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August 2006

Rankings Redux

Corey Earle hits the nail on the head with his column today on the history of Cornell in the U.S. News and World Report rankings:

Because U.S. News edits its methodology each year, the results are unreliable, inaccurate and can't really be compared between years... As long as schools are so arbitrarily ranked, high school students may continue to base their college application decisions on the wrong factors. A single number tells very little about the quality of the next four years of your life.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. It’s of a view that I would hope any well-educated person (and most certainly a Cornellian) would hold.

He continues on to josh some of the Image Committee’s aims, references the now-infamous New York Times article, and questions the need for the University to re-allocate its resources to deliberately improve its standing in the eyes of some:

Although it’s been shown that the rankings do matter to potential applicants, perhaps Cornell should focus less on trying to fit the inappropriate criteria that U.S. News has selected as important. The rank-improving goals of Cornell’s Image Committee may be admirable, but stating to The New York Times last semester that Cornell’s problem is a lack of “cool hats” and “cool hoodies” probably isn’t going to earn us many points under peer assessment.

Corey's right. Acquiescing to the rankings game could come at the cost of high quality teaching and research. And we don’t really want that, do we now? For instance, Cornell could certainly dedicate more resources to decreasing class sizes, but that might come at the expense of teaching-quality, research opportunity for undergraduates, or fundamental research in the physical sciences. The university’s resources are finite, and perhaps there are more important challenges to face other than fighting the windmills of whether or not Cornell is ranked 11th or 14th according to some news magazine.

This hits on an issue I have always had with the Image Committee: that they have always made their desire for a "higher ranking" so public and blantant. Certainly, they did amazing work to improve the University's logo and public website, and they should be lauded for their efforts. But I never understood why they always get so bent out of shape over Cornell's standing in some ranking; it reeks of a "wannabe" attitude, that, quite frankly, I think Cornell is above.

If we simply focused on the other things that the Image Committee has always stressed, like building alumni relationships, improving the University's external communications, and investing in undergraduate teaching and research, such petty things as rankings should take care of themselves.

Matthew Nagowski | August 30, 2006 (#)

A Princess Only at Cornell

Cornell may have recently had the Princess of Thailand studing far above Cayuga's waters... but, answer me this: At what other top U.S. university would you possibly expect a Dairy Princess to attend?

A hearty Cornellian welcome to Caitlin Rohe, a member of Cornell's class of 2010, and the 2006 New York State Dairy Princess.

Here at MetaEzra, we'll take wholesome students from Upstate New York over stressed-out New Jersey plagiarists any day of the week.

Matthew Nagowski | August 28, 2006 (#)

Cornell Daily Sun Website Redesign

The Cornell Daily Sun redesigned their website last night, in what amounts to be a huge leap forward in terms of both form and function.

Readers, no doubt, will continue to have nightmares over the last design:

Matthew Nagowski | August 24, 2006 (#)

Skorton Issues Open Invitation To Dissent

Fifty years ago, Cornell University was broiled in campus dissent surrounding parietals and treatment of female students. Students would flock to the Presidents house in Cayuga Heights to protest.

Forty years ago, Ezra’s old farm land boiled over in racial tensions and violent protest. Armed students, militants, took over Willard Straight Hall and brought the campus, and the country, to a standstill.

And in the past decade, we have witnessed successive firestorms arise, over such things as freedom of speech, more freedom of speech, and a plot of trees and shrubs that happened to back-up to a student co-op.

Successive Cornell presidents have dealt with these issues with considerable success. But all presented unwelcome headaches to the Cornell administration.

But now, David J. Skorton is openly asking Cornell students to bring it on, albeit in a civilized manner:

Student involvement in campus and in larger societal issues is a proud and effective tradition around the world. The legacy of that tradition is felt strongly here at Cornell. You have unusual and unusually important perspectives on the issues of the day: as young adults… That diversity may lead, in turn, to a diversity of worldview that can inform effective and stimulating debate.

Of course, it is likely that we will not agree on every issue, but I welcome — I genuinely welcome — the dialogue. I ask only one thing of you: that we continue to honor the university as a marketplace of ideas — a marketplace that displays its wares from every part of the political, economic, spiritual and philosophical spectra. No debate, no issue, no opinion, no matter how strongly felt, should lead to stifling of other opinions, to censorship, to inhibition of open discussion.

A new era on East Hill?

Matthew Nagowski | August 23, 2006 (#)

Rankings: So What’s the Big Deal?

