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September 2010

In Composite 2010 NRC Rankings, Cornell Ranks 9th

As we know, the 2010 NRC Rankings were released yesterday with much fanfare, both here and elsewhere. One meme that the National Research Council keeps stressing is that the departmental rankings represent 'ranges' and that the results need to be interpreted differently per the needs of each respective institution.

It's a noble spirit and all, but people and their egos are necessarily going to want to figure out which school is the 'best' and place their own institution in a grand pecking order. And because I don't want to smother your curiosity, I've developed my own composite ranking of America's universities per the NRC departmental ratings.

Given that there were 60+ departments rated, including many small, niche departments that not many schools have, I think the best comparison across the schools is to boil down the departments into those key fields that every school should strive to excel at. With no disrespect to such smaller fields, it is understandable for a school to shirk linguistics, anthropology, materials science or the like, but much less so for such fields such as English, economics, physics, or computer science.

So I've whittled the NRC rankings down to 12 core fields: Cell and Developmental Biology, Chemistry, Computer Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Economics, English Language and Literature, History, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science. These encompass three humanities, two social sciences, two biological sciences, two engineering fields, and three natural sciences. I feel these reflect a fairly balanced portrait of all of the different academic aims of a modern university, although all you operations research, food science, and communication majors (all of which are top three programs, per the NRC) are free to quibble.

After selecting these fields, I then averaged the departmental rank at the 5th percentile under the reputational rankings of the NRC report. Why these particular metrics? I feel the reputational survey is probably more realistic of how each department is seen by academics across the country. And the 5th percentile is just as useful for ordering as the 95th percentile, but it has the added benefit of allowing us to see which departments we really think are at the 'top'.

So Cornell comes up 9th in the country under this methodology, which feels about right. Certainly not as good as Berkeley or Princeton for graduate study, but a notch above such schools as NYU, Northwestern, or Penn State. Put another way, Cornell has the 9th highest average of 12 key departments in the country

There are certainly other ways to turn the NRC rankings into a composite number, including counting the top 3 or top 10 programs of each school, including all possible academic departments, or averaging the different percentiles of the 'survey' rankings. But at the very least, we know that Cornell is in good company and that Day Hall can say, with a fairly straight face, "we're a top ten research institution".

It's also worth pointing out that, under the same methodology, Cornell ranks 3rd in the country for its agricultural science programs, behind UC-Davis and Illinois, with Wisconsin trailing just behind. But we all know who makes the best ice cream. And plays the best hockey.

Matthew Nagowski | September 29, 2010 (#)

Cornell Slips A Bit in NRC Departmental Ratings

In what may be the biggest 'news' day in academia in years, the National Research Council (NRC) has released its long-awaited ratings of graduate departments at American universities. Unlike some other, more intellectually dishonest rankings that are refreshed annually to sell magazines, the NRC ratings are taken very seriously by academics and college administrators as they are often the best gauge as to the academic quality of their departments (and ergo, their professors and students). Given that the NRC rankings were last published 15 years ago, it's clear that the NRC isn't in the business of selling magazines; it's trying to improve the academy.

The NRC has been a bit shrewd in it's release of the ratings; they have purposely not put together an ordinal list of institutions and departments for us to compare. It smartly (and correctly) wants people to comb through the data to make thoughtful conclusions based on the factors relevant to their own needs and interests. As the Cornell Chronicle reports:

It does not give each program a specific numbered ranking overall, but rather produces a range of rankings for each graduate program, derived from 20 key variables. For example, a program that performed strongly on some variables but weakly on others might be assigned a ranking range of 6 to 29, indicating it is among the sixth- through 29th-best programs.

The study used two types of overall rankings. One ranking, based on a regression analysis linking reputational factors to program factors (the R-ranking), placed 29 Cornell research doctorate graduate fields in the top 10 range of rankings and 47 fields in the top 20. The other, based on faculty opinions obtained via survey (the S-rankings), included 20 programs in the top 10 range and 40 in the top 20.

In keeping with Cornell's long-standing tradition of openness, Cornell has actually gone to great lengths to distill its results. The Graduate School has put together a handy website that has extremely pretty bar charts on the estimated ranges of each department's 'rank' (relative to the rest of the country) and a really cool data widget that you can play around with for hours.

The one thing that Cornell doesn't do is make direct comparisons as to how the University has fared since the last ratings in 1995. The NRC certainly isn't encouraging this, either. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun and make the comparisons ourselves!

It seems like the most straightforward comparison would be to compare the high-end (5th percentile) of the 'reputational' rankings to the previous rankings, as the previous rankings were strictly reputation based. One could use the mean or 95th percentile ranking as well, but the ordinal rankings should shake out roughly the same.

