Northeastern University moved up 113 spots in the USN&WR rankings in 17 years

Northeastern University successfully moved itself up the US News and World Report college rankings in a relatively short amount of time:

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”…

In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. “The focus on the ranking is not a strategy, for a simple reason,” he says. “You have thousands of rankings. So you will lose sleep if you start chasing all of them.” While it’s true that U.S. News no longer appears in the university’s strategic plan, it does appear in NU’s portrayal of itself: The school has no qualms using its high ranking in recruiting materials and publicity videos. Yet multiple Northeastern administrators expressed concern over this article’s focus on the rankings. One vice president telephoned Boston’s editors in a panic.

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA. And Aoun is a willing participant. “He may not admit to it, but that’s definitely what’s going on,” says Bob Lowndes, who is retiring as vice provost for global relations. Ahmed Abdelal, provost under both Freeland and Aoun, says the two presidents have shared “the same goal: further advancement in national ranking.”

These rankings clearly matter and few schools can ignore them completely. A few parts of this that I found interesting:

1. There are some indications in the article that some faculty resisted this rankings push. It would be interesting to hear more. At the same time, doesn’t being ranked #49 now mean faculty would also benefit?

2. The article suggests but doesn’t say exactly how much Northeastern was able to budge the reputational assessments. These can take take a long time to move. Another difficulty is that for a school like Northeastern to move up, others have to move down. But, it sounds like the gladhanding campaign had some effect.

3. Articles like these suggest that gaming the rankings is a bad thing. Lots of academics would talk about how this goes against the true values of a college education. Yet, the rankings matter to the public. The success of the US News & World Report Rankings has helped lead to a whole cottage industry of other assessments based on the best financial value schools, the best schools for public service, and so on. And, it is hard to imagine that once you introduce a quantifiable system like this in any industry that is highly based on status – and academia is perhaps a status industry par excellence – that one of the outcomes will be that different actors will want to work their way to the top.

Confessions of a Community College College Dean: “Foucault, plus lawn care”

The “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog at Inside Higher Ed has this intro tagline for the author:

In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Is it fair to say the implied contrast here is that this cultural studies scholar wouldn’t have imagined being part of suburban life? Knowledge of lofty French thinkers and maintaining a yard. I suspect there are many in academia who would have similar thoughts: I’m an expert in such and such field, study important things all day, and for sure won’t end up in the populist and anti-intellectual suburbs. Yet, some certainly do become suburbanites. How do they reconcile these two areas of life?

“Learn to Write Badly: How to Write in the Social Sciences”

A new book titled Learn to Write Badly highlights the poor writing in the social sciences. Here is an example of such writing as sociologist C. Wright Mills tries to simplify the work of Talcott Parsons:

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills’s “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here’s a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

The short book review suggests the author argues disciplinary jargon is the result of new adherents wanting to fit in. One way to fit in is to talk and write like a social scientist, which includes certain conventions.

Still, I’ve heard this argument for years from within sociology and from the outside (including lots of students): sociologists should be able to explain their ideas in simpler terms. Particularly when the complaint arises that sociology gets less of a public hearing than other disciplines, this topic comes up. But, I haven’t heard too many responses to this complaint that include citing sociologists or journals or book series that do a good job of writing sociologically. Are there widely accepted examples of sociologists consistently writing well?

American colleges have Gothic architecture because they wanted to be linked to English universities, make clear their intellectual heritage

American colleges adopted Gothic architecture to make statements about their connections to the past as well as to other well-known schools:

American universities had always treasured the influence of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges that would become the Ivy League were meant to model the Oxbridgian ideal of constructing a college around a quadrangle. In practice, though, American colleges of the 18th century were quite different. They were more devoted to scholarship than their British brethren. They were disconnected from a university. And they were poorer: Often, they didn’t have enough money to complete a ring of buildings around their quad…

“What Gothic meant changed depending on the time,” Johanna Seasonwein, a fellow at Princeton University Art Museum, told me. When Victorians emulated Gothic, they did it sloppily, mixing styles and idioms. “Something Islamic, something Byzantine,” might get thrown in there, says Seasonwein. This was the Victorian Gothic of the 1860s and ‘70s: a mishmash.

Collegiate Gothic, which followed Victorian Gothic, was much more precise. It emulated Oxford and Cambridge more directly.

There’s even a patient zero, of sorts, of Collegiate Gothic. In 1894, Bryn Mawr commissioned a new building, Pembroke. Its interpretation of Gothic so inspired other schools that they commissioned similar plans from the architects which designed the hall. (That firm, Stewardson & Cope, wound up constructing a near-copy of Pembroke on Princeton’s campus, where it’s called Blair Hall.)…

Collegiate Gothic was not a naive emulation, though. The Gothic revival “was just as much saying who was accepted in this atmosphere [of the college] as who was not,” says Seasonwein. Universities were expanding, and welcoming new students, but they were still mostly populated by WASPy men. Before the 1890s, many college presidents would have resisted a filigreed medieval style for fear it would look too “papist.”

Woodrow Wilson, when president of Princeton, has a now-famous quote about the revival: “By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton,” he said. Normally, the quote is truncated there, but in fact it continues: “…by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historical traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.” (Emphasis mine.)

All together, this is a good reminder that an architectural style we associate with a particular set of activities didn’t necessarily have to be. Social forces pushed colleges to adopt a particular architecture and they assumed this design communicated key messages.

