are increasingly shifting their focus from educating students to becoming major research institutions. (c) State legislatures' support of their "state schools" is declining, as the financing comes more and more from grants for that "research." (d) Far from "free," or the minimal tuition originally envisioned, students at "public" schools are now paying tuition, and incurring debt loads, formally only associated with "private" schools.

Soon to be even more significant, in what Tom Friedman has characterized as a "flat" world, are universities (or at least educational opportunities) without walls. Of course, the educational establishment is slow to change. Prior to the printing press it was necessary to "lecture" to students -- what some have described as a process whereby the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either. Now, well over 500 years later, we're still lecturing -- just in larger lecture halls -- as if the news of the invention of books had yet to reach our college campuses. More recently, as someone has observed, it took us 30 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alleys and into the classrooms. Today there are "universities" (not to mention an enormous array of "training" programs) that exist only online; most conventional universities offer some online "distance education" courses; and the ubiquitous Internet and Web have a dizzying offering of text, audio and video "educational" material free for the taking (including online lectures and other material from MIT and other universities).

Nonetheless, a "state university" still has obligations to its home state that are not shared by a national, or global, private college or university. It needs to admit a disproportionate number of students from its home state (over half of the UI's students are from Iowa). It needs to document that it is making a contribution to that state; supplying doctors to rural areas, a workforce for its major industries, community outreach and service by its faculty and students, and incubators for promoting entrepreneurial efforts and the jobs they can create. (The UI supplies roughly half of the state's doctors and pharmacists, 80% of its dentists, and teachers and administrators in 80% of Iowa's K-12 school districts.)

Thus, it's a little silly and counter productive for a school like the University of Iowa to be comparing itself with, say, universities such as England's Cambridge and Oxford -- which is not to say that those schools are "better" than Iowa (or that they're not), only that they are clearly different in their mission.

[On a related theme, i.e., parents' and students' focus on the payback in jobs from ever-higher tuition and why employers are still looking for graduates with solid liberal arts skills, see Kate Zernike, "Career U: Making College 'Relevant,'" New York Times, January 3, 2009, p. ED16.]

Putting the rankings of world universities in context.

While I think it is foolish for a state university (or a student looking for a "college education") to look to the various rankings that are available for world universities (let alone seek the nonexistent, ephemeral "world class" status), it may be useful to demonstrate why not.

So let's take a look at the world rankings that do exist.

I've not endeavored to do thorough research; this is, after all, a blog entry not a doctoral dissertation. But I did discover one paper that actually takes seriously, and attempts to define, "world class."

To repeat: I'm not suggesting that "world class" can't be defined, or that schools cannot be ranked. Of course, it can and they can, and in any one of hundreds of ways; but no one of those ways has yet been accepted by all. Because there are such a variety of ways of ranking and defining, the criteria selected can make such a significant difference in the outcome, once those criteria are known they can be manipulated by those being ranked, and I'm not convinced the game is worth the candle even if all these concerns could be satisfied, I fear the focus is misplaced.

The paper is Henry M. Levin and Donshu Ou, "What is a World Class University?" prepared for presentation at the 2006 Conference of the Comparative & International Education Society, Honolulu, Hawaii, March16, 2006.

Four approaches to ranking world universities.

The authors make reference to two rankings, those of the Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJU) and the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), and in their Table Four list the top 40 universities on each list's 2005 rankings. pp. 37-38.

Of course, US News has its own rankings of the world's top 200 universities.

And I also found the listing of 6000 world universities by the Cybermetrics Lab (a research group belonging to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), the largest public research body in Spain), "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities."

The CSIC rankings.

The CSIC discloses its methodology, and describes itself as "attached to the Ministry of Education and its main objective is to promote scientific research as to improve the progress of the scientific and technological level of the country which will contribute to increase the welfare of the citizens."

As it happens its list actually includes both the University of Iowa (76th) and Iowa State (66th). Its top 23 are all from the U.S.; as are, all in all, 65 of the CSIC's top 100 (55 of which are ranked above Iowa). The schools from other nations between 24 and Iowa's 76 are:

University of Tokyo (24), National Taiwan University (26), University of Toronto (28), Universidade de Sao Paulo (38), University of British Columbia (41), University of Oxford (42), Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (44), Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich (46), Kyoto University (49), University College London (51), University of Helsinki (52), Norwegian University of Science & Technology (54), University of Oslo (55) and Simon Fraser University (57).