In total, across 35 broad departments that were included in both the 1995 and 2000 studies, the average ranking slipped from 13.7 to 15.2, which isn't that bad for a University that has seen severe declines in public support and has struggled to compete for faculty with more urban campuses. In 1995, 19 of those departments were ranked in the top 10, as compared to 13 today.

The big reason for this change are the rankings for the engineering program, where the departmental average slipped from 7th to 15th when taken in aggregate. All other major fields across the University remained relatively stable -- the humanities and the biological sciences inched up a bit, while the social sciences (long the most mediocre of the 'core' disciplines on campus) declined by a small amount. The natural sciences stayed flat.

It's also important to note that the 'average ranking' for the major divisions do not represent Cornell's ranking for that division! So just because the humanities departments average 6.44, that does not mean that Cornell has the 6th best humanities program. (I haven't worked out the numbers, but it likely is a bit higher than that, because not many universities can rival Cornell's breadth.)

What can explain the slip in the engineering department's ratings? I really can't say. Perhaps some of our commentators can help us out. My gut instinct tells me that Cornell has a relatively small engineering program (relative to the big publics like Berkeley, Michigan, and Illinois) and is more undergraduate focused. The fact that Ithaca is so far away from a major population center has also probably hurt its abillity to land research grants and industry connections and money. (If I was an undergraduate trying to decide between Cornell and a school like Berkeley or Michigan for engineering and money wasn't a factor, I would choose Cornell in a heartbeat, simply due to the better student services and experience and the higher amount of opportunities available per student.)

As for the relatively poor social science rankings; they're not unexpected. Not only does Cornell tend to have smaller core departments in fields like economics, government, and psychology than its peers, but it is also hurt by the fact that so many of its faculty in these fields are not in these departments, but rather in some of the applied-social science departments in the contract colleges (e.g. Developmental Sociology, Labor Economics, Public Policy). But I've written about the challenges of Cornell's social sciences departments before. The only truly surprising result was the Psychology department dropping from 14th to 61st!

The same lesson can be applied to Cornell's biological science programs -- certainly the fact that the departments are split between Arts and CALS does not help their reputation in academia. But somehow I doubt our ecology and environmental biology program is not among the top ten in the country.

The NRC also ranked a whole slew of new departments this year, which Cornell tended to do really well in. These include the agricultural sciences, where Cornell placed in the Top Ten in Animal Science, Entomology, Food Science & Technology, Nutrition, Horticulture, Plant Biology, and Plant Breeding, as well as Communication (2nd) Applied Mathematics (3rd), and Operations Research (3rd). It also ranked Cornell's Medical School departments separately, of which four of seven had top ten finishes.

More to come!

Matthew Nagowski | September 28, 2010 (#)

Highest Homecoming Attendance in Years?

While we're on the topic of Homecoming, it's worth acknowledging that Saturday's football game attracted the largest Homecoming attendance in ten years. Saturday's bout against Yale witnessed 16,026 attendees, a number that is second only to 2000's September 23rd Homecoming game against Yale, which drew 16,634.

Schoellkopf holds close to 26,000, seated comfortably. But it held over 35,000 people for a Big Red victory over defending Rose Bowl Champion Michigan in 1951.

Below is Homecoming game attendance for the last twenty years:

Worth noting that Cornell last won an Ivy title in 1990 (which they shared with Brown). Cornell has never won the Ivy title outright. And in 1991 Cornell played Division I-A Stanford at Stanford in front of 30,000+ people. But lost, of course.

Matthew Nagowski | September 27, 2010 (#)

Parading a New Homecoming Tradition

Being the uber-Cornell nerd that I am, I've managed to make it to five out of my first six Homecomings as an alumnus. (This despite having only attended a handful of football games when I was actually a student.) The secret to Cornellian Homecomings is that it is just as much about reveling in the food and sights of early-autumn in Ithaca and the Finger Lakes as it is about tailgating, Glee Club concerts, and losing at football.

But apparently, (Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development) Charlie Phlegar is channeling my oft-remarked quip and is attempting to turn Cornell into something more akin to a Big Ten institution (and subsequently yield more alumni involvement and contributions for the capital campaign). He has charged his Alumni Affairs staff with "selling-out Schoellkopf for Homecoming in five years".

This is despite the fact that Ivy League football hasn't been relevant since the 70s, the alumni body is a good day's drive away, and that more people probably care about our national-runner up women's hockey team than our pigskin hunkers on the gridiron. Ivy League football is quaint to play and all, and I wouldn't want to do away with the tradition it embodies, but I don't think most people particularly want to watch missed blocks and blown defensive covers all afternoon. Unless of course, their team is winning. Which the Big Red is not.

