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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

UA's newest Top 100 worldwide ranking is great news and a little B.S.

By the grace of the base-10 number system and function of mathematical squaring, the University of Arizona retained an important ranking on one of academia’s major scoreboards – barely.

The UA ranks 99th among 1,750 world research universities, according to U.S. News and World Report. So slap a “World’s Best 100 Universities” logo on every "UArizona" press release for the next 365 days. There’s going to be some relief over at the admin building.

The school last year made the Top 100 for the first time since 2009 ranking 97th in the world but this year’s ranking means that last year’s 20-spot jump wasn’t a mirage in the desert and that other recent jumps mean something.

Academia has a love-hate relationship with these kinds of rankings. On the one hand, you can’t solve for the arbitrary nature of the math involved with producing a qualitative result. On the other hand, people pay attention to them and if your school’s result looks good then why not run with it?

Harvard is happy. Dartmouth is dour.

It’s also one of those strange things where all UA degree-holders now get a boost to their resumes because now they graduated from one of the best 100 schools in the world. Former UA President Peter Likins used to talk about how his earning power improved every year Stanford University climbed the ranks.

And … and … and … this is the cool part. The Pacific 12 Conference placed three universities in the Top 10. Stanford University (No. 3) and University of California – Berkeley (No. 4) were joined by the University of Washington (No. 7) atop the list. If we’re talking athletic conferences, no one other beats that.

What’s that you say? The Ivy League is an athletic conference. Let’s just say it’s not a good day to be a Yale Bulldog. The Eastern Blue Blood Establishment League of Hoity-Toity Legacies landed just two schools in the Top 10: Harvard (No. 1) and Columbia (No. 5) universities. Yale ranked 11th below University of California – San Francisco.

More than half of the Top 100 research universities are international, so the UA’s rank among U.S. institutions is closing in on the Top 40 in the country.

So maybe Robert Robbins is starting to earn his insane salary after all because the UA’s reputation seems to be waxing under his leadership.

Trend trending can make more trendy

Just two years ago, the Wall Street Journal and Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Arizona 217th in the country. The Tucson school jumped 81 spots last year in that survey. We’re still not in their Top 100 (but what do they know? They probably went to Yale) but the trajectory is in the right direction.

The prophecies can start to self-sustain. The better a school’s reputation, the easier it is for those schools to recruit top faculty and students. The more top faculty and students arrive on campus, the better the school gets and the better it gets ranked.

Oh, it gets better. The more top faculty arrive on campus, the more likely they are to get research grants. And those research grants include a component that can be used to fund the overall university – like 20 percent. So now the school has more money. The school has more money, then it can recruit better faculty and students and get even more money. 

Mwahahahhaha … and Wilbur Will Rule the World, right?

Right there with Florida Man

Let’s not get nuts.

The UA is tied this year in rankings with the University of Florida. So according to the U.S. News and World Report, the typical Arizona student is dead even with a Florida Man/Phys Ed major in Gainesville asking himself “Would that alligator want me if I took enough meth?”

The schools ranked ahead of us aren’t all Ivy-coated citadels of academic reputation. University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, THE Ohio State University and Penn State University are all ahead of the UA. Even the University of Colorado at Boulder is ahead of the UA.

And those super elite eastern schools like Williams and Swarthmore, are on a whole different list.

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And if we are talking regionally, Colorado, Washington and California are still well ahead of Arizona when it comes to top higher educational institutions. So companies who want the tippity-top, will find it elsewhere in our neighborhood.

When I was covering the university full-time, UA’s current ranking was just where the school always found itself.

What happened? Budget cuts. During the Great Recession, Arizona’s state university system endured some of the biggest -- the biggest according to one study -- budget cuts of any such system in the country. UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University all jacked up tuition to replace money slashed by the Arizona Legislature.

The state now provides just 13 percent of the UA's operating budget, with twice as much coming in with tuition checks.

Arizona has moved to a user-pays model because the Republicans running the joint don’t believe higher education is a public good. They don’t want business to pay for other people’s college, even though Arizona businesses reap the rewards.

Call it the Oligarchy’s Social Contract: The rich get the rewards without the investment because they are owed all gain and no pain. But the poor wanting to better themselves with four years of hard work are the ones who are entitled. Remember that as “feudalism” gets rebranded “freedom.”

I digress.

Rankings: Cool or arbitrary?

It is kind of impressive to see whom Arizona is ranked ahead of, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Rice University has been a Houston academic sanctuary but is eating our dust. The University of Virginia — sorry Thomas Jefferson — can avoid our Wildcat pies as they catch up. Here’s one that stunned me: Brown University didn’t crack the Top 100. I remember Brown being a perennial Top 5 school. The aforementioned Dartmouth College comes in at 226. That’s as funny as it is likely total B.S.

But U.S. News and World Report’s rankings have long been a premiere benchmark. In fact, it’s largely what the former print product is known for producing.

And they have their detractors who think the whole operation of ranking colleges is stupid. I’m sure they are saying that in Hanover, N.H., this week.

There are parts of that I can absolutely get behind. Malcolm Gladwell does an interesting job of slicing and dicing college rankings in the New Yorker. He uses Car and Driver Magazine’s ranking of sports cars to do it. He used the magazines own scoring system and changed the weighting to an arguably better measurement and flipped the list so the Porsche Cayenne went from first to worst.

I’m willing to bet my life that if I have seven of something it’s more than five of something.

Are the USNWR people willing to bet their that the UA Space Science program ranks 7th in the world and not 5th? Well, I mean, what difference does two spots make really?

UA falls down two spots its out of the Top 100 and there goes that marketing plan.

Any time we quantify metrics, we are fooling ourselves to a degree because there’s always qualitative analysis that is biased in terms of what makes quality. So I can make the same argument against “big data” or credit ratings. It’s absolutely true on some level.

I gotta say though, it takes moxie for defenders of academia to say these institutions should be free from judgment based on numbers. I mean, what’s next? Evaluating college applicants based on GPA and test scores? Heaven forbid.

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What’s not in dispute is that the nation’s universities are competing against each other for prestige, faculty and research dollars. It’s tough to do that and say “but we’re all winners I our own special way” unless it’s followed with “dot dot dot … you just suck more.”

The UA is trending right now according to rankings from Money Magazine, Times Higher Education and the Wall Street Journal/Chronicle of Higher Education.

So if we are going to have winners, losers and rnkings, it’s good to see that the University of Arizona is on the come and not relegated to the glory days of the Dick Tomey Era.

And if our football team is going to be this particular brand of bad, at least Tucson can be proud of our hometown university’s academics. It’s not the Rose Bowl. But it’s something.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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197 comments
Oct 30, 2021, 1:16 pm
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Dear Blake - extra points to you for the “THE” ...
says the Buckeye State native who is UA Wildcat-educated…

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University of Arizona ranks in the Top 100 among global peers. Your columnist's many classes in the Modern Languages Building just got more valuable.

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