Updated: May 13, 2022
On whether Columbia’s number two ranking is rooted in falsehoods.
By Sylvie Epstein
In February, mathematics professor and former department head Michael Thaddeus posted an exposé to his website. Then, he waited. In his view, the piece, titled “An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking,” revealed a scandal. Professor Thaddeus was waiting for an anticipated buzz.
According to Thaddeus, the numbers Columbia has reported to U.S. News & World Report, which are used for their infamous college rankings, are completely fabricated. The school has misreported average class sizes, graduation rates, student–faculty ratios, and more. These maneuvers—what Thaddeus would label deception—earned the university an illustrious and impressive number two perch in the national rankings this past fall.
Thaddeus is skillful at many things: teaching linear algebra, researching the intersections between physics and algebraic curves, sifting through Columbia’s directory of courses to calculate an accurate class size average. But his prediction that “An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking” would create a ripple was only half-right. The story has been covered by a handful of national publications (The New York Times, The Washington Post, NY Daily News), but here on school grounds, it has not captured nearly as much attention.
Though on sabbatical, Thaddeus made time to chat with me from across the pond about why the fabrications are so abhorrent, why the U.S. News rankings are futile in general, why we should care, and what we should do about it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: I’ve seen you described before as a proponent of generalist education. Can you describe how that attitude has influenced your professional life?
Michael Thaddeus: I think that there’s a tendency nowadays to deprecate the humanities and assume that science and technology are going to be more practical, useful subjects for students to learn. I reject that distinction. I think that a sound education in the humanities is very important for would-be scientists, and scientists need to learn how to express themselves clearly. They need to learn how to write a vigorous sentence and a clearly organized paragraph. They need to think about the motives of the people they work with and the social function of the work that they do.
Conversely, I think that humanists could benefit from studying a lot more science. I think humanists should know more science, I think scientists should know and appreciate more of the humanities. I think general education is good for everyone.
B&W: I’m wondering if you could talk about what got you interested in reporting on education practices, and then what inspired the U.S. News exposé specifically?
MT: Katherine Franke wrote a piece for The Nation a few months ago where she said Columbia University has lost its way. And I’m afraid that that’s really true, at least with our administration. What I’ve been trying to do is to prod them as vigorously as possible back to their senses.
It started when I was department chair of the Mathematics Department for three years, from 2017 to 2020. I was kind of radicalized by that experience because I realized that the Columbia administration is extremely secretive, extremely reluctant to share decision-making power or even fact-finding power with the faculty. The faculty are disempowered to an extraordinary degree—more than at other peer universities, as best I can tell. The secretiveness of the administration is really egregious.
Then, a few months after I stepped down as chair, there was the announcement of the undergraduate expansion initiative. That was a thorn in my side. The Bollinger administration has this philosophy of constant growth. They see growth as kind of a panacea, as a cure to any problem, because more students bring in more tuition revenue and more tuition revenue helps the bottom line. No one is ever thinking how the quality of life will deteriorate for everyone if we try to keep growing the student body without anything else growing.
In the piece I wrote about expansion, I gave the example of the gym. That hits home for me because I use the gym and especially the swimming pool a lot. You can barely even get in the swimming pool. We have one pool serving a population of 30,000 students and thousands of other faculty, staff, and alumni. And there are no plans to build another swimming pool, right? That’s simply not on the table. Now, okay, a swimming pool is something that’s not an essential feature of a university, but classrooms are an essential feature of a university and there’s no plan to build more classrooms either.
This course which the Bollinger administration has set is just unsustainable. It is not just a fall off the cliff in the future. We are falling off the cliff right now. We have introductory courses that students can’t get into. We have courses that are required for a major that majors can’t get into. That’s a scandal. No other university that I know of has that problem. Our accreditation might be revoked if people realize that this is going on. So, we urgently need to do something. I wrote the piece about expansion and that was kind of my first attempt to make a statement in university politics. That was kind of act one.
