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Reaching the top three

Task force report explores how to measure U's success

January 31, 2006

The University of Minnesota set a goal last year of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade. The question is, what sort of measurements will it use to gauge its success? Most rankings are based on quantifiable evidence, but how do you judge the quality of a university?

That's the central question that the Metrics and Measurement Task Force--one of 34 assigned to help the University reach its new goal--has been grappling with since last fall.

"We wanted to look at standard benchmarks, like research expenditures and endowment assets, but we also wanted to take into consideration what the University community and the people of Minnesota think of as criteria for what it means to be among the top three," says Al Sullivan, executive associate vice president and chair of the task force.

These are the top 20 public research universities for 2004 as reported in The Top American Research Universities, published annually by TheCenter at the University of Florida.

1. U of California, Berkeley
2. U of California, Los Angeles
3. U of Michigan
4. U of North Carolina
5. U of Wisconsin
6. U of Florida
7. U of Illinois
8. U of Minnesota
9. U of Texas
10. U of Virginia
11. Ohio State U
12. U of Washington
13. Pennsylvania State U
14. U of Pittsburgh
15. U of Arizona
16. U of California, San Diego
17. U of Iowa
18. U of Maryland
19. Michigan State U
20. U of California, Davis

The task force identified a limited number of standard benchmarks based, in part, on the highly regarded University of Florida annual report, The Top American Research Universities. Besides the above mentioned research expenditures and endowment assets, other things useful in ranking a university are faculty awards and postdoctoral appointees. The report also identifies the top 20 public research universities, which make up the peer group for the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (see sidebar).

As for what the U community and the people of Minnesota may use to rank the University, one proposed measure is student participation in public engagement activities. In other words, how often and how well do U students contribute to the public good? Other proposed measures include retention and graduation rates for undergraduates and time-to-degree rates for graduate students.

"As a public research university, we aim not only for exceptional research but also for exceptional education for our students and public engagement that enriches the community," says Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan.

So how will the U know when it's time to join the ranks of the top three public research universities in the world? How will it be able to tell when it's in the same league with leading contenders such as the University of California-Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan? It will look at the criteria--measures important both to Minnesotans and to national sources--that the task force has begun to identify.

If it's true that what gets measured gets improved, just adopting clear goals and standards should help the University move toward the top three.

"The task force is linking what we do daily with where we want to be in the future," says John Ziegenhagen, director of University accountability and a member of the task force. "If the University focuses on performance, gains in ranking will follow."

"The University will continually work to improve on the metrics and measures it adopts," says Al Sullivan. "What we think is most important is the very public statement of this aspirational goal, our systematic setting of benchmarks throughout the University, measuring our progress, and being held accountable."

The task force's interim progress report is available online. At this site, readers can also comment on the interim report through February 24, 2006. The final report will be submitted by May 5, 2006.