Thus, the nations with schools that the CSIC ranks above Iowa include Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, Finland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan.

The US News' rankings.

US News' "World's Best Universities" includes less than half the percentage of U.S. schools in its top 100 (32 of 100) as does the CSIC (65 of 100). However, the University of Iowa is nowhere to be found among the total of 200 "world's best" that it ranks.

Although we can't know where Iowa would have ranked if the list were long enough for it to have been included, given the US News' inclusion of proportionately more schools from other countries than the CSIC, even if Iowa were ranked 201 there would still be 31 countries with schools ranked above Iowa (compared with the CSIC's 13): Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Rusia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Here are US News' top ten, six of which are U.S. universities: Harvard University (1), University of Cambridge (2), Yale University (3), University College London (4), Imperial College London (5; a tie), University of Oxford (5; a tie), University of Chicago (7), Princeton University (8), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (9), and California Institutes of Technology (10).

The SJU and THES rankings.

The SJU's and Times' 2005 rankings are relatively consistent with regard to their top ten, respectively: Harvard University (1, 1), Cambridge University (2, 3), Stanford University (3, 5), University of California, Berkeley (4, 6), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5, 2), California Institute of Technology (6, 8), Columbia University (7, 20), Princeton University (8, 9), and Oxford University (10, 4) -- although Ecole Polytech, which the Times' list has at number 10 does not appear anywhere among SJU's top 39.

US News' top 10 also includes Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, MIT and CalTech. But it does not have Stanford, UCB, Columbia, or Ecole Polytech; and it does list University College London, Imperial College London, and Chicago, which the other two lists do not give top 10 status.

The CSIC's top 10 (of 6000 schools!) shows quite a bit of variation from these three lists: MIT (1), Harvard (2), Stanford (3), UCB (4), Cornell (5), University of Wisconsin, Madison (6), University of Minnesota (7), CalTech (8), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (9), and University of Michigan (10).

World rankings conclusions.

As this brief overview of four rankings systems demonstrates, (a) there is no general agreement as to the most appropriate criteria for making comparative evaluations of universities, and therefore (b) the variations in lists can be considerable (and can be manipulated by those being ranked as well as those doing the rankings) -- and increasingly so as one moves down the lists beyond their "top 10" or so.

And there are some conclusions regarding American universities. (c) A disproportionate number of the universities listed are in the United States (that is, disproportionate when compared with the U.S. population as a percentage of global population). Thus, (d) although the competition is tougher among American schools than it may be for those in other countries, (e) so far as global perceptions go, any school that is ranked well among American universities (as is the UI) is going to be perceived as of good quality by world standards. (f) But equally clearly, from the perspective of those doing these world rankings Americans have no basis for complacency, given the number of countries with universities represented on these lists, including many that they choose to rank well above some American universities.

Putting the State of Iowa in Context.

To the extent that the University of Iowa is a "state university" the state for which it is the university is Iowa. Of course, great institutions (of all kinds; not just educational) can be found in small places; geographical area and population need not be a constrant. At the same time, the population one can draw upon, and the economic resources a state legislature can make available, are relevant in fashioning reasonable aspirations.

So where does Iowa fit among the 50 states?

Half of the U.S. population is in the eight largest states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan); one-quarter is in the 17 smallest states (Iowa, with roughly three million inhabitants, is 31st of the 50 states). [Wikipedia's Pie Chart and List of States.]

Roughly half of America's land area is in 10 states (Alaska, Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming). Iowa ranks 26th of the 50 states in land area (56,272 of the U.S.' 3,794,083 square miles).

As for the State's economy, Robert Atkinson [President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation], The 2008 State New Economy Index: Benchmarking Economic Transformation in the States, Kauffman Foundation, 2008, gives Iowa an "overall score" of 42nd of the 50 states, p. 10; although on its "indicators" Iowa is 6th in "Manufacturing Value-Added" and 22nd in "Immigration of Knowledge Workers," p. 12.

Putting the University of Iowa in Context.

The University of Iowa is a major educational and research institution by any measure.

It is large: with a budget well in excess of $2 billion, 30,000 students from over 100 countries, on a 1900-acre campus with 120 major buildings, operated with 13,000 staff and 1700 faculty, offering over 100 areas of study including seven professional degree programs, and an array of intellectual, cultural and athletic events that attract more than a million visitors a year.

Although it offers no ocean beaches or spectacular mountains, it's located among rolling hills, the meandering Iowa River, large bodies of water, a surrounding population of 100,000, in a town (Iowa City) that can easily be navigated on foot or by bicycle and is frequently mentioned on national "best-place-to-live" lists. It was recently designated by UNESCO as one of three world "Cities of Literature" (due in part, no doubt, to the international reputation of its "Iowa Writers' Workshop" and international writing program).

The University has been around since 1847, was the first public university to admit men and women on an equal basis, and the first to accept creative work in literature and the arts for advanced degrees. West of the Mississippi it was the first to create a law school, educational broadcasting station, and college paper. (As early as the 1870s it was one of the first public law schools in the country to grant degrees to women and African Americans.) It had the nation's first female editor of a college paper.

For what it's worth as "rankings," over 20 of Iowa's graduate programs are ranked among the top 10 for their category among the nation's public universities. (For a complete list see "University of Iowa Facts at a Glance/University of Iowa Rankings.") The overall ranking of its professional schools among US News' "America's Best Graduate Schools," includes Law (26), Medical (research; 31), College of Education (32), Business (44), and Engineering (58).

University of Iowa Healthcare is "an integrated academic medical center under one executive leadership team, consisting of UI Hospitals and Clinics, the UI Carver College of Medicine, and UI Physicians, Iowa’s largest multi-specialty medical and surgical group practice." Its predecessors have been offering patient services since 1873. Recognized as one of the best hospitals in the U.S., with nearly 10,000 employees (making it one of the state's largest employers), research grants in the $100s of millions (the 11th largest NIH recipient), some 200 specialties and programs, a number of which are considered among the nation's top 10 in their field, rather than being described as "the nation's largest university-owned hospital" the phrase is sometimes turned on its head, making the UI "one of the nation's largest hospital-owned universities."

The UI's main library is among the top 25 public academic research libraries. The law library is second in the nation.

One could go on and on with such facts. All major U.S. educational institutions have their "brags": numbers of books and other publications, honors and memberships of faculty, quality of libraries, scientific inventions and cultural contributions, celebrity alums, new buildings and other facilities, athletic championships, or the size of endowments. Each institution has its strengths, its strongest colleges and departments, its "famous" faculty -- but also its weaknesses and its infamous faculty members. Iowa is no exception.

What does seem rather clear is that, by whatever standards and measures one may apply, Iowa is clearly one of America's quality, public, research universities, and the full equal of its peers. Amongst those schools it makes even less sense to distinguish among them on the basis of a few positions one way or another in an arbitrary "ranking" than to decide who gets the gold and who gets the bronze on the basis of a 1/100th of a second difference in how fast they can ski down a hill. (At least there is agreement on the Olympics' criteria for such evaluations.) As I see it, anyone who can ski down a long hill at 90 mph and live to tell about it is a great athlete; and I feel the equivalent about our major research universities.

Reconceptualizing a State University for the 21st Century.

Can the University of Iowa improve? Of course. But not, in my judgment, by focusing on how it can become "world class," or move up in the rankings (whether substantively and ethically, or unethically by gaming the system), in a national or international Olympic competition amongst educational institutions.

Of course, so long as legislators, parents, students, potential faculty hires, and others think rankings are important -- and so long as tuition revenue is a significant part of the the University's budget -- it cannot afford to totally ignore rankings. (Nor, sadly, can it apparently afford to fully support the idea of having all students spend their first two years in community colleges, or lose the tuition revenue provided by those students who come more for the binge drinking than the book learning.) I just think it a mistake to have those considerations disproportionately drive decisions.

(1) As Maritime Administrator, with a budget and number of employees somewhat similar to that of the UI today, I had regular meetings with my office chiefs, as a university president has with his or her vice presidents, or deans. What radically improved things at the agency was when I established metrics for what I identified as the agency's top 100 projects, and moved those office chief meetings into an auditorium and invited all the employees to attend what I called a "monthly MARAD review." Suddenly every employee could see "the big picture," the importance of their job, and where it fit in the overall mission. That (plus my making an effort to meet every employee, and adopt many of their suggestions) made a big difference.

Although there's always more to do, Provost Wallace Loh (and President Dave Skorton and Provost Mike Hogan before him, see The Iowa Promise: A Strategic Plan for the University of Iowa 2005-2010, and especially its "Appendices: Indicators of Progress") have made great strides in the first (metrics for UI goals).