Act two was U.S. News.
This year, Columbia rose to No. 2 in the U.S. News ranking, which is its all-time high. I was on sabbatical leave in Canada at that time. And I was curious. I bought the paid subscription to U.S. News college company, which opens up the detailed information to you. I wondered, you know, how can we be doing so well? How can we be competing so effectively against institutions like Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford that objectively have much more money than we do? They have much more space than we do, they have certain inherent advantages. So what are our advantages?
Then I saw things that I just didn’t believe. I saw the claim that at Columbia 82.5% of undergraduate courses enrolled below 20 students. I just didn’t find that credible because with math department courses, that’s definitely not true. I can assure you. It’s not that we try to make them large, but we just don’t have the teaching resources to cover all of the courses. Our calculus classes have to be much, much larger than that on average. Even … most Core courses are capped at either 22 or 25 students and they come pretty close to that cap. So it’s not even close to true that 82% of Core classes have below 20 students. Not even close.
At the same time, I realized that I could check into this myself. I didn’t have to ask for any help from any administrator or anything. I could just look in the directory of classes, which lists all those enrollments. And it was a lot of work cause, you know, it’s not provided in user-friendly form, but I did it. And the number I came up with was very, very different from the number Columbia reported to U.S. News. The number I came up with was something more like 65%, not 82%. Miles away.
That was an eye-opener to me. I realized that the numbers that appeared in the U.S. News reporting might not be trustworthy and I looked into more of them. [For] every single other number where I had some independent means of checking … the number I came up with was different from the official numbers, sometimes very different, sometimes way off the mark. It wasn’t just a rounding error, and I knew that I had to make that public in some way. A lot of people see it as kind of treasonous for me to be writing this “blistering piece,” as the Times put it, criticizing my own administration. But it had to be done.
Prospective students use those numbers to make choices. What if an engineering student comes here with the expectation that 80% of classes have lower than 20 students and then … look at what class sizes are like in computer science, they’re gigantic. Having a large class size isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but having false information about that is really bad. You should make these decisions with good information.
B&W: Of the metrics that you analyzed in the U.S. News report—class size, faculty with terminal degrees, percentage of full-time faculty, student–faculty ratio, instructional budgets, and graduation rates—which of the misrepresentations do you think most poorly serves applicants?
MT: Class size. There are arguments to be made for and against small classes. But, I think the arguments in favor of small classes are quite strong. Columbia has pride in itself for seminar-based instruction through the Core, so we should be trying to hold class sizes down, we should be trying to keep them small. For that reason, students and faculty need to have correct information about how large classes really are. Having misinformation out there is really harmful. One thing that’s been striking to me is that in the whole faculty discussion about expansion, we’ve never been told anything about average class sizes at all. It makes me wonder if it’s maybe because there’s this misinformation about class sizes out there on U.S. News.
So I think class size is the main one, but the other one that’s also important actually is the percentage of faculty that are full-time. At present, it’s not such a big problem for undergrads—most of the faculty who teach undergrads are full-time and to its credit, Columbia College has tried to hold the line on that. I mean, it hasn’t held the line so much on staffing Core classes with tenured or tenure-track faculty. There are more and more lecturers who are on temporary appointments … but at least they are full-time, they’re not adjuncts. One of my fears is that that will slip in the future. So, to see this misinformation out there on U.S. News already is very troubling because if we don’t have accurate information now, then we’re not gonna get accurate information about the trend.
B&W: We discussed your analysis in my class called Equity in Higher Education, which is taught by Professor Andrew Delbanco and the former Dean of Students, Roger Lehecka. It’s a great class. In it, Professor Delbanco pointed out that with the exception of Columbia (due to the practices you exposed), the U.S. News rankings almost perfectly match up with ranking schools by endowment per student. What would you think if the U.S. News metrics were simply replaced with that measure and endowments were promoted as a way to assess colleges in the application process? I know that you say that you don’t approve of ranking institutions of higher education, period, but what do you think of that metric as a way to judge them?
