They decide who gets in, who graduates and who gets tenure, but colleges squirm when people judge them

May 15, 2009

Texas universities fall down list
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, September 15, 2003

Because of evolving methodology, the reasons for the changes in rankings of Texas public universities are unclear.

Texas’ two flagship universities have slipped off an influential magazine list of the top 50 national universities, leaving only Rice University representing the Lone Star State on higher education’s elite roster.

U.S. News & World Report listed the University of Texas at Austin at No. 50 last year, but it’s tied with the University of Maryland this year at No. 53. That’s down nine slots from five years ago.

Texas A&M University at College Station is tied with five others for 67th place. Texas A&M last appeared in the top 50 two years ago when it was tied with UT-Austin and three others for 48th place. This year’s rankings are based on 18 factors, including freshman retention rate, graduation rate, alumni giving and peer assessment.

Because the list’s methodology has changed often, it is impossible to say why the Texas flagships have fallen from the elite 50, which is led by Harvard and Princeton, tied at No. 1.

Rice University in Houston is a respectable 16th, while Texas Christian University in Fort Worth is tied with seven others for 99th place. Southern Methodist University tied for 73rd with four other schools.

The University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas in Denton and UT-El Paso are listed as fourth-tier universities, which are schools ranked 191st to 248th. UT-Dallas and Texas Tech University are in the third tier, schools ranked 127th to 186th. Those schools are listed alphabetically instead of by numerical rank.

The numbers, as university officials will tell you — even those from some of the top universities — do not mean everything.

“It’s very controversial because colleges don’t like to be ranked, they don’t like to have to submit data like this, and they don’t like the idea that one is considered better than another one,” said Ann Wright, vice president for enrollment at Rice.

U.S. News spokesman Richard Folkers said the newsmagazine does not make year-to-year comparisons on the rankings.

“We have, in many years, made methodological changes; hence, we don’t feel it’s appropriate to compare,” he said.

But the ratings are influential.

“They’re viewed by those in the academic community with a great deal of skepticism, but unfortunately they have a lot of influence on students and parents on deciding where to go to college,” said Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.

David Prior, executive vice president and provost of Texas A&M, said families would do better looking at guidebooks to choose the right college. But university chiefs acknowledge that the rankings are more popular.

“The fact is other people do look at these rankings and make decisions on them,” Prior said. “We’re not real happy about the fact that we’re not up in the top levels.”

He said a high student-faculty ratio may have hurt A&M, but the university is working to change that. This month, A&M President Robert Gates announced an ambitious five-year plan to hire 450 tenured or tenure-track professors.

UT-Austin spokesman Don Hale said he’d like to see his university ranked higher, too, but he noted that in the U.S. News ratings, UT-Austin scores a very high 4.1 out of 5 on peer assessment.

“Reputationwise we compare favorably with those who are in the second half of the top 50,” Hale said.

He said UT-Austin’s slide should not tarnish the university’s reputation. He said freshman applications grew by about 23 percent the past five years. An estimated 24,500 applied to the freshman class this year.

Private schools make up most of the top 50, but there are 16 public institutions, six from the University of California System.

University of Texas System Chancellor Mark Yudof said the California System had budgetary and planning advantages in the 1950s when it started to build its powerhouse campuses.

Yudof said the UT System — like many state systems — is a mixture of schools that existed before the system was formed. UT-Arlington was an institution for decades before joining the UT System. This makes it more difficult to form a system mission since individual schools might not complement one another and may duplicate programs.

Using California’s model is not possible, Yudof said. But Texas might have the template for the next higher-education boom, he said.

The UT System’s research heavyweights are not academic but medical: UT’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, which is 16th in U.S. News’ rankings for medical schools for research and 30th for primary care.

“Almost two-thirds of expenditures [of the UT System] are in the medical institutions,” Yudof said. “We’re very well situated for the biomedical revolution of the 21st century.”