All said, you could probably get more Cornellians back for a Homecoming that revolves around the Ithaca Apple Festival than the football team.

Which brings us to one of the better ideas Alumni Affairs has had in a while: The re-institution of a Homecoming Day parade in order to create more of an "event" around the football game. The great thing about parades is that everybody loves them. Music lovers! Right-wing goosestepping fascists! Left-wing mobbing Marxists! Apolitical architectural majors! Ethnic-interest organizations! Unicyclists, skate-boarders, and juggling engineers! Elderly alumni who want an excuse to ogle at the co-eds!

Last year (which I missed) was the first year of the new parade tradition, but apparently the parade grew by leaps and bounds this year with hundreds of students participating and lots of curious on-lookers. I must admit that it sent a chill down my spine as Cornell's diversity paraded past; I haven't been surrounded by so many interesting, unique, and diverse individuals since college, and it's amazing how much Cornell students take for granted in terms of the breadth of resources and opportunities on campus.

My favorite groups were the Korean drummers and the dixie-land jazz band, but the Chinese New Year Dragons probably win the award for best costume:

I first wrote about this last year, but one thing the parade definitely needs is floats. A parade without floats is just a stroll. Floats are fun to decorate, and in their abillity to induce one-upmanship, will entice additional student organizations to get involved with the event.

The second thing the parade needs is a later start time. (Perhaps even a different date? Friday evening before a Saturday football game?) But asking college students to round themselves up at 10AM on a Saturday morning is probably a bridge too far.

The third thing that would be cool to see would be for alumni to join the parade. Granted, this may be a complete rip-off of Princeton's P-rade, but imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? And we're more of a Big Ten school than the Tigers will ever hope to be, besides.

As for the football game, the Only Real Marching Band in the Ivy League sounded excellent. 'Pinball Wizard' is a joy to hear reverberate off of the Crescent and into Cayuga's hills. No comment on the score.

Matthew Nagowski | September 27, 2010 (#)

Is the SA Actually Considering A Useful Resolution?

I often get asked why MetaEzra doesn't cover the activities of the Student Assembly. It's an easy question to answer: because often the concerns of said body boil down to petty politics and are immaterial to the well-being of students and the important changes that are actually occurring on campus. (Like concealed carry resolutions that are clearly against New York State law or the right of private associations of students to associate with whomever they please.)

But today's Sun article today on a resolution for the University to disclose administrative salaries caught my eye, because it deals directly with an issue that impacts all students: tuition.

Resolution 12 would urge Cornell to disclose salary and benefit information for all University administrators listed in the Cornell Annual and Financial Report and make the information available for public viewing online. The bill also requests a disclosure of the University’s specific policies regarding performance-based compensation, as well as a ratio of the president’s total annual compensation to the compensation of all other employees.

But regardless of how the S.A. votes on the matter, it remains unclear how much influence the resolution will have. Because the University is recognized by New York State as a private institution — even though it operates several statutory colleges — it is not required to disclose its employees’ salary figures, as would be required of a public institution, according to Nelson Roth, deputy university counsel. Roth added that he does not believe that the University’s official policy to withhold such information would change, though the ultimate decision would be President David Skorton’s.

The resolution was proposed by Andrew Brokman ’11, a representative at-large in the S.A. Brokman said that the spike in undergraduate tuition, which increased 7.9 percent for the land-grant colleges and 4.5 percent for the endowed colleges, combined with a general rise in administrative salaries, was the main impetus for the bill. He added that he was disappointed that while administrative salaries rose, those for faculty actually declined.

“Publishing administrative salaries would ensure that Cornell becomes more fiscally responsible, as it would be more responsive to financial pressures,” the resolution states. “The Annual Report on Executive Compensation will help to clarify the fiscal state of the University and will contribute to a more transparent human resources allocation, which is, by far, Cornell’s largest expenditure.”

It's encouraging to see students take initiative in understanding how the University is run, and just where, exactly, their tuition dollars are going. As the challenges of the coming decade lay ahead of us, it is going to be up to the University, and its myriad constituents, to demand transparency and effectiveness in its policies.

If I could improve the resolution in one way, it would be to expand the disclosure to employees beyond the senior administration: average employee salaries for the rank and file administrative, professional (faculty and non-faculty), and support staff should also be included in any disclosure.

