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Ignore university rankings, but make higher education an election issue

The Conversation by Michelle Stack 12 September 2019

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently got some good news after a few weeks of scandal management.

It continues to be in the top 10 universities, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. That’s despite recently having to apologize for concealing donations it received from financier Jeffrey Epstein, who pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor 10 years before his recent jail-cell suicide.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement:

“We recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts.”

Is the scandalous nature of these ties shocking? Not so much, to me. The scandal shows how rankings obscure many factors related to how institutions come to be regarded as top-notch and elite. My research focuses on global university rankings and what influence they have on education, equity and research.

But why should you care unless you happen to work at or attend a university?

Influence on society

Society’s health-care workers and educators are trained at universities. Most government, business and media leaders also attend university. All of them are in key positions to impact what kind of society we have — from driving policies to being responsible for what kind of world we leave for future generations.

Canadians will soon vote for a new federal government. The government provides funding for research through four core funding agencies. Research produced at universities influences everyone’s day-to-day life, from available medical treatments to how governments deal with climate change.

What happens to the public when top-ranked universities are seen as private entities and places for the Epsteins of the world to garner legitimacy?

Large pool of wealthy students

What I can say with certainty is top-ranked schools have a lot in common. They have a large pool of wealthy students and they also have alumni and parents of prospective students who are willing to do just about anything to get their kids in, as the recent college admission scandal involving multiple prestigious schools demonstrated.

In some cases they also have staff willing to help, like Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who pleaded guilty to charges related to accepting contributions that benefited the sailing program in exchange for recommending two applicants.

Of course, it isn’t just top-ranked schools engaged in questionable activities. But what makes them different is that they’re held up as exemplars that other universities around the world should emulate.

The question is what kind of university system our society wants. The American system is highly inequitable but it gets the prize for the highest number of top universities according to influential world university rankings.

Undue influence of statistics

Does this mean inequity is needed to produce world-class research? No, but it does mean that statistics have an undue influence.

Years ago, I interviewed an editor of a mainstream newspaper in Canada. I asked him what he thought of the Fraser Institute and he said it was biased and right wing. So I asked why his outlet published its rankings of schools. He looked at me as if I was from another planet and explained that the rankings are objective — they were numbers.

Somehow numbers that are created and interpreted by humans take on an aura of neutrality. But they’re not neutral.

Many of today’s top-ranked American schools got an early start in building what are now massive endowments through early and sustained active participation in the slave trade. Not surprisingly, these same institutions were revered in the first ranking of American universities, started in 1910 by James McKeen Cattell, who served both as the president of the American Psychological Association and the American Eugenics Society. Today’s rankings don’t explicitly advance the idea that being white, male and wealthy is superior, but the top ranked continue to be skewed to this demographic, particularly at levels of leadership.

To judge research performance, the most cited global university rankers include indicators such as research articles published by faculty, research funding, the percentage of international faculty and students and industry connections. On the surface, these indicators seem to make sense. But the problem is they conflate the ability of a university to acquire money with the quality of education and research.

How they acquire wealth

Key rankings do not measure how universities acquire their wealth or how they use it.

Rankings don’t examine whether a university provides legitimacy to the work of spreading climate denial propaganda, such as in the case of the Koch brothers who give universities money with provisos attached, such as only hiring professors with pro-business and anti-regulatory views.

Rankings don’t consider if universities are supporting Big Pharma companies amid concerns about public health.

Most university rankings are business products and many are media-generated. What global university rankings implicitly reproduce is a belief that wealthy, inequitable institutions should be replicated. That doesn’t seem to be working out too well for the vast majority of the planet.

While some schools use finite resources to climb in university rankings, the public would be much better served by education systems that are more equitable, and that graduate excellent researchers and professionals untainted by donations from the likes of the Epsteins and the Kochs of the world.

There’s a lot to learn from institutions created to provide space for the many excluded from elite schools, including Indigenous-focused institutions that have graduated community-engaged leaders and are grounded in care of the environment.

Good research and education require public investment. In return, universities should be expected to be responsive to the diverse public that supports them, instead of chasing after media-generated rankings that distract from this responsibility.

Michelle Stack is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia.