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Building reputations:
How the game is played

The new 3 R's in the modern academy are research,
rankings, and reputation. Universities vie for high positions
on scoring systems and prestige in the public eye; the
benefits that presumably follow are considerable. But where
do the numbers come from, and what do they really mean?


LETTERS FANNED OUT across the country this past spring from the Association of American Medical Colleges with a warning for its member schools: Hang on to your stethoscopes, because U.S. News & World Report has changed the methodology for its annual rating of medical schools. Rankings look different this year. Your own university's position may be miles from where you expect it, which may be either good news or bad.

But do premier schools really care what a news magazine says about their graduate programs? You bet your research budget they do. Rankings like the U.S. News polls or the National Science Foundation's R&D top 10 lists are a key part of that mysterious mix of the concrete and the ethereal that makes up a university's reputation. While universities clearly want to be seen as bastions of inspired learning, groundbreaking research, and academic freedom, what often reaches the public eye are topics judged to be more newsworthy, such as who's No. 1, financial embarrassment, campus crime, or maybe a big win on the football field.

Whatever reputations really are, they matter. On one level or another, people continually evaluate and make judgments about an institution on the basis of various types of information-some accurate and some not. "For a medical school," says Dr. Herbert Pardes, dean of Columbia's Faculty of Medicine, "you measure reputation on the basis of the quality of research being done, the quality of students graduating, the quality of clinical care the institution gives. You measure it in terms of the sense of accomplishment and morale for both faculty and students. You measure it in terms of being at the cutting edge of clinical or research developments and in terms of your contribution to both local and national communities."


UNFORTUNATELY, the easiest element of reputation to grasp is often those pesky rankings. Many people take a certain sadistic pleasure in seeing which university is No. 1 in its category, just as they care about rankings in the National Collegiate Athletic Association or who won and lost the latest election.

Mel Elfin, executive editor of America's Best Colleges, the U.S. News annual general ranking of colleges and universities, knows these tendencies well. "We operate on the thesis that reputation matters, because the name of the institution that appears on your résumé after graduation can open doors and impress people. And, at its worst, a college's reputation can raise questions about you, like the pro quarterback who was always announced as having gone to 'defunct Milton.'" Schools seem to agree. One southern college put the magazine's cover on a billboard when a favorable rating appeared. More than 100 schools visit Elfin's office each year to make absolutely certain he is well-informed.

In spite of five slayings, one university's 1988-1993 capital fund-raising campaign nearly doubled its $200 million goal. In the years since the killings, freshman applications have continued to rise

When the rankings started in 1987, says Elfin, "We went through a development period when we were attacked and told we were doing a disservice. They said we were just trying to sell magazines, that it was a swimsuit issue." With the intervening years, things have changed. "We've moved from a status of open hostility to one of covert dislike."

At least part of the dislike stems from changes in the rating system. Elfin argues that these changes are his efforts to ensure that the ratings system improves. Critics charge that altering the ratings process forces rankings to change, stimulating more interest in the publication. Elfin's group arrives at an overall ranking for schools by compiling scores in several different categories such as student selectivity, placement success, faculty resources, reputation, and overall rank. Ranking methodologies differ from graduate to undergraduate levels and from one type of graduate school to another, but all result in a composite score for each school. Business Week's business school rankings use different methods but also compile a composite score for each school.

At Columbia's Graduate School of Business, Dr. Safwan Masri, vice dean, watches Business Week's rankings closely indeed. "It's the most widely read issue of the magazine, and it definitely influences people's thinking," he says. Columbia's B-school is ranked in the top 10 by both U.S. News and Business Week, in part because of improvements in curriculum, teaching quality, facilities, and faculty responsiveness, Masri says. But, he adds, with an eye to future reputation, "We won't be satisfied until we are one of the top three business schools in the world."