With the recent news that Cornell is now ranked 12th among national universities by the ever-fickle U.S. News and World Report, a lot of people are probably asking what the deal is all about. Sure, they will say, it’s nice to see an increase in the University’s ranking, but, as we all know, it will certainly not change the (very high) quality of undergraduate education and research that goes on in Ithaca.

Nor do the rankings measure intangibles, such as the quality of student life in beautiful Upstate New York and the opportunity to live in a crime free environment. And any petty ranking certainly will not change any alum’s sense of self-worth about their Cornell degree—we all sleep soundly knowing that we earned the best education money could afford.

But a 1999 study by a Cornell University economist shows that the U.S. News Rankings may actually matter more than any level-headed Cornell alum might care to admit. In fact, all other things equal, a one place rise in the rankings results in a lower admit rate, a higher yield rate, and higher SAT scores for the entering class due to heightened positive perception about the school. So it would not be unreasonable to expect Cornell to admit an even more impressive entering class next year.

Of course, the opposite holds true for when a university drops in the rankings. And all of this all has a snowball affect; a drop in the rankings today means lower yield rates and higher admit rates tomorrow, which can ultimately feed back into an even lower U.S. News Ranking, ad infinum.

All of this doesn’t necessarily bode well for the University of Pennsylvania… which slipped from 4th to 7th this year. So hopefully in another couple of years UPenn will be able to find itself in what should be its proper ranking: below Brown. Hell, they don't even know how to play hockey down there in West Philadelphia.

Matthew Nagowski | August 21, 2006 (#)

Our Dear Uncle Ezra Gets Older

A true sign that the fall semester is right around the corner: After his typical summer hiatus, our Dear Uncle Ezra has opened his doors for his twentieth year:

Dear Uncle Ezra,
How many questions had Uncle Ezra answered since it started in 1986?

Dear Questioner # 19353,

"Dear Uncle Ezra" Cornell's online question and answer forum is entering it's 20th year. It is designed to give people related to Cornell an anonymous forum for asking whatever questions are on their minds.

Dear Uncle Ezra has grown tremendously from its original limitations of two dozen public computer sites around campus. Now it's a global forum with students, staff, families, and alumni sharing thoughts, questions and feelings about virtually anything by clicking on ASK UNCLE EZRA. Why don't you give it a try?

Meanwhile, the actual Ezra Cornell will be celebrating his two-hundredth birthday this January.

Matthew Nagowski | August 15, 2006 (#)

Columbia Denies Okun Employment

Columbia says Kathy Okun is not an employee of the university. Does that mean she won't be one a month from now? (An official said they do not comment on personnel matters.)

Andy Guess | August 15, 2006 (#)

Republican Higher Ed Reform?

A Bush-sanctioned commission on the status of higher education recently released a report advocating a broad shake-up in higher education. Among its myriad recommendations, the report endorsed standardized tests, federal monitoring of college quality and sweeping changes in financial aid.

As Andy first reported, it kind of suggests something like 'No College Student Left Behind'.

Matthew Nagowski | August 14, 2006 (#)

MetaEzra Exclusive: Okun Off to Columbia

MetaEzra has learned from a reliable source that Kathy Okun, the wife of former Cornell president Jeffrey S. Lehman '77, recently accepted a position at Columbia University in an unspecified capacity. Calls to Lehman's office at the Wilson Center were not immediately returned.

Okun, readers will recall, was previously a development officer at the University of Michigan. There had been "idle speculation" that her presence on Cornell's campus may have played a role in the departure of Inge Reichenbach to Yale.

MetaEzra will continue to investigate this development. For now, readers may ponder whether this will affect Lehman's previously stated plans to return to Ithaca as a law professor after his term at the Wilson Center ends this month.

Andy Guess | August 11, 2006 (#) (0)

Let's Not Forget the Jews

I can't believe I left out the best part about Professor McKinney -- her unabashed anti-Semitism. Let's be honest -- if she'd had a starring role in the Lethal Weapon movies, her public statements about Jews wouldn't be given a free pass the way they are now by the Cornell professors who sponsored her appointment.

Cynthia McKinney didn't star in Lethal Weapon, although that accomplishment is enough to get some people honored at Cornell. She has, however, refused to disavow comments by her father blaming the "J-E-W-S" for her last defeat in 2002. She's also been associated with Louis Farrakhan and the New Black Panther Party, the latter of which is designated as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League. She's also sought donations from known terrorists.

