Saturday, January 26, 2008

Another Stunning Puff Piece from the Daily

Mr. B. is rather disappointed with the Daily's uncritical acceptance of some of what OurLeader and OurProvost have been selling. This latest example is egregious. Thus he will attempt a pale imitation of UD's SOS (shameless online schoolmarm) on this sad article.

From the Daily:

Becoming one of the world's top three public research universities - it's alluded to in speeches and scattered throughout the media - is on the minds of administrators and right now, it may be the University's credo.

Credo means I believe. Count me out. Guess I am a hater...

The Board of Regents approved University President Bob Bruininks and Provost Tom Sullivan's strategic positioning plan in June 2005, endorsing a plan to turn the University into one of the world's leading public research universities.

At least this plan is attributed correctly to Bruininks/Sullivan (B/S). And of course what would you expect the Regents to say: "We are not in favor of greatness?" This is a common B/S tactic. Anyone who disagrees with them is not in favor of motherhood and apple pie, or is not being constructive, or is a hater...

While this goal is part of a 10-year process, Sullivan said rankings are important now because they establish benchmarks.

Maybe B/S should have a conversation about this matter. Bruininks claims that rankings are unimportant; it's about stature. Google academic rankings and see what a mess the topic is. Nevertheless, it would be useful to have consistent B/S thoughts on the topic of rankings vs. stature.

So who's measuring this?

While administrators said they haven't been assessing progress by a single measure, they've been paying attention to The Center for Measuring University Performance's rankings, developed in the late 1990s to help the University of Florida measure research performance.

Sullivan said the center's data is "about as good as is out there" and comes closest to measuring a university's research productivity and reputation.

Get real. This Center was originally at the University of Florida to make Florida look good. It has recently moved to Arizona State - another large state university on the make - because apparently Florida no longer considers the Center's activities to be worth supporting. It is biased toward large institutions and does a poor job where things need to be normalized in order to make fair comparisons. Our administrators love it because the table is tilted for them AND the system doesn't actually rank institutions so real comparisons are difficult. Perfect for a smoke and mirrors operation.

Craig Abbey, the center's research director, said its rankings provide a wide look at benchmarking a public research university's strengths from year to year and how it stacks up against competition for research dollars and top students.

"You can't really tell how you're improving unless you see how everybody else is doing," he said.

The University aims to position itself as one of the top three research institutions in the world. Comparable schools like the University of Wisconsin have provided competition in achieving that goal.

Another B/S tactic. What exactly does comparable mean? Bruininks has used this circumlocution in other arenas including labor relations. Does comparable mean equal? Or does it mean that we can compare dissimilar things like a flea and an elephant and claim that they are, therefore, comparable? [By the way the scale is about right in the illustration at the top assuming the large flask is Wisconsin. Are they comparable?]

The Center measures schools in nine categories, including endowment assets and how many of those categories are ranked in the overall top 25. The data doesn't provide place-by-place rankings, but instead groups schools with the same number of measures in the top 25 in the same tier.

Ah, now you see the beauty of this system. There are no place-by-place rankings. No place rankings means that an institution could be ranked 25th in all of the categories and it would be, according to the Florida system, equal to one that was first in every category.

In the center's 2006 report, the University had eight of nine measures in the top 25, along with three other schools. Seven schools, including the University of Wisconsin, have all nine in the top 25.

Right, this is great. According to this system we are almost as good as Wisconsin. The fact that Wisconsin is ranked 30 places above us in most other rating systems is made irrelevant. This is almost Rovian.

Abbey said a number of factors go into making a great research institution.

"Not even Harvard or even the best research institution is No. 1 in every measure," he said.

Sullivan said the University looks at the performance of about 12 peer schools

Of "about" 12 schools, now that is a real solid comparison group. Who exactly are these folks and why do B/S keep changing the peer group? Why don't we consistently compare ourselves with our natural peer group, the other Big Ten Schools except NU? The goal seems to be to keep everyone's head spinning so that they don't know what is actually going on, another specialty of the B/S administration.

a group that includes Wisconsin, which in the past "went to a more rigorous admissions academic profile."

