Monday, April 09, 2007

Ranking Arizona (State)

That was my suggested headline for this column, but I think my editor worried that it was a potential trademark violation for a business publication here in Phoenix. But I'm not sure the editor's choice worked perfectly. I'm actually more worked up over the healthcare lottery issue, but it took more words to explain the Tillman case. Still, I don't plan ever to cut The Tribune a break for supporting the Swift Boaters.

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 1, 2007

To The Tribune's consternation, the Arizona Board of Regents gave Arizona State University President Michael Crow several thousand reasons to care how ASU does in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Crow's incentive package pays him more if ASU climbs a tier in the survey.

Tying Crow's pay to a magazine article bothers the Tribune editorial writers, who gave it their version of a slap on the wrist -- but, interestingly, not the stern kick in the pants usually reserved for government actions not to their taste.

The Tribune objected to linking a public official's compensation with what's basically a way to sell magazines. The editors didn't object to using metrics that also appear in the U.S. News methodology if they're also valid measures of performance, but explicitly linking compensation to press clippings seemed, well, unseemly.

I do agree with my editorial overlords about the dangers of abandoning policy to the media, but the regents' use of these rankings is a pretty benign place to draw that line. Nobody following higher education doubts the importance of the U.S. News rankings. Whatever the flaws -- this year, the magazine downgraded Sarah Lawrence, which doesn't require SAT scores, by "creating" an average score that applicants supposedly "would have" gotten -- the U.S. News rankings are the biggest game in academia today, and one which less-distinguished colleges must play.

Many private institutions have revised their policies -- offering more financial aid to convince admitted students to attend, increasing the college's "yield" -- to try to improve how they rank. It's no surprise attempts to game the U.S. News algorithm have moved to the public sector.

Of the several metrics for President Crow's incentive compensation, moving up the U.S. News ladder is probably the single most effective way to improve the university, particularly for out-of-state applicants. Who knows, it could even counteract the effects on parents of ASU's traditionally stellar ranking in Playboy's occasional "party school" survey.

Instead of fretting over using the U.S. News survey, I'd rather save our apprehension for some other areas where we're already letting the media rule. In healthcare, having a newspaper editor decide your illness worthy of publicity can trigger all sorts of help otherwise unavailable. If you don't make the paper, then you still may get care, but you may go bankrupt in obscurity, unlike somebody with a "human interest" tale atop the local news. Life isn't fair, but somehow the fact that we've created a system that increases life's basic unfairness ordinarily doesn't bother libertarians.

Then there are the numerous, still unsatisfactory, internal investigations into the death of our national hero Pat Tillman, the ASU football player who gave up his NFL contract to enlist in the Army Rangers. Corporal Tillman's death in Afghanistan is now officially determined as caused by "friendly fire" rather than enemy action. The Pentagon acknowledges that officers suspected Tillman's death was an accident almost immediately, but his company commander recommended a Bronze Star anyway -- which got upgraded to a Silver Star as the process moved along.

The Pentagon's most recent investigation recommends punishment for nine officers, including four generals, for violating military regulations and not notifying the Tillman family of the truth promptly. The Pentagon says it found no evidence of a cover-up, but the family has denounced the Silver Star as "part of a cynical design to conceal the real events from the family and the public, while exploiting the death of our beloved Pat as a recruitment poster." That sounds awfully harsh, but people who considered the attacks on John Kerry's medals appropriate political speech shouldn't have any problem with the Tillman family's rhetoric.

If you're truly worried about government being corrupted by concern over how things get reported in the media, then I'd worry less about ASU's focus on the U.S. News rankings, and far more about our dysfunctional healthcare system -- or about getting Pat Tillman's family a trustworthy, outside investigation of how the Army got this tragedy wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think there will be more focus by the media on healthcare when the boomers and X-ers collide with the system at higher numbers. I'm looking forward to the release of the documentary "Sicko" from my favorite disingenuous filmmaker....

On the corruption front, I'm saddened to report the appearance of CD5's [former] Mouth That Roared on the Lehrer Newshour monday night. Honestly I thought he'd be in some kind of rehab by now. His drumbeating on immigration is the most blatant form of fearmongering and race baiting. Maybe scungille-face is carrying water for Bush in hope of a pardon, should the Dept. of Justice be rehabilitated and Abramoff inquiries recommence.

It is hard for me to fathom what one trillion dollars of dissipated wealth means. That's only the beginning of the damage done by the GOP since 1994. I think we'd need a special body - like a Truth and Reconciliation commission - to learn what was done and recover our self respect, not to mention that of former allies. I don't know if that's in the (distant) offing - I think of folks like Henry Waxman in such a role, but they now seem too advanced in years to carry that kind of load.