Now that she's been defeated again, her supporters are sticking to the same old script. One supporter was heard saying, “You wanna know what led to the loss? Israel. The Zionists. You. Put on your yarmulke and celebrate."

Cornell should be condemning divisive acts of hatred rather than endorsing them through academic fellowships.

Andy Guess | August 10, 2006 (#)

Showing Alumni The Love

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article on the influence that third-parties can have on academic research. It noted the worrisome trend that researchers—especially in the medical sciences—are increasingly possessing conflicts of interest between their research and professional ties.

Cornell psychology professor David Dunning was quoted in the article, asserting that even when other peer-reviewers are aware that such conflicts of interest exist, they “don’t kick into a higher gear of criticism.” This is particularly troubling, as studies by of pharmaceutical researchers with a financial conflict of interest are almost five times as likely to find positive “results” as researchers who don't receive money from industry. Matters affecting life and death are often decided by this line of research, and it is not comforting to know that the research may be being influenced by Big Pharma.

However, I can’t help but think that such tendencies in human behavior might be advantageous to another aspect of academia: alumni development.

Max Bazerman, of Harvard Business School, is also quoted in the article, claiming that receiving gifts and money creates the desire, often unconscious, to give something back. He cites a study that found that customers who are given a 50-cent key chain at a pharmacy spend substantially more in the store.

Cornell should take these findings to heart—not in its research practices, but in its interactions with its students, young alumni, and future donors. By immediately asking recent alums for money and not providing us with any token gifts, the University is turning off a future generation of donors. Granted, Cornell may have provided its alums with a great education and a phenomenal investment, but sometimes it is the little things that will stick in our memory—like a keychain, a free t-shirt, or maybe even a lifetime subscription to an alumni magazine.

Matthew Nagowski | August 10, 2006 (#)

Prof. McKinney: Ousted

... by the voters of the Fourth District in suburban Atlanta, that is. The professors and administrators behind her appointment as a Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor? Well, they're still behind her. At least on paper: Cynthia McKinney, the soon-to-be-former Georgia House Democrat, is still listed as an "academic" in Cornell's directory.

Ms. McKinney's antics may delight her cheering section in the Ithaca faculty lounges, but even those professors must realize that scholarly work entails reason, insight, and measured argument rather than blunt vitriol, crude rantings and violence. Her academic work thus far has been limited to one appearance on campus in which she was nearly laughed off stage by students on both the right and left; allegations that President Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11; statements suggesting that Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was a conspiracy; and punching a Capitol police officer.

By all means invite her to campus to speak -- but keep her under the auspices of a student group! President Skorton, will you remove this stain of ignorance from our campus roster?

Andy Guess | August 09, 2006 (#)

Coming Soon: The Gannett Daily Sun?

It was reported last week that Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, had made its first purchase of a college paper -- one with the awkward, vestigial name of FSView & Florida Flambeau. More precisely, it was the local Tallahassee paper, the Democrat, which officially made the purchase, although, like many local papers, it is owned by Gannett.

The original report in Inside Higher Ed noted that the student newspaper was in a unique position to be acquired:

The Flambeau has been independent since 1971. The then-floundering newspaper merged with FSView in 1998, and the publication has a circulation of about 25,000 readers during the academic year. FSView & Florida Flambeau is unlike most college newspapers, which are generally nonprofit or affiliated with a university journalism school.

Actually, this also describes another college newspaper. It's called The Cornell Daily Sun.

Andy Guess | August 09, 2006 (#)

New Washington Monthly College Rankings

Sick and tired of certain college ranking guides simply measuring how rich an undergraduate student body is, the Washington Monthly undertook a new initiative last year to rank America's colleges and universities. Their perogative: to rank how much a university or college is benefiting the country. The rankings revolve around three broad categories: research output, public service, and social mobility.

Last year, Cornell ranked fourth in the nation. But this year, Cornell slipped to eighth. This seems mostly due to a change in the methodology that gives more weight to those schools with low-performing student bodies (as measured by SAT scores) and high graduation rates. As a result, Penn State, UC-San Diego, and Texas A&M have all edged out Cornell in this year's rankings. Moreover, Cornell and Stanford have swapped relative positions from this year to last -- Cornell used to rank just above Stanford, but now the opposite is true.

Methodological changes aside, Cornellians can still be very proud of their University's contributions to contemporary American society -- especially relative to some other nameless schools in the northeast.

