Admins still optimistic about ‘top three’ goal

The University looks at the performance of about 12 of its peer schools.

Becoming one of the world’s top three public research universities – it’s alluded to in speeches and scattered throughout the media – is on the minds of administrators and right now, it may be the University’s credo.

The Board of Regents approved University President Bob Bruininks and Provost Tom Sullivan’s strategic positioning plan in June 2005, endorsing a plan to turn the University into one of the world’s leading public research universities.

While this goal is part of a 10-year process, Sullivan said rankings are important now because they establish benchmarks.

So who’s measuring this?

While administrators said they haven’t been assessing progress by a single measure, they’ve been paying attention to The Center for Measuring University Performance’s rankings, developed in the late 1990s to help the University of Florida measure research performance.

Sullivan said the center’s data is “about as good as is out there” and comes closest to measuring a university’s research productivity and reputation.

Craig Abbey, the center’s research director, said its rankings provide a wide look at benchmarking a public research university’s strengths from year to year and how it stacks up against competition for research dollars and top students.

“You can’t really tell how you’re improving unless you see how everybody else is doing,” he said.

The Center measures schools in nine categories, including endowment assets and how many of those categories are ranked in the overall top 25. The data doesn’t provide place-by-place rankings, but instead groups schools with the same number of measures in the top 25 in the same tier.

In the center’s 2006 report, the University had eight of nine measures in the top 25, along with three other schools. Seven schools, including the University of Wisconsin, have all nine in the top 25.

Abbey said a number of factors go into making a great research institution.

“Not even Harvard or even the best research institution is No. 1 in every measure,” he said.

Competition from Wisconsin – and the rest of the world

Sullivan said the University looks at the performance of about 12 peer schools, a group that includes Wisconsin, which in the past “went to a more rigorous admissions academic profile.”

“We did not do that,” Sullivan said. “(Wisconsin’s) reputation grew remarkably well through that reputation about their students.”

Sullivan said the University has also been slower to recruit nationally than schools like Wisconsin. While Minnesotans are top priority, the University is broadening the “admissions net” to a wider pool of students, he said.

“It’s the undergraduate academic profile of Wisconsin that gives them that bounce,” Sullivan said.

Abbey said comparing institutions on an international scale is difficult but not impossible.

“Even in just Canada, they’re not competing for the same pool of federal research dollars, let alone how the Swiss are financing their research institutions, or the Germans,” he said.

Times Higher Education ranks universities on a global scale but doesn’t rank world public research institutions.

In their “Top 200 World Universities,” the University is ranked 142nd, up from 187th in 2006.

What’s the University got to show so far?

According to the center’s data, the University’s only measure not ranked in the top 25 is SAT and ACT range. However, the University’s current ranking in that category is 30th, a jump from 43rd in 2000.

Sullivan said he expects the University to keep progressing.

“The percentage of students in the top 10 percentage of their high school class, the percentage of students in the top quartile of their class, all of those are remarkably up,” he said.

Sullivan also said there needs to be more research discoveries, such as physiology and medicine professor Doris Taylor’s recent laboratory re-creation of a beating heart.

In addition, Bruininks and Sullivan highlighted the success of recent fundraising and the more than 28,000 applicants for fall semester.

Bring on the haters

While officials maintain the goal is realistic, some students have voiced uncertainty and doubt.

In a recent e-mail to The Minnesota Daily, Bruininks stood by the likelihood of the goal being met.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” he said. “What separates the top three from the rest Ö including the University of Minnesota, is relatively little.”

As for the doubters? Bruininks said there’s nothing wrong with “healthy skepticism” because it forces administrators to evaluate goals.

“I’ve heard some of the ‘doubters’ say things like, ‘I’d settle for best in the Big Ten,” he said. “Students don’t choose the University of Minnesota for (a) mediocre future.”

Sullivan said a reasonable timeline was picked.

“Ten years seemed to be reasonable in light of the changes that had to take place,” he said.

Abbey said huge rankings jumps, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s from 2000, when they had six measures in the top 25, to 2006, when they boasted all nine in that range, are rare because they take long-term efforts by complex organizations.

“You just can’t turn everybody on a dime,” he said.

Sullivan said the goal’s value for current students is clear.

It’ll be even more impressive to have the school listed on your résumé, he said.

“People will begin to talk about the University of Minnesota in a world conversation, in China, in India, all of the places that are emerging as great markets,” Sullivan said. “The University of Minnesota’s name will be in that small group of universities.”