One of the reasons why tuition increases continue to outpace the rate of inflation is due to the growth of non-academic staff; non-academic professionals and managers have grown at a rate three time the rate of faculty over the last decade. While Cornell has seen an increase in faculty by five percent, white-collar, non-academic (e.g. not research related) employees have seen an increase of 14 percent.

Now granted, a lot of these new employees may be critical for such efforts as the University's capital campaign or as mental health counselors to students. But any clear comprehension of the fiscal challenges of academe requires us to understand why this growth is needed, what these employees are doing, and how much they are getting paid.

Matthew Nagowski | September 21, 2010 (#)

Coming From Cornell, Teaching For America

I'll dispense with the normal introductory anecdote about teaching in the inner city. I've had plenty of them so far: girls in rival gangs screaming at each other across the classroom, boys throwing textbooks out the windows, constant profanity and disrespect towards everyone and anyone, and students who get up and walk out of class whenever they feel like it.

I spend upwards of 75 hours per week in my classroom, and dedicate almost all of my weekend to working, but I never seem to get far enough ahead in my planning. I am ever tempted to simply photocopy materials from our textbooks (at least for my class that has textbooks) or give my kids word searches and crossword puzzles to do, but activities like those wouldn't close the achievement gap. Instead, I spend hours creating differentiated activities, putting together makeup work for students whom I haven't seen in two weeks, and struggling with the bulky responsibility of teaching seven classes.

Like 59 other Cornell graduates (third-most among all colleges), I joined Teach For America. Our organization, and our cause, has gotten more and more attention every year. No doubt every Northeast native in TFA had at least ten family members and friends send them the recent stories in the NYT and WSJ.

My goal in this post isn't to focus on conditions in my school in particular, or my personal struggles, but instead to discuss Cornell's role in this rapidly expanding movement.

Eleven percent of Cornell's class of 2010 applied to Teach For America. To those who - like me - have become troubled by the heavy emphasis among Cornell students on working on Wall Street or going to law school, this may seem to be good news. But I do not think that we are seeing a significant shift in the mindsets of these types of students. Yes, many of the pre-moneymaker students are applying to TFA, but I don't think that they're the ones who make it through. They are the pals of the Harvard student interviewed in the Times article who "says one of her closest friends wanted to do Teach for America, but was rejected and had to 'settle' for University of Virginia Law School." My hypothesis is that TFA's application numbers are being driven up in part by graduates who balk at the current business and law climates, but that TFA membership is still primarily filled by the idealistic, self-sacrificing types who are, in the end, the only ones who can actually make a difference in the worst parts of America.

As this is a Cornell-interest blog, I would love to be able to write that Cornell has prepared me well for this experience. While I'm not sure that much of anything could have prepared me, the stimulating seminars in McGraw and Goldwin Smith haven't been particularly applicable.

The best comparison I can draw involves those nights - familiar to many in A&S - when you have a paper due at 10:10 that you don't get around to starting until the night before. With the help of music, caffeine, whatever else, you stay up until 4, grab a few hours of sleep, and stumble into your class to drop off the paper. "Cornell is so tough," you think to yourself as you return home immediately after class to nap and rest up for that night's partying.

Now, picture that kind of stress on a nightly basis, when you have a tremendous amount of preparation to do for the next morning. However, you can't just drop off the work and go home to sleep. Instead, you wake up at 5 a.m. to stand in front of a succession of large classes of students who will expose your weaknesses and challenge your control of the classroom.

I do not wish to dissuade Cornell students - or anyone else - interested in teaching in a high-need area. We need more people working to close the achievement gap. Just know that as hard as you are working on that senior thesis, those problem sets, or that prelim, teaching would be much more difficult.

Cornell's emergence as a TFA pipeline is probably due to a combination of four factors. First, the poor outlook for jobs in business and law hits at two of the major areas of interest for Cornell students, and the perceived lack of jobs gets students interested in other options. Second, many Cornell students grew up near major East Coast cities and have seen the poverty in these communities. Third, Cornell has a large Greek system, and TFA seems to like applicants with Greek leadership experience. Fourth, this trend is compounding. As more Cornellians apply, TFA dedicates more resources to trying to get more Cornellians to apply, and younger students hear about older students who are applying.

I will close by offering two suggestions. The first is for the university. Since so many Cornellians are applying to TFA, why not offer a course specifically about the achievement gap, or about the relations at the district level between unions and groups like TFA? At least students might be better informed about the issues before they submit their applications. The second is to students who apply for TFA or similar programs. Before you make a decision, do your best to arrange an opportunity to observe a classroom in a high-need environment. It can be rough out here.

Elie Bilmes | September 12, 2010 (#)

Other Recent Posts

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

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