MT: I think that any numerical measure of educational quality is harmful if we focus on it too strongly. I like to say that the most important features of education are the ones that are hardest to measure. If you think back about your high school education and you think about what mattered to you most about your education, it was probably getting to know other students, getting to know teachers … the way that they brought their sense of humor into the classroom, or their sense of historical perspective. You know, how can you put a number on that? How can you measure that numerically and rank that against the quality of someone else’s education? I said earlier on that humanists need to be more comfortable with numbers and measurement, but the reverse is also true. People accustomed to thinking quantitatively need to accustom themselves to the fact that there are very, very precious things in life that can’t be measured. Education is one of them.
B&W: If we shouldn’t focus on wealth, if we shouldn’t focus on the U.S. News rankings, what do you think is most important for a 12th grader to be evaluating and thinking about when they choose where to spend their next four years?
MT: That’s a hard question. I mean, again, I’m not a scholar of education. I don’t know what the answer is. And I recognize that there is a problem, actually. College choice is not so difficult for someone at your level or the level of a typical student here. Somebody who can get into Columbia can get into some absolutely leading universities. And then, you know, you can just visit five or six schools and talk to people here and get a sense of what life is like in Columbia. For a student that’s sort of in the mid-range, that’s likely to get into maybe the 100th-ranked institution, then there are many more choices and the choices are much more bewildering. Then there are dozens of different schools vying for their attention—schools of very different characters. There are some large state universities, small liberal arts colleges in the countryside and so on. To help a student like that make a choice is a difficult problem. That’s what rankings were supposed to help with.
I do think College Scorecard and College Navigator are better because they tell you about different characteristics. But I understand that when you’re set with choice and you don't personally know people at the schools that you’re thinking about, you don't have a lot of connections, you don’t live near the schools that you’re thinking about, they’re just names to you and choosing can be a problem.
The main thing I counsel is just not to worry about it and to remember that there are going to be some outstanding people, faculty, students at every school. The problem is how to find those people when you get to the school. It’s possible to be happy and successful and well-educated wherever you go.
You’re already in college and the readership of The Blue and White mostly is in college, so you’re probably more thinking about the next level now. Some people are gonna apply to most schools or medical schools within a few years … and then they’re gonna confront those same questions again. And again, I would say the answer is basically the same. That it doesn’t really matter that much. That the rankings are absolutely the wrong answer. And that really working by the seat of your pants, visiting places, talking to people, sitting in on classes, and maybe even just a little good old-fashioned random coin toss could be just as good a way to decide as using a rank.
B&W: Yes, I agree. Obviously there are other issues: Sometimes thinking about the most elite schools equates with resources, with family income. And then the question of touring schools, of access to college counseling, all of these things which can help give you a well-rounded view of schools becomes depleted too. And so it just feels like kind of a problem with no answer sometimes.
MT: Yes, I mean the word “elite” is a complicated word. It cuts in several directions. U.S. News and its rankings would make you believe that all of the best universities in the United States are all private universities—public universities don’t do well in the rankings. But public universities have a lot of advantages. One thing is they tend to be larger than private universities. At a large school, there’s gonna be a wider range of classes to choose from.
[Say] you want to get an education in mathematics. A lot of schools that do not rank well on U.S. News, like the University of Illinois, the University of Texas, University of Georgia, they’re much more serious as research institutions in mathematics than these high-ranked elite institutions that have more money, but a smaller footprint and smaller number of students.
B&W: A couple of questions ago, and in the report, you talk about the way that focusing on the U.S. News rankings and those metrics demeans a university. You listed a couple downfalls, like how the hiring of faculty on accreditation might lead to a faculty with less merit, but I’m wondering if you could expand on some of the other consequences that you think such a focus might inspire.
