Faculty rankings controversial

Faculty in eight disciplines at WSU are among the most productive researchers in the country in their respective fields, earning a top-10 ranking according to a recent survey by Academic Analytics, a for-profit higher education consulting firm owned in part by State University of New York at Stony Brook.

According to Academic Analytics, which began reporting faculty productivity rankings three years ago, WSU researchers in the plant sciences ranked No. 2 in the United States, only behind the University of Wisconsin. WSU faculty conducting work in animal sciences ranked fourth, and those conducting food science research ranked sixth in terms of productivity. Agronomy and crop sciences researchers ranked seventh in the nation, while horticulture researchers ranked eighth.

Faculty members in veterinary medical sciences were ranked third in their field behind Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota. Faculty conducting research that Academic Analytics broadly classified as zoology placed seventh in their field and faculty members in American studies were ranked eighth.

NRC next
TV Reed, chair of the American Studies department, said the rankings are “a testament to the hard work, creativity and engagement of our faculty.”

Reed said 28 faculty members teach graduate courses in American studies, primarily from English, comparative ethnic studies and women’s studies.

“We very much expect that it bodes well for a similar type of ranking from the NRC (National Research Council),” Reed said.

While pleased that the rankings recognized some of WSU’s most distinguished programs, WSU administrators — and others around the country — say that they need to know more about how the rankings are compiled.
Some questions
“There is controversy around the nation regarding these rankings,” said James N. Petersen, vice provost for research. “Nevertheless, it does recognize and highlight some of WSU’s very best research programs.”

The problem, said Howard Grimes, dean of the graduate school, is that “no one knows how they crunch the numbers. Like most rankings, you need to understand the methodology in order to understand the outcome of the rankings.”

According to the Academic Analytics website, the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index is a method for “evaluating doctoral programs at research universities” across all Carnegie classifications.

But, Grimes said, that claim is a stretch because the index is focused solely on faculty research and does not include any student data.

Results suspect
While Academic Analytics claims the rankings are the first objective measurement of per-capita scholarly achievement (unlike the National Research Council rankings, which have historically included prestige or reputation in the ranking formula), several “counterintuitive” rankings are raising questions.

For instance, according to a story in the Nov. 16 Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas ranks as a top graduate school in the humanities, alongside Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

Last year, Duke University’s math department ranked second in the nation, but its English department ranked 105th. But this year Duke’s math department dropped from the top 10 and its English department ranked seventh.

Stated criteria
Academic Analytics has not released specific information about how the rankings are compiled, but has said it looks at a variety of measures related to scholarly productivity, including the number of faculty members in a program, the number of articles or books published by the faculty, the extent to which other scholars cite the works created by the faculty and the amount of federal funding obtained to support the research. Academic Analytics requests lists for faculty involved in graduate education in each research program, but it also uses a web crawl to compile faculty lists from university departmental websites.

According to Grimes, WSU supplied Academic Analytics with accurate faculty lists, the same lists supplied to the National Research Council. But, according to the story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than half of the 375 research universities included in the study did not respond to requests for updated faculty lists.

With the National Research Council scheduled to release its graduate program rankings next year, many people are looking at the Academic Analytics rankings for clues as to who’s moved up and who’s dropped down in the NRC rankings.

But, said Grimes, while Academic Analytics has compiled information that is useful for internal discussions, particularly when charting progress on a year-to-year basis, the National Research Council report is much more comprehensive and remains the best measure of the quality of graduate programs.

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