It's one thing for a university president to stretch to put his school in the best possible light. University of Florida president Bernie Machen, responding to a U.S. News and World Report survey for its college rankings issue in August, said UF is on par with the likes of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Columbia and Princeton. But it's another thing to artificially enhance the school's ranking by grading down other universities.
In Machen's world, only two other public universities, Michigan and California-Berkeley, belong in the same category as UF. That's a bit of a stretch for a college president who said in April, "We're probably bigger than we ought to be" and who worked the Legislature to ward off funding cuts that a colleague equated with "Armageddon."
The UF president shaded the rankings of other universities in Florida as well. While he ranked UF as distinguished, he ranked no other state university in the next category, "strong.'' He ranked Florida State and the University of Miami in the middle category as "good.'' The University of South Florida was "adequate.'' This looks a little like playing around with the scoreboard at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to benefit the home team.
What's really behind Machen's survey responses — first obtained by the Gainesville Sun through a public records request — is an effort to boost UF's standings in the magazine's rankings. Those rankings are far too influential in shaping public perception of institutions' academics. Peer assessments count for 25 percent of the magazine's ranking formula. And Machen knows that by placing UF in the highest category — and rating places like University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill at the midlevel "good" — he's helping boost UF's overall rank. He's not alone. Clemson University recently acknowleged its president adopted a similar tactic.
Such a strategy, however, amounts to complicity in boosting the outsized influence of these oversimplified and subjective rankings. And it's intellectually dishonest. Inflating UF's ranking by downgrading the rankings of others is not going to elevate the quality of higher education in Gainesville.