Columbia whistleblower on college rankings reveal: ‘They’re worthless’ | American universities


The Columbia University scholar, whose exposure of fake data sent the prestigious institution plunging into the rankings of American universities, accused his administration of deception and whitewashing the case.

Michael Thaddeus, a math professor, said that by submitting faked numbers to propel the university into influential US News & World Report rankings, Columbia put its financial priorities ahead of student education in order to fund a bureaucracy swollen and secret.

On Monday, US News relegated Columbia from second to 18th place in the last ranking after college admitted to “outdated and/or incorrect methodologies” in some of its earlier assertions about the quality of education provided by the university.

“I find it very hard to believe that the mistakes were honest and unintentional at this point,” Thaddeus told The Guardian.

He added: “The university’s response was not the blunt, direct and comprehensive response of a university that really wanted to clear the air and really educate the public. They address some issues, but then completely ignore or whitewash others.

Thaddeus embarrassed Columbia and shocked academia in February when he published a long analysis accusing the university of submitting “inaccurate, questionable, or grossly misleading” statistics for the US News ranking. Among other things, he disputed claims about class sizes, which the math professor said he knew from experience were not accurate, and the claim that all professors at the university held the highest degrees in their fields.

Thaddeus also said the university grossly overestimated teaching expenses, saying they far exceed other Ivy League universities, adding the cost of patient care to medical school.

Columbia initially defended its numbers before admitting on Friday that Thaddeus was right about class sizes and the qualifications of its teaching staff. “We deeply regret the shortcomings of our previous reports and are committed to doing better,” Columbia Provost Mary Boyce said. said in the statement.

In July, the university announced that it was withdrawing from this year’s ranking. US News did its own calculations, based in part on federal data, and this week dropped the university a humiliating 16 spots.

Thaddeus began digging into the numbers as Columbia celebrated its meteoric rise in the rankings from 18th place in 1988. It broke into the top five in 2011 and eventually finished second last year.

“A few other top universities also improved their rankings, but none matched Columbia’s extraordinary rise. It is natural to wonder what could be the reason, ”he writes in his analysis.

When Thaddeus began to suspect Columbia’s numbers didn’t add up, he saw an opportunity to discredit a system he sees as a rogue system perpetrated against would-be students desperate to ensure that the tens of thousands of dollars per year that many will spend on gigantic tuition is worth it.

US News rankings, along with less influential Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other publications, have a significant impact on which universities prospective students prefer. Thaddeus said Columbia’s downfall revealed the shoddy quality of a system that relies on an institution’s own numbers without verification.

“I have long believed that all college rankings are essentially worthless. They are based on data that has very little to do with an institution’s academic merit and the data might not be accurate in the first place,” he said.

“It was never my goal to knock Columbia down the rankings. A better outcome would be for the rankings themselves to be flipped and people just stop reading them, stop taking them as seriously as they did.

This is not the first scandal involving the US News ranking. Last year, a former dean of the business school at Temple University in Philadelphia was sent to jail for fraud after rigging data to skyrocket the college’s MBA in the rankings.

But Thaddeus, who taught at Columbia for 24 years, also had another target in sight: the administration of his own university.

The former head of Columbia’s math department described an expanding, self-replicating bureaucracy that is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. He said Columbia’s endowment is not large enough to cover the cost of growing administration and is therefore being paid for by rising tuition.

“That means our education programs have to be run to some extent like money-making businesses. This is the secret that cannot be openly acknowledged,” he said.
Thaddeus suspects administrators rigged data to boost university in rankings to justify tuition hike which, at around $65,000 a year, is more than five times the amount parents of today’s students paid in the 1980s.

“It is clear that the growth of university bureaucracies and administration has been a major driver of the cost of higher education growing much, much faster than inflation. We now have about 4,500 administrators on the main campus, about three times the number of faculty, and that’s a new development in the last 20 years,” he said.

“What’s less clear is what all these administrators actually do. They say more administrators are needed to comply with government regulations. There may be some truth to this, but not much, as these regulations in question were enacted decades ago. To my knowledge, there have not been many new university regulations.

Thaddeus recognized that there was a need for more staff to provide services not previously available, such as much more extensive job placement, counseling and psychiatric care. But he doesn’t believe that explains the growth of a bureaucracy he describes as self-serving and irresponsible.

“I was a little radicalized by the experience of being the head of the mathematics department from 2017 to 2020. It was then that I saw how secretive and autocratic the administration of Columbia was. . How they never share relevant information with professors, students or the public. This episode has just seriously damaged the credibility of the administration. It saddens me, but it is also important that these issues come out into the open,” he said.

Thaddeus said he was initially unwilling to accuse the university of deliberately manipulating the grading system.

“When I first wrote my article, I expressed a greater agnosticism on this point,” he said.
But he said the university’s response, including its failure to be transparent about how the false data was flagged, led him to believe Columbia deliberately gamed the system.

“Furthermore, the university has not decided to commission an external investigation, an independent investigation by a third party such as a law firm, which is common practice when grading scandals break out. If I had seen a move like that from the university, I would be more inclined to think the mistakes were honest and unintentional,” he said.

Approached for comment, Columbia said it had nothing to add to statements it had already made.


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