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U.S. News rankings call into question recent UI graduate program report

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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The University of Iowa’s public-relations machine wasted no time last week trumpeting the high rankings graduate programs received from U.S. News & World Report.

But while the rankings again reinforced the generally superb quality of the university’s graduate-student programs, they have also highlighted a startling incongruity between the UI Task Force on Graduate Education’s recent program evaluations and the magazine’s rankings. And the rankings have lent credence to the cries of faculty members incensed in the wake of the task force’s report.

In developing its rankings, U.S. News sent out 12,400 surveys to experts across the field and contacted heads of various programs to measure peer programs. In contrast, the Task Force on Graduate Education made its rankings based not on academic reputation but essentially on the caliber of students each program put out, according to history department Chairman Colin Gordon.

Thus, the task force looked at GRE scores, average graduation times, and the program’s selectivity, among other things.

The at-odds ratings add an interesting wrinkle to the future of graduate-student programs at the UI. What matters more: The number and types of students the program puts out or the quality of work that faculty and graduate students produce?

The task force ranked the following selected programs as “good” — political science, history, various College of Education programs, statistics, industrial engineering, and physics. The task force defined “good” as “doing well but having issues that preclude a higher ranking.” (That’s the task force’s nomenclature for “mediocre,” if you couldn’t get past the euphemistic label.)

Yet in the US News rankings, the aforementioned programs took 33rd, 36th, 31st, 33rd, 35th, and 57th among comparable programs nationwide. The rankings were even higher when measured against other public universities — 17th, 18th, 21st, 22nd, 27th, and 35th.

It’s clear these rankings have called into question the task force’s chosen evaluation methods. When applied to the history department, for example, such measures as time-to-degree matter little when the Ph.D. students it produces will most likely go to another university to teach and conduct research.

“Time to degree doesn’t matter much to potential employers,” said Associate Professor Elizabeth Heineman, the director of graduate studies for the history department. “In fact, [potential employers] are far more interested in Ph.D. students who have taken a little longer to write outstanding dissertations than they are in Ph.D. students who have rushed to finish quickly and as a result have shortchanged their research and teaching preparation.”

In addition, such degrees as J.D.s, M.B.A.s, and engineering M.S.s often lead to professional jobs rather than academic positions. In contrast, Ph.D.s or M.A.s in such fields as history or geoscience might lead to an academic job after graduation.

We won’t delve into the controversial subject of whether the task force’s report was biased. It seems clear, however, that evaluation criteria applicable to some programs fall short when used to measure others.

So as the UI community digests the U.S. News rankings, we urge university officials to adopt different sets of metrics for different academic fields. Instead of applying the same standards, officials should look at what each program attempts to accomplish in training its graduate students and develop standards and categories to fit the desired outcome.

Shoehorning graduate-student programs into a cross-department mold may make evaluations easier and placate those pining for cuts. But in the long run, ill-conceived, rigid evaluations do little to improve our university.


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