The subject of rankings seems more than capable of eliciting a strong response from school administrators. Dr. John Gerard Ruggie, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, pokes at U.S. News's public policy school rankings. "It's silly the way these things are done," he says. "Columbia has a relatively young graduate-level domestic public policy program. It's 12 years old and this year is the first time we've been ranked. We're 13th. But the University of Georgia and the University of Kansas are ranked fifth and sixth. Nobody outside those states believes that! The problem is that U.S. News mails questionnaires out to alumni, and those are both huge programs, so the number of respondents is overwhelmingly favorable to those schools. The data are not controlled for the age or size of the program. That is nuts."

While not overly approving of medical school rankings, Dean Pardes grants that the rankings serve a useful purpose. But he worries that "some of the things we value here are disregarded in rankings: personal characteristics, graduates' accomplishments, how many scientific papers are written by doctors who graduate, or how much they are valued as clinicians."

Outside the world of magazines, government organizations such as the NSF also gather their own ranking figures. The NSF compiles one list of the schools pulling in the most federal grants, another that ranks schools by amount of R&D funding, and yet another that shows the number of patents awarded to each school. Michael Fluharty, public information director for the NSF, which confers $3 billion in federal research dollars each year, says, "Institutional and individual reputations have to make a difference. The schools with the most senior investigators and the best credentials draw more federal research dollars." Clearly, not all of the incentives for a research university to augment its public image are intangible.

While people look to rankings as a way to quantify status, year-to-year fluctuations in numbers do not always correlate with public perceptions. University reputations change slowly, often on a time scale measured in decades. "`Old reputations die hard' is a precept of mine," observes Paula Brownlee, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. "Mention Vassar College and what springs to mind is an image of a superior college for women, but the institution went coed more than 20 years ago. Now, you may intellectually know that Vassar has changed, but the feel and reputation of that school are still colored strongly by that history."

The most influential notions about a university that linger in a person's mind, observes Brownlee, may have little to do with the school's actual educational program. When Ohio State University's infamously hotheaded football coach Woody Hayes decked an opposing team's player in a moment of frustration during the 1970s, that became part of OSU for many who watched the game. This, too, is the stuff of reputation, not just what happens in the classroom or in the laboratory.


GREAT REPUTATIONS are not easily sullied, even by serious events or mistakes. Presidents may resign, individual faculty or students may leave, but the university can recover in a relatively short time. Terry Shepard became director of Stanford University's news service in 1991 during that school's scandal about millions of dollars in allegedly inappropriate charges to the government for research grants and contracts.

"The dispute became a symbol of pulling universities down from the pedestal," says Shepard. His approach was classic damage control: "Get the facts out and hang on until the storm blows over." One objective measure of a university's reputation is new student applications, and, interestingly, the scandal at Stanford did not create a significant drop. New applications rose rather steadily from a low point in 1990 (before the scandal) and are still rising. What caused the 1990 drop in applications? The 1989 earthquake, which by this measure did far more damage to the school's desirability than the 1991 scandal.

Grimmer evidence on the worth of a good reputation comes from the University of Florida at Gainesville, which in August of 1990 lost four students and a fifth prospective student to brutal murders. At the height of the disaster, terrified parents asked if the university planned to close its doors. Linda Gray, assistant vice president and director for news and public affairs at the university, dealt with the issues head-on, then concentrated on publicizing the university's positive efforts to help and protect students. She also continued to push UF-Gainesville's accomplishments, such as its third-place ranking among public universities in the number of National Merit Scholars.

"They said we were just trying to sell magazines, that it was a swimsuit issue"

Although the murders received international attention at the time, positive press coverage three years later was three times higher than before. And in spite of the slayings, the university's 1988-1993 capital fund-raising campaign nearly doubled its $200 million goal. In the years since the killings, freshman applications have continued to rise.

Bad press unquestionably does damage, but sometimes university officials feel that the news media can print anything they want about a school as long as they spell the name right. "Some press coverage of whatever type is crucial to name recognition," says the AACU's Brownlee. "If you've never heard of a college, then it cannot have a good reputation in your mind. I don't like this, but it seems as if it is better for a university to have its name in the press in a bad story than not to have it there at all."


