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Beyond Research Rankings

Research competitiveness and productivity are complex subjects that should inform the development and oversight of R&D programs at the national, state and institutional levels. From a national policy perspective, studies of our national innovation ecosystem – of the factors that promote discovery and innovation – are important to America’s economic vitality.

Ironically, rather than advance our knowledge and discussion of these important topics, many university presidents seem more inclined to debate the shortcomings of available measures such as the rankings of U.S. News & World Report, sometimes even threatening to boycott the surveys. What is more, these same presidents defend the absence of adequate measurements of institutional performance by saying that the strength of American higher education lies in the diversity of its institutions. So why not develop a framework that characterizes institutional variety and demonstrates productivity understandably, effectively and broadly throughout the spectrum of our institutions?

Of course, it is not easy to characterize the wide range of America’s more than 3,500 colleges and universities. Even among the more limited number of research universities, institutional diversity is so broad that every approach to rank or even classify institutions has been rightly criticized. Most research rankings use only input measures, such as amount of federal funding or total expenditures for research, when funding agencies would be served better by information about outcomes — the research performance of universities.

The Center for Measuring University Performance, founded by John Lombardi, has compiled some of the most comprehensive data on research universities. Its annual studies examine the multi-dimensional aspects of research universities and rank them in groups defined by relative performance on various measurable characteristics — research funding, private giving, faculty awards, doctorate degrees, postdoctoral fellows and measures of undergraduate student quality.

The 2005 report of the Center and a recent column on this site by Lombardi note the upward or downward skewing of expenditure rankings by the mere presence or absence of either a medical or an engineering school, thereby acknowledging the problems of comparability among institutions. Lombardi hints at a much-needed analysis of research competitiveness/strengths and productivity, stating, “Real accountability comes when we develop specific measures to assess the performance of comparable institutions on the same measures.” Read On…..

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