"We did not do that," Sullivan said.

It is a little more complicated than that. There was this planned contraction in Madison some time back. They are about 25% smaller than us. Maybe you should have Dr. Mulcahy, our VP for research and a Madison refugee, explain it to you?

"(Wisconsin's) reputation grew remarkably well through that reputation about their students."

Sullivan said the University has also been slower to recruit nationally than schools like Wisconsin. While Minnesotans are top priority, the University is broadening the "admissions net" to a wider pool of students, he said.

Undergrads who come to both Wisconsin and Michigan pay very high out-of-state tuition. Apparently because they think it is worth it. We have had to cut our out-of-state tuition quite a bit in order to entice people from out of state to attend the U. If you can't compete on quality, compete on price.

"It's the undergraduate academic profile of Wisconsin that gives them that bounce," Sullivan said.

Ah, excuse me, but the reason that undergrads want to go to Wisconsin and not Minnesota is that the institution is ranked 38 in the US News and World Report Rankings and we are ranked 71. Last I heard, the undergrads were not checking the so-called Florida rankings. They can also look at graduation rates where we do a pitiful job.

Abbey said comparing institutions on an international scale is difficult but not impossible.

"Even in just Canada, they're not competing for the same pool of federal research dollars, let alone how the Swiss are financing their research institutions, or the Germans," he said.

Times Higher Education ranks universities on a global scale but doesn't rank world public research institutions.

But of course most of the universities in the world are public. Another little problem for the hubris-laced "ambitious aspiration to become one of the top three public research universities in the world." Last I heard Cambridge and Oxford are public universities. So who is going to be in the top three in seven years? Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley? Pick one and let's beat them!

In their "Top 200 World Universities," the University is ranked 142nd, up from 187th in 2006.

Since most world universities are public, however are we going to move from 142nd up at least a hundred places? And I am surprised that B/S did not take credit for the meteoric rise of the U as being due to their strategic plans. One also wonders why the Daily reporter did not follow up on this interesting factoid. Does it mean anything? Should we believe this number? Up that far in one year should make even a cub reporter a little curious. And yet the factoid just sits there like another empty blog or suit.

What's the University got to show so far?

According to the center's data, the University's only measure not ranked in the top 25 is SAT and ACT range.

Yes ACTs will keep rising, but they will also rise for our competitors.

"The percentage of students in the top 10 percentage of their high school class, the percentage of students in the top quartile of their class, all of those are remarkably up," he said.

According to data presented by the university to the Board of Regents last September we rank:

Students in the top 10% of their high school class - 10th

Average ACT scores - 10th

Two year retention rate - 10th

Six year graduation rate - 11th

compared with a self-selected peer group that included: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas, Berkeley, UCLA, Washington and Wisconsin.

Hello, Kitty.

Sullivan also said there needs to be more research discoveries, such as physiology and medicine professor Doris Taylor's recent laboratory re-creation of a beating heart.

In addition, Bruininks and Sullivan highlighted the success of recent fundraising and the more than 28,000 applicants for fall semester.

Bring on the haters [This header was actually in the article]

Where did this come from ? Is anyone who dissents from the party line a hater? This is really sad. Where was the editor when this header was used?

While officials maintain the goal is realistic, some students have voiced uncertainty and doubt.

In a recent e-mail to The Minnesota Daily, Bruininks stood by the likelihood of the goal being met.

"Why wouldn't it be?" he said. "What separates the top three from the rest … including the University of Minnesota, is relatively little."

Wow. If this is true then maybe we shouldn't be worrying about it so much? This statement either expresses an incredible naiveté (possible) or betrays a cynical use of the number three goal as a method for money extraction (more likely).

As for the doubters? Bruininks said there's nothing wrong with "healthy skepticism" because it forces administrators to evaluate goals.