POSITIVE ATTENTION from the media and in public forums, of course, is preferable. "Every time one of our professors writes an article or publishes a book or appears on TV or attends a large symposium, others evaluate them and our school," says Lance Liebman, dean of Columbia Law School (characteristically, on his way to a television interview). Proximity to network headquarters is a distinct advantage. "Many of my professors are often in the media because we are in New York City. It's easier for them to get comments on the O.J. Simpson case here than in Cambridge or Ann Arbor and in part because of that the larger community sees us as an important law school."

One of the best strategies is simply to find new funding and spend it well. New York University raised more than $1 billion over 10 years, lured top talent from other universities and established new programs, such as African Studies and neural sciences. Virgil Renzulli, director of public affairs at NYU, says undergraduate applications at NYU are nearly double their mark since 1980 and increased 45 percent since 1991. New students' SAT scores have gone up 55 points since 1993. A New York Times report on NYU's fund-raising success went so far as to say that the school was becoming a kind of downtown Columbia.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that good news may not be entirely good. For several years running, Harvard has landed on the top of the university ratings from U.S. News. Interestingly enough, that worries Bob Clagett, senior admissions officer at Harvard. "One of the downsides of the reputation we have is that people have a well-defined notion of what they think the Harvard student is all about. So a big part of what we do is reach students who might otherwise not apply and disabuse them of these stereotypes. Many students think they have to be able to levitate while quoting Shakespeare on the way to class to be able to fit in here, when the reality is that students flip butter patties across the dining hall here just like they do elsewhere."

Related links...

National Research Council report on U.S. research-doctorate programs

Where does Columbia rank?

What you get depends on what you count, or who you talk to.

SOME OF THE BEST-KNOWN rankings are those that appear annually in U.S. News & World Report [see feature article]. For instance, the March 20 issue ranked Columbia among the top 10 in international programs in a survey of America's graduate schools. Among the individual program and departmental rankings that went into that composite ranking: international programs in law (third), business (fourth), economics (fourth), Third World literature (second), European history (fourth), Asian history (fifth), African-American history (fifth), and international politics (third). The law school (fifth), the medical school (eighth), and the business school (11th) maintained their positions from the previous year. Teachers College was fourth among schools of education.

Who says so? According to the survey methodology: largely other schools' faculty and professionals in relevant fields. Ranked by reputation--what people who should know think of you--the law school was ranked first by academics and second by lawyers and judges. Within the same survey, the school placed first, second, or fifth, depending on who's asked.

Even rankings based on seemingly objective numbers can vary depending on what is or is not included in the count. For instance, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) figures, Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons ranks ninth in NIH funding in FY 1994. But when the figures include grants to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, which is integrally related to the medical school's psychiatry department, P&S ranks fourth in total NIH funding for the same fiscal year. And the NIH ranking methodology does not necessarily report figures according to the departmental organization of P&S. For example, P&S has a department of "biochemistry and molecular biophysics." In NIH's rankings, "biophysics" ranked No. 4, but "biochemistry" did not make the chart. NIH bookkeeping rather than departmental organization appears to determine ranking in this instance.

Viewed from the perspective of the funding institutes within NIH, Columbia University holds different positions. Columbia is first in monies from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; eighth from both the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; ninth from the National Library of Medicine; 10th from the National Institute of Mental Health; and 13th from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. If the Psychiatric Institute's awards are added to the University's total, Columbia then becomes first from NIMH and eighth from NIDA. (But in the U.S. News survey cited above, Columbia ranks No. 1 in drug and alcohol abuse research.)

Other federal agencies give a different take on total research numbers. According to National Science Foundation (NSF) rankings, Columbia was 11th overall in FY 92, in what NSF calls "total federal research funding."

Photo by Jonathan Smith

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