It may just be that I haven't been paying attention, but I don't get a sense that there's much of the second; that is, (1) a monthly report, (2) utilizing a management information reporting system, (3) based on those metrics for goals, (4) that reflect meaningful input from all stakeholders, that is (5) shared openly, with all, as a way of not just communicating to the entire community what is going on, but the significance and relationship of each individual's contribution to the overall mission.

It's not that none of this is out there in the form of news releases, a "state of the university" address, or an occasional award ceremony, but it's not presented (so far as I'm aware) as an integrated, recurring package in a sufficiently arresting form that the community would want to participate.

(2) I have written before of what I perceive as a need for a better (or perhaps one should say "any") system of governance for the University, Regents, and their relationship. See, "An Open Letter to Regents on Governance," April 17, 2007; and generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice," 2001. I won't repeat that here, except to note that it is related to (amongst other things) the creation of the goals, metrics, and management information reporting system discussed above. The absence of a clearly thought through, articulated, and agreed-upon set of relationships between the Regents (as individuals and as a Board) and the University (in the person of its president and other administrators, and in turn their relationships with staff and faculty) simply creates problems that could otherwise easily have been avoided (as has been obvious over the past few years).

(3) In the process of doing both of the above, there are an almost endless list of issues and options to be addressed regarding the University of Iowa's future mission and goals. As of October 7, 2009, Provost Loh had identified and clustered many of them into some six "Strategic Initiatives Task Forces" for Strategic Budgeting, Undergraduate Education and Success, Graduate Education: Selective Excellence, Research and Creative Excellence, Internationalization and Diversity, and Public Outreach and Civic Engagement.

Of course, there are others. For example, there are such things as "universities without students," such as, for example, the Brookings Institution, in Washington, the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica (although Brookings has "fellows," and RAND has its affiliated Pardee Rand Graduate School), and numerous other "think tanks" (both for-profit and non-profit) around the country. As the UI puts increasing emphasis on research, and more of what was formerly its educational mission and budget gets transferred to research efforts, might there be lessons from the Brookings and RAND models -- or, on the other hand, reason to rethink this trend and redirection?

Whatever the answer to those questions might be, to what extent do we want to abandon "basic research" for what the NIH calls "transformative" (or "transformational") research (ultimately, "practical," or "applied" research)? See, National Science Foundation, Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide, effective January 4, 2010. And even if it is a practical necessity that we do so in applying for NIH funds, is it also a useful model for other than medical and scientific research, a standard that should be applied in judging every professor's research?

And I've already discussed, above, a bit of what I see coming with online higher education from "universities without walls."

There's much more, but this blog entry already runs too long.

Bottom line: the University of Iowa can be proud of its past, its present quality, and what will be its innovative, responsive, yet unpredictable future.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

The Emperor has new clothes doesn't he?

Within academics, the power is now all toward the administration's side of the equation. There are almost no challenges to the power of the administration in universities like the U of Iowa. What the bosses say becomes reality.

Throughout the campus -- more so in the UIHC -- the academic territory consists of fiefdoms with barons and baronesses. They rule over the serfs (staff, students, and employees) with an iron hand. There is no bottom-up governance, only top down. And like all dictatorships (kingdoms) the king's word becomes law of the land.

And so it is with the U of Iowa. The administration's word becomes the law, and this attitude is reflected in the marketing campaigns. What the President (really the Vice Presidents because the U of Iowa's president seems to have no voice of her own, hiring people to write, speak, and apparently think for her).

So you see, in the unchallenged world of the university they are 'world class'. This is no power in any challenge.

Now this piece addresses reality outside the ivy halls. Can these unsubstantiated claims be valid? Does it matter as long as students buy the BS (and don't pay attention to the deteriorating classes) or patients (?customers) show up sick and with wallet in hand?

No it doesn't matter because the U of Iowa is corporate, and marketing for corporations is a man made fantasy designed to sell product. The U of Iowa wants to sell product to customers...which seems to work right now.

Perhaps at some point students and patients, and subjects will wake up to the fraud perpetrated on them. Maybe not. If that happens can you imagine the books which will then be written?

"What if a University Were Run by Professors"


"What if a Hospital Were Run by Doctors and Nurses"

Madness, after all these places should be runs by barons like Michael Eisner who really knows everything....

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that advertising posing as comments will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry, containing links to businesses, have been deleted. -- Nick

hanum said...

Top 5 Webometrics January 2010 in Indonesia:
1. Universitas Gadjah Mada
2. Institute of Technology Bandung
3. University of Indonesia
4. Petra Christian University
5. Gunadarma University