The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.
Recently, U.S. News and World Report Recently listed Miami as the number one public college in the country in terms of commitment to undergraduate teaching. We were ranked number two overall, just behind Princeton University. At first glance, this recognition seems to be an excellent achievement earned by the university and all the people that make it up. And for what it’s worth, Miami professors and administrator deserve our congratulations and appreciation for their hand in this.
However, in order to fully understand the full scope of this distinction, we must analyze it further. Taken with a grain of salt, it may not necessarily seem so prestigious.
To start, this award was not based upon any empirical or comprehensive review of data or numbers. Rather, it is based on the opinions of college officials. U.S. News and World Report asked college presidents, provosts and admissions deans last spring to nominate 10 colleges based upon their commitment to undergraduate teaching as part of a larger survey.
As the methodology behind the list says, these “rankings are based solely on the responses to this separate section of the 2016 peer assessment survey.”
This ranking is hardly scientific, more resembling a college football poll than an objective assessment of the nation’s best undergraduate programs. Again, the fact that Miami was mentioned so frequently by these officials is cause for some celebration. However, we must put it into context to know just how much water the designation holds. And in this case, listing Miami as the second best college in the country in this category seems quite arbitrary.
Some who see this news may think that there is no reason for anyone at Miami to critique, or otherwise put in a negative light, this development. Why should we complain about being ranked high? The problem, though, with this line of thinking is that it opens up our school to a slippery slope of the status of our academics standards.
The danger in relying on such arbitrary rankings is settling into an all too comfortable groove where we don’t strive for any progress. If any problems do exist within our undergraduate teaching programs, rankings like this one dissuade the Miami community across the board to ignore them and sweep them under the rug. If we are already number two, then there comes the feeling that we need not improve or add anything to our educative efforts. And, as pointed out, the ranking of second in the nation is highly questionable.
This problem does not apply to Miami alone. When rankings like these come out, they truly don’t do schools, and consequently students, any service. Those at the bottom of the list complain that they are not factual, while those at the top simply sit pretty for their donors. Not every single quantification of undergraduate effectiveness via list is so pointless. However, when such a list is based on unquantifiable criteria, i.e. asking people what school they think is best, the pursuit of truth becomes futile.
In other words, education analysis needs some metrics, but turning it into a game of who is the best based on opinions defeats this purpose.
Additionally, the perennial nature of these rankings suggests that the method used to make the calculations may be outdated and not relevant to today’s students, as many staff members have pointed out in Megan Zahneis’s news article on the issue. Patting ourselves on the back every single year for this mention may feel good for everyone at the time, but it does nothing to actually improve the status of our student-professor relationships.
Again, there are numerous aspects of our undergraduate studies that are measurable and that we can all be proud of. Zahneis’s piece mentions that Miami’s faculty-to-student ratio is 17:1 and that 31.9% of Miami’s courses have 20 students or fewer. These numbers are encouraging, and show that there is certainly some level of truth to Miami’s high rank.
However, as we continue to admit more students and expand the university while at the same time not working to expand the number of educators, we run the risk of tricking ourselves into thinking that everything is okay.
The bottom line is that the state of our university cannot be boiled down to a number, especially a number that is contrived from only the opinions of officials. We must continue to grow and improve in our efforts to provide a great education to students, and as we continue to see tight budgets and decreased funding, these efforts are as important as ever.
A good ranking may look attractive to prospective students and perhaps even donors, but if we don’t continue to offer the best service possible to our current students, we as a university community are not doing our part of the educational goal of Miami.