31 Aug

In another fall ranking, Oregon universities aren’t contenders

It’s the season of college rankings. Associated Press, ESPN and everybody else loudly proclaim their preseason countdown, although nobody has yet found a hand gesture to go with the boast, “We’re Number 22.”

But recently, we heard another ranking less prominent in August, and still not likely to figure in bowl game calculations:
The Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings.

These aren’t about linemen.

But Oregon universities are way out of line.

The rankings come from the Chinese university’s Center for World-Class Universities, which regularly takes on the daunting task of rating the globe’s institutions of higher education.

It’s a rarefied formula, depending heavily on faculty and alumni connections with Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals — given to the top mathematicians under 40 – and publications in the journals Science and Nature, along with other highly cited articles.

When you’re trying to rank hundreds of universities, you don’t want to get bogged down in assessing cafeterias and counting exercise bikes.

And there is a great deal of international interest in science and math intellectual firepower. It’s the kind of thing that might get noticed thousands of miles – and a Pacific Ocean – away.

Maybe not surprisingly, you run through a lot of rankings before you came to the name “Oregon.” Down where universities are ranked in clusters instead of getting their own numbers, Oregon State University and Oregon Health & Science University are in the 151-200 group, with the University of Oregon somewhere between 301 and 400.

Maybe this isn’t so bad; there are 500 universities ranked, and who’s to say whether the University of Oregon is really better or worse than the similarly ranked London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine or King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

But there is one aspect which might strike us, especially at this time of year: In the 2015 Shanghai Jiao Tung University Academic Ranking of World Universities, we’re at the bottom of the Pac-12.

Not that the Center for World-Class Universities organizes things that way.

Nobody is surprised, of course, to see the Oregon universities ranking well behind Stanford (#2 in the world, after Harvard); Berkeley (#4) or UCLA (#12). It’s also not astounding to see us behind the University of Washington (#14), although the gap between the UO and the UW is wider than the distance between Eugene and Seattle.

(To be fair, the University of Washington, like many other universities, is bolstered by the numbers from its medical school, while OHSU is counted separately from the Oregon research universities.)

But after that, the rankings run through the rest of the Pac-12 like a Saturday night sports round-up.

The University of Colorado ranks 34th; USC is 49th; the University of Arizona comes in at #90, and Arizona State and Utah make it into the top 100 with a tie at #93.

The Oregon universities are not literally alone at the bottom of the Pac-12; the University of Oregon is joined in the 301-400 cohort by Washington State. And the linemen at both schools could overwhelm the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
But while we’re on the Pacific Coast, the top 100 also includes four other University of California branches: San Diego, San Francisco (a medical school), Irvine and Davis.

These rankings are not just about bragging rights – although when the news came out earlier this month, there were no doubt some more unusually inflated chests in the Bay Area. In the hypercompetitive Pacific Rim, these are the places that Oregon permanently competes with, and university strength is one of the key weapons in everybody’s economic arsenal.

And in terms of Pacific Rim competition, we don’t even want to think about the universities of Tokyo (#21), Kyoto (#26) and Nagoya (#77), British Columbia (#40), and Melbourne (#44).
Oregon higher education had a relatively good legislative session in 2015. It was also heartening Wednesday when House Speaker Tina Kotek, responding to the latest revenue forecast, mentioned higher ed as an investment need.

But as the Academic Ranking of World Universities reminds us, we have far to go – almost as far as the distance to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Every year, as the football season ends in bleak disappointment for lots of schools, you can count on somebody offering the broad view: More than a billion Chinese don’t care about a football game one way or the other.

But every so often, we’re reminded of what the Chinese – and much of the rest of the world — do care about.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/30/15.