Clemson denies being obsessed with US News ranking

Statement from Cathy Sams, Chief Public Affairs Officer, Clemson University


The outrageous statements about Clemson University in today’s Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education demand a response. The accusation that Clemson, its staff and administrators have engaged in unethical conduct to achieve a higher ranking is untrue and unfairly disparages the sincere, unwavering and effective efforts of faculty and staff to improve academic quality over the past 10 years. While we have publicly stated our goal of a Top 20 ranking, we have repeatedly stressed that we use the criteria as indicators of quality improvement and view a ranking as the byproduct, not the objective.

To some extent the “evidence” of manipulation shared at the Association for Institutional Research meeting falls into the category of the same old “urban legends” that Clemson has been dealing since adopting the vision of becoming one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities. Every year or two, one of these myths starts making the rounds again. But the insinuation of unethical behavior crosses the line.

First, it’s simply not true that all decisions at Clemson are driven by rankings. It is true that over the past 10 years, Clemson has invested in faculty resources, student academic support, and faculty salaries, all of which may contribute to improved rankings. It’s also true that during that same time we invested in other major projects, such as launching three off-campus economic development centers, doubling PhD enrollment, and building a nationally ranked cyber-infrastructure – none of which impacts US News rankings. We now participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is not considered in the US News rankings, and the Voluntary System of Accountability. You could take 5 facts and build a case that all we’re interested in are the rankings. You could take another 5 facts and build a case that we’re completely ignoring them.

We realize that we stuck our necks out when we adopted the vision statement. Few universities are willing to be quite so public. It makes us an easy target for a misinformation campaign.

Here are a few facts:

* It is true that we have invested in faculty resources and academic support for students, which contributes to rankings. It also contributes to things US News doesn’t include, such as higher scholarship retention, better student performance, and higher ratings for student satisfaction and engagement. The primary factor influencing those investment decisions is the desire to help students succeed and stay on track for graduation, not rankings.

* It is also true that we have hired more than 330 faculty members over the past four years in new positions and to replace retiring faculty, and they have been hired at market salaries. This impacts overall faculty compensation, but the driving factor is the market, not the rankings.

* It’s true that performance in critical freshman-level courses such as math and science has increased while the “D,W,F” grade rates have dropped, and since freshman retention is a ranking criterion, that helps the rankings. One factor may be smaller classes, but equally if not more important was a significant effort by faculty in those departments to change the way the classes are taught. Clemson faculty have won national awards for introducing these new teaching methods.

* It’s true that tuition has increased, but the single most important factor influencing tuition is declining state support. In Fall 2000, our state appropriation was $167.5 million, which was about 39 percent of total revenues. In Fall 2009, our state appropriation will be $124.2 million, which will be less than 20 percent of our total budget. Obviously such a significant reduction is bound to have a major impact on tuition.

* It is true that the quality of the student body has climbed, which contributes to rankings. But the reason is that over the past 10 years, applications to Clemson have doubled while enrollment has been held steady. This rise in applications is a direct result of improved academic reputation, because the students who come to Clemson could go anywhere, and they have high expectations for quality.

• The quality of student body has also improved because we are keeping more of South Carolina’s top students in state (thanks to lottery-funded scholarships) and Clemson gets the majority of those students. That does benefit us in the rankings, but what’s wrong with attracting good students and keeping more of our top students in-state? That was the intent of the lottery-funded scholarships in the first place, and it also speaks of our commitment to the land-grant mission.

* Institutional Research has never, not once, produced duplicate faculty salary reports. We report the same data to US News that we report to the American Association of University Professors. US News includes benefits in faculty salary for Clemson and for every national university they rank – something that Ms. Watt apparently didn’t know.

Statement from Jim Barker, President
In 2001, we adopted a set of 10-year goals – 27 in all – to improve quality, and those goals are driving decisions at Clemson. About a half-dozen of these goals correspond with US News ranking criteria. The majority do not. You’ll find goals related to public service, collaboration, diversity, the campus environment, even athletics, none of which are factors in US News rankings. But they are important to Clemson. I’m very proud of all that Clemson’s faculty, administrators, staff and students have achieved through hard work, creativity and in some cases sheer tenacity. I have frequently said that as long as we continue to focus on students and academic quality, the rankings will take care of themselves. And that has been the case.

Statement from Dori Helms, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
We do believe that things like class size, graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, and faculty compensation are important, and we pay attention to them. We have made decisions to enhance faculty resources and student support – because it was the right thing to do. We would not tolerate any efforts to manipulate data, and neither President Barker nor I would manipulate the data in ranking other institutions. We are proud of other institutions that represent quality higher education in this country and would not want to detract from their reputations.

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