And who is to judge what is healthy skepticism? Apparently anyone who seriously dissents from the party line is a hater, see header.

"I've heard some of the 'doubters' say things like, 'I'd settle for best in the Big Ten," he said. "Students don't choose the University of Minnesota for (a) mediocre future."

Bob, this is crazy talk. You call someone who would settle for best in the Big Ten a doubter? In ... Your ... Dreams.... I will even settle for being in the middle of the BigTen and that would be an improvement. Although for people to realize this, you are going to have to be honest about our current situation. You really need to come down from your high horse, talk to some students and faculty, and have some pancakes or a beer.

Sullivan said a reasonable timeline was picked.

"Ten years seemed to be reasonable in light of the changes that had to take place," he said.

In two years we should be half way there. If we are not, will you stop this foolishness or will we have to serve the full ten year sentence before you are willing to admit that this course was not the best, given the resources of the state and our land grant mission?

Abbey said huge rankings jumps, such as the University of Pittsburgh's from 2000, when they had six measures in the top 25, to 2006, when they boasted all nine in that range, are rare because they take long-term efforts by complex organizations.

Someone at Pitt knows what they are doing. Leadership really does matter. Mr. B. is an old Pittsburgher. His first job was at the Pitt med school as a lab tech. Pittsburgh was the pits. It isn't anymore. And I don't hear them, even now, whining about being the third greatest public research university on the planet. But I am afraid that we are not going to do what Pitt has done without either a change of direction or a change of administration. I also understand that Pitt has a football team.

"You just can't turn everybody on a dime," he said.

Brilliant observation. Here's another one from a respected faculty group:

"Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory."

Senate Research Committee, October 8, 2007

Are these folks haters?

Sullivan said the goal's value for current students is clear.

It'll be even more impressive to have the school listed on your résumé, he said.

This is pretty much the coup de grâce. Not an education, not a way to get more out of life, not a chance to have wonderful teachers, and classmates and to enjoy potentially one of the best periods of your life? No, it is just another notch on the old pistola, something to put on your resume. And to think this guy is provost at a great university.

Graduating from non-prestigious institutions like Drake (BA) and Indiana (JD) seems to have done pretty well for OurProvost. OurLeader is a graduate of Western Michigan (BA) and George Peabody College of Education (PhD). Maybe it is the person, rather than the credential, that is important?

"People will begin to talk about the University of Minnesota in a world conversation, in China, in India, all of the places that are emerging as great markets," Sullivan said. "The University of Minnesota's name will be in that small group of universities."

Ah, marketing. Now I get it - that's why we want to go to the U of M. When we are over in China or India or other emerging great markets, hawking our wares or ourselves, we will find people engaged in a world conversation about the University of Minnesota. Our name will be writ large in that small group of great universities: Cambridge, Berkeley, The University of Minnesota.

I want to engage in that conversation, but first I have to learn how to say Ski-U-Ma in Hindi and Mandarin. Perhaps OurProvost knows this from his world conversations? I'll bet Slugger can help.

One sad Bonzo


Slugger said...

Hi Mr. Bonzo,

Regarding "learn[ing] how to say Ski-U-Ma in Hindi and Mandarin": You know YourProvost doesn't know those either. Then again, perhaps he does, but he'd have to tell us through his blog. As you've reported, that blog is dead and empty, aside from its impressive template. So I'm quite confident that "[Y]OurProvost [does not] know[] this from his world conversations."

And you know equally well that YourProvost never converses with the likes of me, anytime, anywhere.

Good luck tilting at the windmill, and may you find light beyond the B/S regime.

Best wishes from your friend, Slugger.

Mr. B. said...

Thanks for the well-deserved leg pull, Slugger. You join Mrs. B. in reminding me that there is more to life than wind-mill tilting.

I'm sure your unique combination of energy, vision, and collegiality will serve you well in the year ahead.

Best wishes,