Tuesday, December 6, 2022

After a Professor’s Scrutiny, ‘U.S. News’ Pulls Columbia University’s No. 2 Ranking

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U.S. News & World Report has removed Columbia University’s National Universities ranking after the institution “failed to respond to multiple” requests from the magazine’s rankers “that the university substantiate certain data it previously submitted,” U.S. News analysts wrote on Thursday.

U.S. News had ranked No. 2 in the country for its undergraduate programs. Now it has no numerical ranking.

It’s rare for a university to lose its U.S. News position. “Typically less than 0.1%” of the ranked colleges have their spots pulled each year, Robert Morse, the magazine’s chief rankings analyst, wrote in a recent article. The unrankings usually occur when the college voluntarily informs U.S. News that it made a mistake in its data submission.

That was not the case for Columbia. In February, a math professor at the university, Michael Thaddeus, publicly questioned the accuracy of his institution’s position in a detailed analysis that he posted on his faculty page.

Then, in late June, Mary C. Boyce, the provost, announced that the university was suspending its data submission for the coming rankings cycle, so that it could review its data reporting. “Columbia has long conducted what we believed to be a thorough process for gathering and reporting institutional data, but we are now closely reviewing our processes in light of the questions raised,” Boyce wrote at the time. “The ongoing review is a matter of integrity. We will take no shortcuts in getting it right.”

U.S. News announced the unranking a week later. In response, Columbia said in a statement, in part: “While we are disappointed in U.S. News & World Report’s decision, we consider this a matter of integrity and will take no shortcuts in getting it right.”

Thaddeus spoke with The Chronicle on Wednesday, before the U.S. News announcement. At that time, he called the provost’s review “a welcome development” but said he was disappointed that it appeared that it would be internal. “The institution is investigating itself,” he said. “That’s always a conflict of interest.” He has called repeatedly for an outside investigation, but Boyce has ignored those requests, he said.

Reached by phone, Robert Hornsby, associate vice president for internal communications at Columbia, said he did not know whether Morse’s characterization of U.S. News’s interactions with Columbia’s staff was accurate. He said he didn’t know whether Columbia officials were aware that the university would be unranked at the time that Boyce announced the data review. He promised to pass the questions on to administrators who would know.

Morse and colleagues didn’t answer an email requesting more information about the unranking.

Outside of its overall undergraduate-programs ranking, Columbia’s spots on other U.S. News lists will remain. Lists such as Undergraduate Teaching, Most Innovative Schools, First-Year Experience, and Undergraduate Engineering are based entirely on reputation surveys that officials at rival colleges fill out, so they’re unaffected by data problems, Morse and a colleague, Eric Brooks, wrote in a blog post. In addition, Columbia will keep its graduate-school rankings “because the institution reported data on them through separate processes,” Brooks and Morse wrote.

Thaddeus has also raised questions about Columbia’s No. 1 ranking in U.S. News’s “Best Online Master’s in Engineering Programs” list, which is based in part on data such as class size.

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