The article that first exposed Columbia’s misrepresentation was written not by a disgruntled rival but by a tenured professor in Columbia’s own math department. Many people must have scratched their heads and wondered, “Why did he do it?”
Columbia’s leadership over the last two decades has made an unsustainable choice to portray life at the university in ways that are fundamentally at odds with reality. The phony ranking data are merely symptoms of this deeper malaise.
The public was told for years, for example, that Columbia had a higher proportion of small undergraduate classes (those with fewer than 20 students) than any other leading university. Last week, the truth that Columbia faculty and students have long known was confirmed: our undergraduate class sizes are by no means remarkably small. In fact, Columbia’s proportion of small classes is the second-worst in the Ivy League, not the best as Columbia had claimed.
Likewise, our administration had claimed that the overwhelming majority of faculty on our main campus was full-time, but now we learn that this, too, was false. In reality, the numbers of part-time faculty and full-time faculty are almost the same. Columbia, like so many other universities, is embracing the “gig economy,” outsourcing much of its instruction to temporary workers, who lack both adequate benefits and the protection of tenure that has enabled me to speak freely.
U.S. News, too, has much to answer for in this scandal. While it casts the college rankings as a consumer service, the product it peddles has done enormous harm to American higher education. Its conception of academic merit is simplistic and distorted. U.S. News claims to determine the “Best Colleges,” but all it really does is add up a series of somewhat extraneous variables, such as alumni giving and administrative spending.
It makes no attempt to assess the quality of teaching and scholarship directly. For how could it? A good education is a subtle thing that is far too complex to be reduced to a single number. The one-size-fits-all approach of the U.S. News ranking ignores the reality that different students have different interests and needs. Some favor the arts, for example, while others prefer the sciences, but the ranking makes no such distinction. Students are ill advised to rely on an arbitrary rating assigned by others rather than choosing thoughtfully for themselves.
At the most basic level, the U.S. News ranking is a failure because the purported facts on which it is based cannot be trusted. Plainly, its vetting of the data reported by colleges has been cursory, even shoddy.
The details of this scandal, like most scandals, are complicated and confusing. But its lessons are clear and simple. Columbia should conduct a thorough housecleaning of its administrative leadership and renew its commitment to teaching and research. And U.S. News should get out of the rankings business altogether.