Matthew Nagowski | August 07, 2006 (#)

Cornell's New Chief Investment Officer

As MetaEzra first reported back in February, Donald Fehrs, Cornell’s (largely successful) Chief Investment Officer for the last three years, stepped down this past spring. The University is now announcing his replacement: a British national by the name of James Walsh.

Walsh is fairly young – probably no older than 40 or 45, and was previously the ‘Executive Director of Strategy and Alternatives’ for Hermes, a very large pension and investment management firm in London. Prior to that, he worked for the consulting arm of the same company that publishes everybody’s favorite neo-liberal newsmagazine: The Economist.

Walsh’s forte appears to be the buzzword that everybody is talking about today: hedge funds. Hedge funds are the largely unregulated and speculative financial vehicles that can bring enormous reward—and risk—to investors. Walsh has spoken at conferences on how to best manage a portfolio of hedge funds, and has also been quoted as being bullish on the often risky commodities market.

One can only hope that Walsh will execute Cornell’s endowment with sound management skills as the global economy transitions into a more unpredictable era. And for the time being, I have confidence that he will not treat the University’s entire endowment as a huge hedge fund. Sure, capital appreciation is great, but there is also a lot to be said about capital preservation—especially when the well-being of the university is at stake.

n.b. The Cornell News Service also reports that the University’s endowment now stands at $5 billion dollars. If this is true, this number reflects an incredibly large 33 percent increase over the $3.8 billion reported in 2005 (and even more over the $3.3 billion reported in 2004). It most likely reflects both an increase in investment returns and an increase in giving coinciding with the start of the capital campaign, and most certainly points to the fact that the University's fiscal position is strong and is strengthening.

Matthew Nagowski | August 02, 2006 (#)

Diversity and the Nature of Cornell

For those who have yet to listen to the NPR podcast that Andy previously posted about, I strongly urge you to do so. The segment rather nicely addresses issues facing minority students as they seek to navigate the often confusing and scary admissions process to find the school that may be their best fit—or where they will feel the most comfortable.

Issues of diversity and inclusiveness at Cornell are a two-headed monster, and in many ways, one of the University’s great strengths can be perceived as a competitive weakness. Cornell perhaps encapsulates more socioeconomic, ethnic, academic, and international diversity than any other selective private university in America. But as a result, our alma mater is not necessarily a cohesive entity, and it is often a challenging place for underclassmen to navigate. It has a fraternities and co-ops, farm boys and city slickers, and engineers, architects, food scientists, and hotel managers. Or as some Big Red hockey-fans like to claim, it is a loose federation of fiefdoms united by a common hockey team.

Can any college campus have it both ways -- is it possible to have diversity and inclusiveness? Or does an increase in campus diversity necessarily lead to an increased level of self-segregation on campus? And what exactly do students want?

Matthew Nagowski | August 01, 2006 (#)

Other Recent Posts

-- WSJ: Cornell Wins NYC Tech Campus Bid (EBilmes)

-- Barrier Update: City Approves Nets (DJost)

-- Big Red Cymbal Guy (Nagowski)

-- New York Times Survey on Campus Recruiting is Flawed (KScott)

-- Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide (DJost)

-- Despite MSG Loss, Big Potential for Big Red Hockey (EBilmes)

-- City Council Will Vote on Suicide Nets (DJost)

-- An Encounter on the Upper East Side (Nagowski)

-- Showing Off Your School Spirit (Nagowski)

-- Chipotle Ithaca? (KScott)

-- Cornell at the ING NYC Marathon (KScott)

-- Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus (KScott)

-- Milstein's Downfall (Nagowski)

-- Can any Cornell-associated organization really be independent of the University? (Nagowski)

-- Slope Media Revisited (EBilmes)

-- Slope Media Group Approved for Byline Funding (KScott)

-- Occupy AEM? (KScott)

-- New campus pub to be good for both Greeks and non-Greeks (Nagowski)

-- Gagging the Election (Nagowski)

-- The Changing Structure of Rush Week (Nagowski)

-- Ivy League Humility in the Midwest (EBilmes)

-- Of Median Grades and Economics Minors (Nagowski)

-- Homecoming Recap (Nagowski)

-- My Cornell Bookshelf (Nagowski)

-- The Sun's Opinion Section Has Suddenly Gotten Good (Nagowski)

-- Remembering the 11th (Nagowski)

-- Cornellian Tapped as Top Economic Advisor (Nagowski)

-- Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It (EBilmes)

-- Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge (Nagowski)

-- Welcome to the Class of 2015 (Nagowski)