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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 | Posted on September 28, 2010 (#)

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