The year 2010 was supposed to be one circled on every calendar at Kansas University.
In the early days of former Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s tenure at KU, he set a goal of having KU included among the top 25 public universities in the country by 2010.
Hemenway long said there were lots of ways to measure progress on that goal, but for a public fascinated with rankings, the yardstick often was a simple magazine. U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of American universities became a closely watched gauge.
Closely watched, that is, until the numbers started getting further and further from 25. The 1999 rankings listed KU as No. 30 in the country. The 2009 version had KU tied for 40th.
“We’re as guilty as anyone,” Hemenway once said in an interview. “We like to cite these when we go up and not cite them when they’re not so good.”
These days — with Hemenway stepping down as chancellor and Bernadette Gray-Little stepping in — members of the university community are wondering whether they’re supposed to keep paying attention to the annual numbers parade.
“When I first came here, that was a big mantra to be in the top 25,” said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, president of KU’s Faculty Senate. “I haven’t heard that much lately. I don’t know what our mantra is today.”
A safe mantra, recent history suggests, would be for KU to be a top-50 school. Since 1998 — when U.S. News and World Report started ranking public universities separate from private universities — KU has never fallen out of the top 50.
But the university also has never risen above its No. 30 ranking in 1999. KU’s low-water mark was in the 2006 rankings when it dropped to 45th.
Since then, KU posted two years of improvements in 2007 and 2008 before dropping two spots to 40th in 2009.
When compared to other Big 12 schools, KU’s performance has been a mixed bag, too. In the 2006 rankings, KU was tied for fifth among the five public Big 12 schools ranked by the report. In 2006 the report ranked Texas 17th; Texas A&M, tied for 21st; Iowa State and Missouri tied for 38th; and Nebraska tied with KU for 45th.
In the 2009 rankings, eight public universities in the Big 12 were included in the rankings. KU was tied for fourth among its conference peers. The 2009 rankings, which actually came out in 2008, include: Texas, 15th; Texas A&M, 24th; Colorado, 34th; Nebraska and Iowa State tied with KU for 40th; Missouri, 45th; Oklahoma, 52nd; and Kansas State, 67th.
Where to aim
Members of the university community seem to be mixed on whether setting a formal goal related to the rankings is a good idea.
“I think having an aspirational goal for the future is important,” said John Stratton, an associate librarian and president of the University Senate. “I also believe in stretch goals, goals that may take some additional sacrifice to meet. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but I also believe these rankings sometimes can be very simplistic.”
Wolf-Wendel, who in addition to being faculty senate president also is an education professor who researches higher education issues, said the rankings have been open to criticism because they often measure inputs instead of outputs.
“They don’t often look enough at whether you really learn a lot at this institution,” Wolf-Wendel said.
But that doesn’t mean that universities can afford to ignore the rankings.
“I suppose you could say you’re going to take your marbles and go home and not play this game,” Wolf-Wendel said. “But that probably wouldn’t be very wise.”
She said the rankings often are key for administrators, because the rankings are important to alumni members who serve as the donor base for most universities.
“They’re easy for the layperson to look at,” Wolf-Wendel said. “A ranking for a university definitely fits with our culture. I’m confident they’re not going away, and they’re not going to be any less important.”
But what remains to be seen is whether KU’s specific goal of landing in the top 25 of the rankings will remain. Wolf-Wendel said she hopes the university takes an approach that falls somewhere in the middle of ignoring the rankings and chasing them.
“It is not an awful goal, but I’m not sure that is where you want to invest your time and energy,” Wolf-Wendel said. “You want to do those tangible things that make us a better university. If doing those gets us noticed in U.S. News and World Report, then that would just be icing on the cake.”
The other rankings
For the most part, incoming students at KU seemed to agree. Several incoming freshmen who participated in a recent KU orientation session said the rankings didn’t play a major role in their choice of schools.
“I really didn’t care about any of that,” said Max Apple of Overland Park. “I just wanted a school that was close to home, and both my parents went here, so I knew what to expect.”
Some parents also said the rankings weren’t much of a factor. Tim Snider, of Derby, has a son enrolling at KU. He said his family wasn’t considering schools out of state, so he didn’t need a national magazine to help him evaluate universities that he’s already close to.
But none of that is to say that incoming students want the university to stop caring about all types of rankings. Almost all said they planned to keep a close eye on at least two sets of polls — football and basketball top 25 rankings.
“Those rankings are definitely important,” Apple said.