In recent days, the Journal-World has expressed serious concerns about Kansas University's decline this year in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings and has extrapolated that things are badly amiss at KU. As seen by the J-W, this decline is indicative of deteriorating performance and suggests complacent administrators who do not aspire to greatness and thus care little about what U.S. News has to say.
It appears the Journal-World has embraced the questionable notion of U.S. News as the sole source, all-encompassing measure of relative quality for all U.S. universities and colleges. Admittedly, the lack of publicly available measures of universities along with the fascination Americans have with rankings make this very tempting to believe. However, anyone interested in understanding how KU or any other university is truly performing should look beyond the predictable, annual shuffling of rankings by U.S. News.
Let me acknowledge the obvious: we all like favorable news and dislike unfavorable, so none of us at KU is happy with the recent ranking. In addition, KU is not yet where we desire it to be, and many difficult challenges remain ahead. Further, because the news was unfavorable, it is inevitable that any disparagement of the U.S. News rankings - however accurate - risks being interpreted as a defense of poor performance, low aspirations or repudiation of accountability.
That noted, people who follow Journal-World news stories would recognize there is more to this story. They would reason that our increased faculty hiring, building construction and renovation projects and academic program enhancements are not coincidental, but part of a committed effort to make KU the best university possible. They would also be aware that KU has fully embraced Kansas Board of Regents performance standards tied to state funding and has actively touted increased accountability in presentations to the state Legislature.
A review of other national comparisons might compel them to ask whether it makes sense to believe that KU is slipping during a period when we've seen the following accomplishments:
¢ KU's faculty have won two National Science Foundation centers worth a total of $40 million, an accomplishment shared by only four other institutions (universities of Arizona, California-Berkeley, Illinois and Washington);
¢ KU was one of only five universities to receive the Paul Simon award for internationalized curriculum;
¢ KU produced its fourth Rhodes Scholar in 11 years, and 25th overall, ranking among the top echelon of public universities;
¢ KU ranked 16th among the nation's public universities for enrollment of National Merit Scholars;
¢ KU set a record freshmen retention rate last fall of 82.7 percent and saw its six-year graduation rates for full-time freshmen increase to 58.1 percent - more than 2 percentage points higher than 10 years ago;
¢ The recent book "Student Success in College," based on a national study in 2004, lauded KU as one of 20 universities and colleges that create an effective learning environment for students to succeed in their college careers. KU and the University of Michigan were the only public research universities to be selected for the list;
¢ KU actually hired new faculty, thanks to tuition enhancement funding, while most universities were retrenching.
Meanwhile, the limitations of U.S. News' methodology are no secret. Twenty-five percent of U.S. News' ranking measure is qualitative - based on how university presidents, provosts and deans score peer institutions. I am pleased to say that KU has done well historically by this measure, consistently ranking in the upper 20s to the lower 30s among the 162 public national universities. Still, legitimate questions arise as to the basis on which people are making their judgments. For example, what level of familiarity do they have with the accomplishments of other institutions - such as those for KU noted above - and what might be the effects of the relentless national news focus on the growing anti-science forces in Kansas?
The remaining 75 percent of U.S. News' ranking measure is quantitative, including some elements that are informative and valid to review, in and of themselves: class sizes, graduation rates, retention rates and faculty resources. However, legitimate questions again arise regarding how well, when aggregated, these statistics represent the overall quality of a university's entire educational product. Under any circumstances, the survey's emphasis on selectivity and faculty resources clearly disadvantage institutions such as KU that operate in an environment of legislated admissions policies and increasingly restrictive state funding.
The university community and the general public expect KU to perform well in all national rankings because of the tradition of academic excellence at the University of Kansas. The KU team understands this and is diligently working to improve our ability to deliver real value to the people we serve.
Yes, we will be pleased if our accomplishments result in higher U.S. News rankings, but we will judge our progress by broader, more consistent and accountable standards than this one survey, and I hope that the Journal-World will, as well.