Editor’s note: This is the first in a series analyzing President Roderick McDavis’ decade at Ohio University.
Exactly ten years ago today, Ohio University President Roderick McDavis formally accepted the duty of becoming OU’s 20th president and promised to help OU stand out among its fellow universities.
“Ohio University will become a nationally prominent research university,” McDavis said during his speech on Sept. 10, 2004. “Our quest for enhanced national prominence begins here, today, in this building, with this message.”
And he hoped that would include a rise in national rankings.
During McDavis’ decade as president, the university has declined almost every year in its standing in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges rankings, dropping from 98 in 2005 to 129 in 2015. The rankings are a visible way to compare colleges and universities, though there is a debate among higher education experts over how much value to place on them.
OU did see a six-point jump this year in rankings released Tuesday, which is the first time since McDavis took office that the university has risen more than one spot.
“It is good to see us listed among the top public and private institutions in the nation even as we strive every day to maintain and improve the quality of our academics, our scholarship programs and the overall student experience,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Pam Benoit in a statement on Tuesday.
The president hoped the climb would have come earlier.
“When I started in 2004, we wanted to have an upward trajectory of our rankings,” McDavis said. “We were moving forward really about to get aggressive about implementing our strategic plan when the bottom fell out of the economy.”
After adjusting for inflation, the university’s revenue in the 2004-05 academic year — McDavis’ first on-campus — was roughly equal to how much money the university brought in last year, which was slightly more than $700 million, according to OU’s budget books.
OU has spent the past three to four years following the economic downturn “putting things back in order,” McDavis said.
But now, he said, funding has begun to stabilize.
“I think we’ve created some positive energy in those areas that are so important to getting the state funding,” McDavis said. “We take that state funding and we begin to invest in the faculty and the academic programs with that hope that we begin to come back up in the rankings. We had to take two steps back so we could take one step forward.”
The U.S. News and World Report rankings are crafted, in part, by an analysis of financial and faculty resources at the university, graduation rate performance and retention rates, said Bob Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News and World Report. He said the number of universities OU is compared to nationwide has remained approximately the same at about 280.
“The ranking indicators themselves haven’t changed that much in the past decade,” Morse said.
But in several categories, OU’s rank has changed — by dropping.
Two of the most significant reasons OU has dropped overall in the ranking are due to its decline in faculty resources and graduation/retention rates, areas in which OU has dropped 38 and 41 percent, respectively, since 2004, according to data from the rankings.
Those are the university’s two largest declines in any ranking metric from McDavis’ first year to this year’s rankings.
For faculty resources, the top three metrics in the rankings for the 2013-14 academic year were:
• Faculty compensation, at 35 percent
• Number of classes with 1-19 students, at 30 percent
• Percentage of faculty with highest possible degree in their field, at 15 percent
For graduation/retention rates, the two metrics in the rankings were:
• Average graduation rate, at 80 percent
• Average freshmen rate, at 20 percent
Together, faculty resources and graduation/retention rates makes up 42.5 percent of the total ranking methodology.
“U.S. News and World Report ... soars above other rankings in the minds of the public and on college campuses,” said Eric Hoover, senior writer at the The Chronicle of Higher Education. “They’re the one ranking, the one list that the college officials fret about the most.”
To some extent, McDavis agrees.
“We think any academic ranking is important because it gives us a sense of where we stand today and where we want to go tomorrow,” he said.
But while OU watches the rankings, the president said internal performance indicators at the university, like enrollment and retention rates, which have both risen, are signs of university success.
“The more we invest in our faculty, the more we invest in our academic programs, the more we invest in our students, our rankings go up,” McDavis said. “You have to be able to invest in order to be able to see a rise in your rankings and you’re to a point in time where now we can begin to make serious investments in our academic enterprise so we can see a rise in our academic rankings.”
Director of Communications for the Ohio Board of Regents Jeff Robinson emphasized the importance of “just doing what we’re doing.”
“We don’t base what we do on where things are ranked,” he said. “We just do what ... we believe is in the best interest of our students.”
Some use the rankings as one “marker of ‘excellence,’” said Ashley Finley, senior director of assessment and research for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in an email.
“From the experiences I’ve had in higher education, both as a faculty member and now working nationally, the U.S. News and World Report (rankings) carry very little weight,” Finley said. “They do not speak to the ways in which a particular campus actually contributes to the learning capacity of students, their civic engagement or their personal development.”
However, she did call the rankings “highly visible.”
Faculty Senate President Beth Quitslund considered the rankings to be “gameable.”
“Faculty members become aware of these because we’re concerned about whether the institution is being accurately portrayed in the media,” she said. “But I think it’s much, much more a concern about ‘what are they saying?,’ than about ‘what are we doing,’” she said.
Regardless, Hoover, the Chronicle reporter, said the rankings are well known, whether they actually carry merit or not.
“The complexity is that many college presidents or administration officers ... who may not take stock in the rankings know that they live in a world where other people who are looking at the college ... might put a lot of stock in them,” Hoover said.
McDavis’ inaugural address 10 years ago today opened and closed with standing ovations, according to a previous Post article. The speech lasted about 20 minutes during which McDavis also vowed to improve diversity rates and to become a more prominent research university. These topics will also be analyzed by The Post.
“When I think of Ohio University the words “excellence,” “exceptional,” “distinction” come to mind,” McDavis said 10 years ago. “I want you to think of Ohio University in the same way.”
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Correction: A cutline previously misstated OU President Roderick McDavis was elected. He was appointed.