MT: There’s much too much focus on formal qualifications both for individual applicants and for the university itself. I’ve just been looking at the U.S. News criteria for ranking graduate programs and a major amount of weight is given to this laundry list of services that the program is supposed to provide to students. Like, do they have 24/7 libraries, do they have career placements, do they have standardized grievance procedures, things like that.
There’s nothing in that laundry list that measures the intellectual vitality or liveliness or excitement of being in the classroom with the professors at a school. If administrators are pursuing these higher rankings, which they are, they’re gonna focus more and more on these formal qualifications, which they do.
And you can see that schools like Columbia seem like they care less and less about what’s actually happening in the classroom. We’re not even providing space to have good interactions in the classroom. Instead there’s so much attention to bureaucratic things, to having more and more extensive services that students may or may not even want.
MT: More and more of the successful applicants we see are the ones who took 10, 11, 12 Advanced Placement tests while they were in high school. When I was in high school, I took one Advanced Placement test. I just wasn’t focused on the number of AP tests that I took as a proxy for my merit or ability. I was interested in training myself in a more holistic way—to be a critical, incisive thinker. Whether I actually succeeded in that I’ll leave to others to judge, but, at least that’s what I was trying to do. And that’s what the system was trying to do. Now it seems like the system is trying to make people more frantically and intensely busy, doing as many different activities as possible, and getting as many formal credentials as possible, taking as many exams, founding as many organizations. The space and time to devote yourself to thinking deeply about something risks getting lost in that shuffle.
Why that has come up, why admissions committees are selecting those kinds of students, that’s hard to answer. One problem is that faculty need to be more involved in undergraduate admissions. At Columbia long ago (I don’t remember this, but Andy Delbanco does), in the 1990s, ’80s, there was a faculty committee that exerted some oversight over undergraduate admissions. Faculty just no longer have any role. I think if we were just looking at some of the files, we might be looking for those intellectual features of originality and creativity that might be getting lost today.
B&W: The move away from using the SAT in admissions has its pros and cons, right? It’s a move away from the formal credentials you’re talking about, but it might create more of the mad dash to bolster your resume, your extracurriculars.
MT: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s complicated.
The key question is, if we’re gonna take it away, what is it gonna be replaced with, and whatever replaces it, is that gonna be better or worse? People say, for example, that the SAT is racist. Maybe so, but a lot of things in our society are racist and the question is whatever replaces the SAT, is that gonna be more racist or is it gonna be less racist? And the faculty are not having that kind of discussion. We haven’t had any discussion in faculty meetings about the test-optional policy. I think that’s really, really terrible. We need to be concerned with questions like that.
B&W: I have one last question.
I know that you want to deemphasize the importance of U.S. News ranking, but I cannot help but ask: If Columbia were to accurately report their numbers to the World Report, where do you think we’d fall in the rankings?
MT: People have been asking me that. I mean, I do not know. I really do not know. But as I say, what makes an institution great are precisely the intangible qualities that can’t numerically be ranked.
If Columbia had reported all of these things fairly accurately, I contend it would be lower for sure. There are numbers that I contend are just flat-out wrong, like the class size. There are some which are very dubious, like the amount that’s spent on instruction. [Columbia] does include patient care. Many other universities don’t include that. And so, you know, that’s a judgment call involved. I think extremely poor judgment on Columbia’s part, but it’s not a matter of just pure and simple accuracy, like the class size.
Then there are the things like graduation rates where it appears that Columbia did follow the rules, but where I feel that the rules themselves are bad. The rules have a role in distorting reality.
So where would it be? I don’t know. With the graduate rate, I had one little remark showing that Columbia came, I think, at sixth place. If you follow the cohort from 2012, 2013, if transfer students were included, it would tumble all the way to 26th. That’s a pretty long way down. But that’s just that one figure. So it’s really hard to say.
I wouldn’t wanna stick my neck out and say fifth place, 20th place. The more important message that I keep reiterating is that it just doesn’t matter. The people who want Columbia to be ranked in second place should look for some other way for us to demonstrate our greatness.