Monday, March 12, 2018

Salaries, rankings, academic quality, racism, sexism, and heightism at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute

From time to time the question of the salaries of university administrators resurfaces. Last August the issue of the salary of the yacht and Bentley owning  vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton in the UK received national prominence. His  salary of GBP 260,500, including pension contributions and healthcare benefits, seemed to have little relationship to the quality of the university which was not included in the QS and THE world rankings and managed a rank of 1,846 in Webometrics and 2,106 in University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP). A poll in the local newspaper showed 93% of respondents opposed to the increase.

A previous post in this blog reported  that vice chancellors salaries had no statistically significant relationship to student satisfaction in the UK although they had more than average faculty salaries and the number of faculty with teaching qualifications.

This issue has cropped up in the US where it has been noted that the highest paid university president is Shirley Ann Jackson of the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

She has come under fire for being overpaid, autocratic and allowing RPI to go into academic decline. Her supporters have argued that her critics are guilty of residual racism, sexism and even heightism.  A letter in the Troy Times Union from David Hershberg uses the Times Higher Education (THE) world rankings to chastise Jackson

"RPI was always in the top 5 of undergraduate engineering schools. Now it's No. 30 in U.S. News and World Report's latest rankings. Despite the continued loss of stature of my alma mater, the school's president, Shirley Ann Jackson, is the highest paid president of a university by far and on some 10 other boards that supplement her $7 million salary and other compensation. This is RPI's rankings the last eight years in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings: 2011, 104; 2012, 144; 2013, 174; 2014, 181; 2015, 226-250; 2016, 251-300; 2017, 251-300; and 2018, 301-350. Further, U.S. News & World Report has RPI at No. 434 globally and No. 195 engineering school. This warrants a change at the top. This is what matters, not gender or race."

It seems that for some people in the USA international rankings, especially THE's,  have become the measure of university excellence..

First, it must be said that the THE World University Rankings are not a good measure of university quality.  These rankings have seen dramatic rises and falls in recent years. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, for example, Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara fell from 85th place to the 501-600 band while many French, Japanese, Korean and other Turkish universities fell dozens of places. This had nothing to do with the quality of the universities and everything to do with methodological changes, especially to the citations indicator.

The verdict of the US News America's best Colleges is simple. RPI was 42nd in 2007 and it is 42nd in the 2018 rankings, although apparently alumni giving has gone.down.

Comparing data from US News in 2007 and 2015, RPI is more selective with more applicants of whom a smaller proportion are admitted. SAT scores are higher and more students come from the top 10% of their high school. There are more women and more international and out of state students.

The school may, however, have become less equitable. The percentage of Black students has fallen from 4% to 2% and that of students needing financial aid from 70% to 65%.

As a national university with an undergraduate teaching mission RPI is certainly not declining in any sense although it may be less welcoming for poor and Black students and it is definitely becoming more expensive for everybody.

The international rankings, especially those based on research, tell a different story. RPI is slipping everywhere: from 243 in 2014 to 301 in 2017 in the CWUR rankings, from 589 in 2010-11 to 618 in 2017 in URAP, from 341 in 2013 to 390 in 2017 in Nature Index, from 128 in 2010 to 193 in 2017 in the Round University Rankings.

In the Shanghai rankings, RPI fell from the 151-200 band to the 501-600, partly because of the loss of a couple of highly cited researchers and the declining value of a Nobel winning alumnus .

RPI's fall in the global rankings is largely a reflection of the general decline of the US and the rise of China, which has overtaken the US in research output and supercomputing. But there is more. In the indicator that measures research quality in the CWTS Leiden ranking, percentage of papers in the top 10% of journals, RPI has fallen from 23 in 2011-12 to 194 in 2017.

It seems that RPI is holding its own or a bit more as an American teaching university. Whether that is worth the biggest salary in the country is for others to argue about. But it is definitely losing out to international competition as far as research quality is concerned. That, however, is an American problem and RPI's difficulties are hardly unique.

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