8 No. 2
By A Nose
Jockeying in the Rankings Race
The Current Standings
Whither the NRC Study?
"I am not going to change our methods of calculation just in order to try and achieve a ranking higher than another institution."
"Part of the reason educational reputation is so important is because people—students, faculty, and administrators—derive much of their status from the status of their institution."
Graduate School and College Excellence
Does research reputation influence undergraduate rankings?
Peer Scorings and Rankings of Colleges and Graduate Programs and Research
The “Lecture Track” Reconsidered
Professional identity and aspiration among non-tenure-path faculty
Tales from the Lecture Track: Kristin Wendland, Music
Tales from the Lecture Track: Sheila Tefft, Journalism
Virtue and the Stewardship
of Academic Freedom
Reflections on ambition, conversation, and community
Academic Exchange: Please say a word or two about your scholarship.
Richard Rubinson: I study the U.S. educational system, its historical development, why there has been a continual expansion of schooling, why the educational system has become organized as it has, and the consequences for student achievement and inequality. One primary factor is continual competition among groups and organizations for status. Rankings of schools and universities become so important because they are one of the visible signs of status.
AE: What have you observed about reputational measures in rankings like the National Research Council’s (NRC)?
RR: The last NRC ranking of doctoral programs [in 1995] was done by a ranking of faculty research reputation, with no direct measures of the doctoral programs themselves or even of faculty research. So when programs were ranked high or low by the nrc, they were not actually rating the quality of graduate training. This time the NRC is collecting measures of the doctoral programs, such as completion rates, time to degree, and career placement, as well as citation indices of faculty research. Using citation indices as an empirical measure of faculty research probably won’t change the reputational rankings much, since studies by the nrc have shown that citation indices are a strong predictor of reputational rankings. But using direct measures will probably make a big difference, and we expect our doctoral programs will do very well.
AE: What are your thoughts on the NRC ’s new policy of asking institutions to help pay for the study?
RR: The necessity for that decision points to a peculiarity of the U.S. educational system. You don’t see this kind of “rankings craze” in many other countries, because elsewhere the educational system is centralized, and the ministry of education sets up a stratified system of schools and allocates faculty and students. In the U.S., because we have a decentralized system and little national educational authority, there is no formally established stratified system. It’s a free-for-all. Anybody can claim their school is the best. There are no established national standards, no national comparisons. The rankings thus become the province of private organizations. Organizations like U.S. News and the nrc step in to fill that need. But because these organizations do not have formal political authority, those rankings become subject to objections to their validity.
AE: To what degree do these rankings drive decisions in the graduate school?
RR: Our goal now is to use the information we are gathering for the next nrc study to understand the strengths and weaknesses in our programs, so that we can move every program up. For two years now we have been collecting the data on attrition, completion, time to degree, and placement; the same data that the NRC will be asking us for. We’re already starting to use that data.
AE: How much do you compare Emory to other schools with which we are competing in that process?
RR: That’s clearly an important dimension of comparison that you cannot ignore. Everybody looks to everybody else. It’s what sociologists call a status game. Part of the reason educational reputation is so important is because people—students, faculty, administrators—derive much of their status from the status of their institution. People try to maximize their status by going to institutions of high status. This phenomenon has generated a “status industry” and the intense debate about rankings and ranking systems.
AE: Do you think all major research universities are beginning to look alike?
RR: In sociology one of the major organizational processes is called institutional isomorphism—every organization tries to gain legitimacy by replicating what other legitimate organizations are doing, so over time they become more and more similar. But as organizations become more similar, they also try to make themselves distinctive. So even though institutions are extremely similar, they must tout the few ways they are different.
AE: What makes Emory different that might run counter to prevailing wisdom about the rankings?
RR: There’s a sense of collective effort and collegiality that is fostered by structures of our graduate programs. We only admit students that we can fully fund. We expect all our students to finish and don’t admit larger classes expecting many not to succeed. We fund everybody within a program pretty much equally. Students don’t compete with each other for funding; they only compete against themselves. And faculty aren’t competing with students either. What we see is that this kind of system has been very good for student productivity, completion, and placement. Other schools have different systems, in which students must compete with each other and faculty compete for students. You can get successful programs either way, but Emory’s way seems much better for the students who are experiencing those structures.