Goals are meaningless and harmful

Minnesota’s population of 5 million realistically is only enough to support one good public university.

While the University’s goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world within the decade is certainly ambitious, it does have three flaws: It is meaningless, unachievable and harmful to the community the University is meant to serve.

There are a number of college rankings published each year, and, unsurprisingly, their results differ. Universities perform research and educate students in a wide variety of fields. A large university has dozens of departments, hundreds of faculty members and thousands of students each performing a variety of tasks. To evaluate all these activities would be extremely difficult.

Consider the relatively simple case of trying to rank the quality of five articles published in “The American Journal of Economics.” The rankings by economists would differ because this judgment is, to some extent, subjective. It is much easier to rely on a few objectively measurable indicators of performance ‘ such as annual research expenditures or number of national awards received by faculty members ‘ as proxy measures of quality. But the link between these indicators and the true quality of a school is uncertain.

If the only problems with school rankings were that they were difficult, subjective and prone to uncertainties, they would be no more problematic than many other judgments we are forced to make every day.

Suppose that the faculty and staff members of Harvard were to undergo a crash course in Mongolian and the entire school transferred to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The Mongolians would find it too expensive for the small number of graduates it turns out and its elitist ethos would be a poor fit for a country at their stage of development.

A university’s level of success depends on its situation, the community it is meant to serve and its intended role in that community. There is no one best college, and talk of the top three public research universities is nonsense.

The University has decided to determine whether it has reached its goal by relying on the methodology developed by TheCenter at the University of Florida. TheCenter uses nine indicators to measure success: total research expenditures, federal research expenditures, endowment assets, annual giving, faculty members in the National Academies, faculty member awards, doctoral degrees, postdoctoral appointees and entering freshmen SAT scores. Basically, the University will consider itself to have met its goal if it matches the performance of schools like University of California-Berkeley or the University of Michigan in relation to these indicators.

Forget for the moment that the goal is meaningless. Forget that the University would declare itself one of the top universities in the world using a methodology that excludes universities outside the United States, and that the methodology was not designed and is not capable of identifying the top three colleges. Is the University’s goal achievable?

In the past 10 years, tuition and fees at the University have increased 77 percent, adjusted for inflation. Yet, over the past five years for which data is available, the rank has declined in six of the nine indicators. Does the University need to triple tuition to reach its goal?

The University’s president has assured us that “we don’t have far to go; the goal is within our grasp” in his Nov. 7 column “The University’s winning strategy”. He cites that the average ACT score for the 2005 freshman class was up from 1995. The ability to attract better students is an indicator of a school’s quality.

This 5 percent increase in test scores may well be because of factors having nothing to do with the University’s quality. The 2005 freshman class was the peak of the baby boom echo: there were 25 percent more Minnesota high school graduates in 2004 than in 1994, and the percentage of high school graduates that went on to college was 10 percent higher in 2004 than 10 years ago. So the pool of applicants was naturally larger. In addition, the average Minnesota high school graduate of 2004 had a college entrance test score of 2 percent higher than his or her 1994 counterpart.

Common sense would tell us the University cannot become an elite school like Berkeley. California has a population of 35 million: It can afford one Berkeley, one University of California-Los Angeles and perhaps six good universities like University of California-Davis. Michigan has a population of 10 million and just can afford the elite University of Michigan and one good university: Michigan State. Minnesota’s population of 5 million only can support one good public university.

Perhaps it does. In the Oct. 26 Daily article “Florida shows U the ranks,” the director of the University’s Office of Accountability is quoted as saying that the University’s goal is “an aspirational goal” rather than a concrete one. What does this mean? “Aspirational goal” is simply a pleonasm. But what is a goal that is not concrete? Imaginary? Unreal? The Office of Accountability seems to be saying that the University’s goal is “just pretend.”

Part two of this column will examine the harmful effects of the University’s strategic plan.

Robert Katz is a University library assistant. Please send comments to [email protected]