Clemson/US News Ranking Recap

Last week, a Clemson administrator, Catherine Watt, made a presentation about Clemson’s obsessive focus on improving its US News rankings, which seemingly drives every aspect of Clemson’s decision-making. Some of Clemson’s ranking-driven decisions may not be especially controversial and may even be laudable, such efforts to manage class sizes more carefully. Other decisions are potentially controversial, such as the decision to manage admissions by SAT scores–a logical effort to improve student “quality,” but potentially inconsistent with Clemson’s moral obligations as a land-grant institution. And one allegation was particularly explosive–Inside Higher Ed reported:

Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate “all programs other than Clemson below average,” to make the university look better. “And I’m confident my president is not the only one who does that,” Watt said.

Some coverage from Watt’s presentation:

* A recap of Watt’s presentation from Inside Higher Ed

* Clemson’s official responses

* A New York Times blog post

* The Associated Press story

* Bob Morse at US News. As usual, he is in denial of how ranked institutions actually respond to US News rankings. He says: “the rankings are not meant to drive the mission or any other strategic goals that a university may be trying to attain.” Fair enough, but we have decades of experience to prove that they do exactly that. When will US News internalize that message?

Morse also believes that deliberately downgraded ballots won’t affect the result: “U.S. News has safeguards in place to prevent strategic voting from affecting the results. We subtract a few of the highest and lowest scores from respondents before the results are calculated in order to prevent downgrading or upgrading from altering the results.” OK, fine, but this check in the system does little to improve my confidence. Let’s put it this way: the US News rankings are partially based on institutions voting on their competitors–which, of course, is a natural invitation for gamed voting. Can you imagine any other circumstances where we would deem competitor votes credible?