Tuesday, August 21, 2007

BigU’s Ambitious Aspirations
and the Red Queen Effect

"It takes all the running you can do to keep in place!"

The latest college rankings by US News for national universities have just hit the ether. It's bad news - what else - for the ambitious aspirations of BigU to become one of the "top three research universities in the world." [sic]

Mr. B. tries to keep in mind Mr. E’s wise counsel:

“Not everything that can be counted counts,

and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Albert Einstein (attributed)
However, this Clever Hans trick always reminds him of:
“In Iowa there is so much corn that they eat what they can and what they can’t, they can.”
In order to keep things manageable, the following simplified table may be useful. Rather than worry about every institution in the world, let's worry about the BigTen. That is all that Mr. B.'s small brain can currently handle. If we aren't even in the top half of the BigTen then babbling on about being number three in the world is just as annoying as claiming that the Gopher football team has high academic standards. Even OurLeader may eventually figure this out.
First note that Northwestern – Mr. B’s undergrad school – is private and thus will be eliminated from discussion. The 2007 ranking is taken as baseline. The first column under 2007 is the ranking of all schools in the US, both public and private. The second column is the ranking of the schools in the BigTen. So in 2008 Northwestern actually dropped two spots in the beauty pageant, but still remained the top school in the BigTen. If a ranking improves it is marked in green, stays the same – yellow, gets worse – red.

12 (1)
14 (1)
25 (2)
25 (2)
34 (3)
38 (3)
42 (4)
38 (3)
Penn State
48 (5)
48 (5)
Ohio State
60 (6)
57 (6)
60 (6)
64 (7)
60 (6)
64 (7)
Michigan State
74 (9)
71 (9)
74 (9)
71 (9)
74 (9)
75 (11)

The striking thing is that rapid changes are uncommon due to institutional inertia, the lag time between real and perceived change, and probably due to the Red Queen effect. We may be striving to improve, but so are our competitors, so our relative positions remain pretty much the same.

No doubt seven years from now will find NU out of sight and Michigan first among the public BigTens. Illinois and Wisconsin will duke it out with my money on Illinois given what has been going on in Badgerland lately. Penn State will stay solidly in the middle. Purdue, Ohio State, and Iowa are in a tight competitive band. Ohio State will pull ahead over time as will Iowa. Purdue is handicapped by not having a medical school.

And finally Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana will be fighting to stay out of the cellar. My money is on the Gophers but you can forget about them ever being the number three public research university in the world. As Perry Como used to sing: "Dream Along With Me."

One could argue that it is too early to judge that BigU is running in place. If a dramatic improvement in our position is to occur, then some very unlikely changes need to happen soon.

OurLeader and his boatswain should fear the clock as did Hook and Smee. However, by the time the crocodile shows up for a piece of OurLeader he will have declared victory and ridden off on his hobby horse. Who knows maybe Smee would be a good captain? This has happened before on the good ship Gopher. Who would know better how to carry out Hook's fantasies than Smee?
Ciao, Bonzo, who is enjoying a break and looking forward to September and exciting things in the lab. During Fall Semester there should be six undergrads and a grad student in the lab to keep Mr. B. out of trouble. There are also lectures to give in med chem, biochem, and possibly clinical chem.