The examples of collegiate Gothic cited in this article tend to be from elite Northeast and Midwest institutions. So does this architecture today still function in a similar manner, clearly demarcating these campuses as a cut above the rest? Other kinds of colleges, perhaps marked by region or the year they were founded or the students they serve, might have intentionally adopted other architectural styles to communicate other messages. Let’s say we wanted to look at the architecture of community colleges. I suspect more of them are post-World War II institutions that more modernist and functional architecture. What exactly does this communicate? Some counterfactuals might be interesting to look at as well: the community college with more traditional architecture or the elite school, like a Caltech, that has a different architectural style.

Activist charged for downloading millions of JSTOR articles

Many academics use databases like JSTOR to find articles from academic journals. However, one user violated the terms of service by downloading millions of articles and is now being charged by the federal government:

Swartz, the 25-year-old executive director of Demand Progress, has a history of downloading massive data sets, both to use in research and to release public domain documents from behind paywalls. He surrendered in July 2011, remains free on bond and faces dozens of years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

Like last year’s original grand jury indictment on four felony counts, (.pdf) the superseding indictment (.pdf) unveiled Thursday accuses Swartz of evading MIT’s attempts to kick his laptop off the network while downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a not-for-profit company that provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals that are normally inaccessible to the public…

“JSTOR authorizes users to download a limited number of journal articles at a time,” according to the latest indictment. “Before being given access to JSTOR’s digital archive, each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export content from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated programs such as web robots, spiders, and scrapers. JSTOR also uses computerized measures to prevent users from downloading an unauthorized number of articles using automated techniques.”

MIT authorizes guests to use the service, which was the case with Swartz, who at the time was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

It sounds like there is some disconnect here: services like JSTOR want to maintain some control over the academic content they provide even as they exist to help researchers find printed scholarly articles. Services like JSTOR can make big money by collating journal articles and requiring libraries to pay for access. Thus, someone like Swartz could download a lot of the articles and then avoid paying for or using JSTOR down the road (though academic users are primarily paying through institutions who pass the costs along to users). But what is “a limited number of journal articles at a time”? Using an automated program is clearly out according to the terms of service but what if a team of undergraduates banded together, downloaded a similar number of articles, and pooled their downloads?

If we are indeed headed toward a world of “big data,” which presumably would include the thousands of scholarly articles published each year, we are likely in for some interesting battles in a number of areas over who gets to control, download, and access this data.

Another thought: does going to open access academic journals eliminate this issue?

Lack of good data on grad students who go into nonacademic jobs

I was just asked about this recently so I was interested to see this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about efforts to get better data about graduate students who go on to nonacademic careers:

The Council of Graduate Schools published a wider-scoped study this year. “Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers” focuses on the transition from graduate school to job. Its findings, based on consultation with students, deans, and employers, are now resonating in an academic culture that remains fixated on the tenure-track outcome.

The council’s study found that professors don’t talk enough to their graduate students about possible jobs outside of academe, even though such nonfaculty positions are “of interest to students.” That lack of guidance is particularly egregious in light of where graduate students actually end up: About half of new Ph.D.’s get their first jobs outside of academe, “in business, government, or nonprofit jobs,” the council’s report said.

The CGS study included a survey but the results have not been published. Incredibly, there has been no significant survey of graduate-student career outcomes since Nerad and Cerny’s [a 1999 study]—and they limited their sample to Ph.D.’s who had received their degrees nearly 30 years ago now.

So it’s big news that the Scholarly Communication Institute is conducting a new survey of former graduate students who have (or are building) careers outside the professoriate—a career category now commonly called alternative academic, or “alt-ac.” (You can tell how embedded an idea has become when it gets a handle as brief as that.)

You would think there would be more data on this topic but since graduate schools themselves may not have a great interest in this information, it takes some other group or interested party to pull it all together.

I know in reports like these graduate school faculty tend to take a beating because they don’t talk enough about nonacademic options. While they should know something about the topic and perhaps in the future they can point their students to this new survey and database, how much could they really know about the nonacademic world? They often face a lot of pressure to keep up in their own settings, let alone find out about areas that their schools and departments wouldn’t really reward them for. Perhaps there would be some way to introduce incentives to the system that could help reward faculty for also talking about life outside academia? I wonder how many departments in certain subjects would feel like failures if half their graduates ended up in nonacademic jobs…this is not conducive to wanting to share more information with students.

Improving sociological writing by putting in the form of a famous poem?

Academics are sometimes criticized for dense and jargon-laden prose. Here is one way to get around this: adopt the form of a well-known poem.

An academic has written a damning report on the shipping industry in the form of Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Professor Michael Bloor, of Cardiff University, spent 12 years, researching the conditions of maritime crews, including a month on a supertanker.

His study, called The Rime of the Globalised Mariner, is published in the academic journal Sociology.

He said he hoped the poetry would have more effect than “sociological prose”.

It would be interesting to get the inside view of the review process for this paper.

While I don’t envision a large number of academic studies now being written in poetic form, this does seem like it could be a useful exercise: see if you can express the same ideas in a different way. Perhaps this isn’t too different that asking students to write an exam essay paper in the form of a speech or to express some concepts in a skit: the process of “translating” the information into an extra form could aid retention as well as boost creativity.

As I noted in my notes on ASA 2012 in Denver, seeing sociologists express themselves (and I imagine participating in this as well) in different forms is rewarding. While we will continue our more scientific standards for most output, why not think more broadly and express ideas in ways that are more familiar to the general public?