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2010-09-23

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Often downplaying rankings, ‘U’ opts to stress latest release

By Kyle Swanson, Daily News Editor
Published September 22, 2010

Though University officials say they don’t place much stock in how well the University fares in higher education rankings, they say they’re happy to be near the top of the list in a set of rankings released last week.

The Times Higher Education rankings — highly anticipated among higher education officials — places the University as the 15th best in the world. Harvard University claimed the top spot in the rankings.

The University’s ranking is vastly better than its spot in the popular U.S. News and World Report rankings, which named the University the 29th best in the United States this year. The University had previously ranked higher — falling from 24th in 2006, to 26th in 2009 to 27th in the 2010 rankings.

“While University officials are pleased that U-M consistently is ranked as one of the nation’s finest universities by U.S. News & World Report, they also note that this type of strict ranking of schools is not the most accurate measure of the quality of an institution,” a press release issued at the time said.

When the U.S. News and World Report rankings were released over the summer, University officials said they didn’t feel the rankings were overly important.

However, in an e-mail sent to The Michigan Daily on Monday, a senior communications official at the University promoted the University’s ranking in the Times Higher Education evaluation, encouraging coverage of the news.

“Times Higher Education new world university rankings put the University of Michigan at number 15 overall (!) and even higher for public universities — number 3,” the official wrote. “We know there are a lot of rankings out there, but this one has proven to be respected around the world.”

In an interview yesterday, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the e-mail was sent out to promote the new ranking system because of the global perspective it provides, not because the University achieved a high rank.

“It was noted to (The Michigan Daily) specifically because of our emphasis on globalization,” Fitzgerald said, referencing the University’s focus on globalization, which it highlighted in a self-study report given to the agency that accredits the University earlier this year.

Asked what the ranking meant for the University, Fitzgerald said University officials are happy to be ranked so favorably.

“It’s nice to see that different perspective,” Fitzgerald said, comparing the globally focused rankings to those done domestically. “Of course, we’re always gratified to be recognized near the top of those lists.”

However, Fitzgerald said no matter how high a school ranks, a ranking shouldn’t be the sole reason for potential students to choose which school they will attend.

“Regardless of the rankings, we still maintain that rankings alone are not the way to pick a university,” Fitzgerald said. “No matter how well a university does in the rankings … there is no single number one school for everyone.”

Asked whether University officials viewed one survey as a more accurate portrayal of quality in higher education, Fitzgerald said each ranking provides a different but equally important perspective.

“We’re not saying that one is better than the other,” Fitzgerald said, adding that all rankings are equally interesting. “They’re simply different.”

The difference between the rankings released by different organizations, Fitzgerald said, demonstrates how different criteria are used to determine the quality of universities.

“It’s important to look at what’s valued in these rankings,” Fitzgerald said. “Often, criteria are tweaked and adjusted over the years.”

Times Higher Education claims its criteria are a more objective method for evaluating the quality of universities, since they rely on more quantifiable variables.

“These tables represent the most comprehensive and sophisticated exercise ever undertaken to provide transparent, rigorous and genuinely meaningful global-performance comparisons for use by university faculty, strategic leaders, policymakers and prospective students,” the Times Higher Education website boasts.

The criteria used in the Times Higher Education process rely heavily on research activity and impact. Thirty percent of the overall score relies on the volume, income and reputation of research, while 32.5 percent of the overall score relies on the influence of the school’s research activity.

The rest of the overall score is made up of the quality of teaching and the learning environment — 30 percent of the total score — and the international diversity of an institution and the presence of innovation through industry income.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings focus on categories like undergraduate academic reputation, faculty resources and graduation retention rates.