Kansas University Provost Richard Lariviere admits that it's interesting and sometimes fascinating to look at rankings on anything.
But beware, he says, particularly regarding major universities, for sometimes the rankings can reflect more about who creates them than how schools end up in them.
He spoke about the most popular university ranking system in U.S. News & World Report, which in 2007 listed KU as the 39th best public university and 88th best among public and private universities. Both were improvements from 2006, but KU has hovered in that range the decade after sitting at 30th among public schools in 1998.
Lariviere said he hadn't even looked at the U.S. News rankings, but that it is a challenge because many potential students, parents and alumni tend to.
"If you manage a university to try to enhance rankings, then all you are doing is buying into this misrepresentation of what it is that we're really about here," Lariviere said.
Public universities tend to suffer in the rankings compared with private universities based on certain criteria, such as selective admissions, he said.
KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway has said the rankings are a proxy for quality that the public seeks out.
Measuring the health of a university is more about having programs that are considered among the best in the field by peers, Lariviere said.
According to the U.S. News Rankings on best graduate schools released in the spring, KU has 12 programs ranked in the top 10 among public universities, including the top-ranked city management and urban policy master's degree program and the special education master's and doctorate programs.
Lariviere also considers a major university's sophomore retention rates, job placement for graduate students and how much federal grant money is rewarded in peer-reviewed competitions.
"Our first obligation is to our community here - the students, the parents, taxpayers, the people of the state of Kansas - not to the U.S. News and to relative rankings," he said.
KU leaders do tout the university being named one of 14 best buys in the country by the Fiske Guide to Colleges. And the National Survey of Student Engagement has consistently given KU high marks for how engaged students can become in academics, particularly while learning from faculty members who are also successful researchers.
"That's a hard culture to achieve, and this place has done it really well," Lariviere said.
Citations & honors
Here's how Kansas University fared in major rankings in 2007:¢ The 2007 edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges rates KU as one of 14 best buys among public universities.¢ The book "Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter" rates KU as one of 20 universities nationwide that helps students succeed.¢ KU School of Law tied for 66th on the U.S. News & World Report list of Best Graduate (Law) Schools, 2007, and tied for 34th among public universities.¢ KU School of Education tied for 20th on the U.S. News & World Report list of Best Graduate (Education) Schools, 2007, and ranked tied for 12th among public universities.¢ U.S. News ranked KU's undergraduate business program as tied for 51st overall and 31st among public universities. The engineering undergraduate program was tied for 71st among all programs and tied for 67th among public universities.Other top 25 U.S. News rankings of programs compared with other public institutions:¢ City management and urban policy ranks first.¢ Special education ranks first.¢ Community health, tied for second.¢ Paleontology ranks third.¢ Public management administration, fourth.¢ Occupational therapy, tied for fourth.¢ Audiology, fifth.¢ Public affairs, tied for fifth.¢ Speech-language pathology, sixth.¢ Petroleum engineering, seventh.¢ Social work, tied for eighth.¢ Nursing-midwifery, tied for ninth.¢ Physical therapy, tied for 10th.¢ Music, tied for 12th.¢ Pharmacy, tied for 16th.¢ Public finance and budgeting, tied for 17th.¢ Clinical child psychology, tied for 19th.¢ Health care management, tied for 22nd.¢ Clinical psychology, tied for 23rd.¢ Drama and theater, tied for 23rd.¢ History, tied for 24th.¢ Nursing, anesthesia, tied for 25th.