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The Rankings Game

  • Date: 08/19/2000
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • As many of you have heard me say, The University of Akron provides something special to you, our students, and it is by your success that we measure ourselves.

    Comparisons are a part of life. We all want to know how we are doing, compared to others, compared to some standard, or compared to some record set in competition.

    In business, this process of comparison is called benchmarking, and it is designed to tell a company how well it is performing relative to the standard (or benchmark) for the industry.

    In society, we make all sorts of comparisons. We compare products, we compare organizations, and we compare individuals and groups of individuals.

    I am sure you have not failed to notice that the press is now busy telling us how we should compare George W. Bush and Al Gore as candidates for the presidency.

    Not so long ago, your ability to make sound judgments based on objective comparisons made you, in a positive sense, a discriminating individual.

    A discriminating person, in that sense of the word, was not a racist or a bigot. Rather, a discriminating person was one who could judge good and poor quality, who could discern right from wrong, who could separate fact from hype.

    Today, discrimination has taken on negative connotations, and the subtleties of good judgment have given way to the simplicities of opinion and rankings.

    Today, our society is so fascinated with ratings that we rank songs, movies, books, and consumer products. We rank sports teams, corporations, states, cities, countries, and yes, we even rank universities.

    There appears to be no limit to what can be ranked, as demonstrated by comedian David Letterman and his nightly top-ten list. And, I am sure that somewhere, there is even a ranking of the top rankings.

    Why does our society so enthusiastically embrace the ranking process?

    On the surface at least, ordered lists take on the appearance of simplicity, and -- by the sequence of the things ranked -- such lists also tempt us to think that our decisions can also be so simply ordered.

    Equally significant is our competitive nature.

    We all strive to be "First."

    "Numero Uno!"

    When rankings come out, we eagerly consume the findings. If ranked high, we market the results. If ranked low, we decry the methodology.

    As my good colleague, Bob Rosenzweig, the former President of the Association of American Universities, has put it,

    "To the very few of life's eternal certainties -- death and taxes head the list -- Americans, at least, may confidently add a third: ratings."

    And he continues...

    "We are an extremely competitive people, a fact reflected in both our political and our economic systems. Moreover, we are not content simply that every contest produce a winner and a loser; rather, we yearn to know who among the winners is the best of the best."
    "Hence, the preoccupation with ratings of all kinds: the best automobiles, the best mutual funds, the best washing machines, and on into a list that is limited only by the imaginations of magazine editors and marketing specialists."
    (Robert M. Rosenzweig book review of The Rise of American Research Universities: Elites and Challenges in the Postwar Era, Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond, John Hopkins University Press, 1997)
    However, you need to know that not all rankings are created equal. To define the worth of any ranking, we need to make some careful judgments. In a sense, we need to put the ranking process itself under a microscope.

    British Physician Anthony Daniels, in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, states that the problem with any list is that

    "once it exists, it is almost impossible to liberate minds from the prejudice that it must mean something."

    "In other words, (we imagine that) there must be some indubitable feature of reality to which it corresponds. For surely no one would go to such great lengths . . . if it didn't hold some meaning."
    ("'Fair' Health Care Isn't Always Best," Theodore Dalrymple [pen name of Anthony Daniels], June 28, 2000, Page A22)

    Nevertheless, rankings sell products, establish perceptions, and provide the basis for competition. In short, rankings tend to drive performance.

    And that goes for universities as well!

    As graduates and ambassadors for the University, I thought you would like to know how your university stacks up against the competition.

    Perhaps the best-known collegiate rankings are published annually by the magazine, U.S. News & World Report. And according to this year's issue, The University of Akron has some very legitimate points of pride.
    ("America's Best Graduate Schools," U.S. News & World Report, 2000 Edition)

    The University of Akron is the only university in Ohio, public or private, to have a science and engineering program ranked in the top five nationally. The University of Akron's Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering program is ranked 2nd nationally, and ahead of such highly respected universities as MIT and CalTech.

    And our Industrial and Organization Psychology program is ranked 7th in the nation.

    And let me tell you something else. Among all of Ohio's institutions of higher education, only five universities had any nationally ranked programs -- The University of Akron, The Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University, The University of Cincinnati, and Bowling Green State University.

    Besides the U.S. News & World Report rankings, there is a just-released approach on Measuring University Performance as compiled by The Lombardi Program at the University of Florida. (July 2000).

    In that report, The University of Akron is ranked among the top 100 public universities in five out of the ten dimensions used for the study, including National Academy Members, Doctorates Awarded, Postdoctoral Appointees, Endowment Assets, and National Merit and Achievement Scholars.

    And I thought that you would want to know that within Ohio, only The Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University and The University of Cincinnati did better than we did.

    And true to our competitive spirit, you also should know that no other nearby universities scored a top 100 ranking in any of the ten dimensions -- except one, and it did so in only one dimension, while your University of Akron scored top 100 rankings in five!

    By other similarly objective criteria, there are even more nationally recognized programs here at The University Akron. They include our programs in sales and marketing, gerontological nursing, counseling psychology, dance, and emergency management. And other indicators of excellence abound, which I will not enumerate today.

    Rankings and objective criteria such as these help us to tell our story, and it is a good one indeed!

    When we get right down to it, however, studies show that student success is based on the quality and effort of the student, not the perceived reputation or ranking of a university.

    And for local success stories, we need not look any farther than four blocks from here -- where University of Akron alumni Pete Burg and Tony Alexander steer the local energy giant, FirstEnergy.

    The electric company is already one of the largest in the U. S., and with the announcement earlier this month of its purchase of an eastern utility, FirstEnergy is about to become even larger.

    These successful businessmen did not need to attend an Ivy League School to run a Fortune 500 company. Pete and Tony went to The University of Akron, and they sat in many of the same classrooms you did. And as alumni, they remain active in University affairs.

    There are literally thousands of other success stories involving University of Akron alumni, and as graduates, you are now ready to start writing one of your own.

    As you now close one chapter of your life, we ask that you remain active in the life of the University and a member of the University family.

    This is an exciting time for the University, which is literally reinventing itself, with new academic programs, new teaching technologies, and with a New Landscape for Learning that is already transforming this campus into one of the finest in the country.

    You can be an important and active part of that momentum. You can help us tell our story, and together, we will shape the future.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Summer 2000 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

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