Validity of Clemson rankings questioned

A Clemson University staffer has accused the South Carolina school of manipulating its U.S. News & World Report ranking -- reviving a debate over what critics call the pernicious influence of the magazine's annual college ratings.


Among the steps reportedly alleged by Catherine Watt, who until 2006 headed Clemson's institutional research office: Clemson manipulated class sizes, artificially boosted faculty salary data and gave rival schools low grades in the rankings' peer reputation survey, which counts for 25 percent of the score.

Ms. Watt said Thursday that reports on her remarks had missed the point of her presentation to a conference and that she regretted any suggestion of illegal activity. Meanwhile, the university denied several of the allegations, but acknowledged it aims to improve in the influential rankings. Clemson jumped from No. 38 among public universities in 2001 to No. 22 in 2008 -- an unusually quick ascent considering the rankings typically change little from year to year.

"It's misguided and it's educationally damaging," Lloyd Thacker, the executive director of the Education Conservancy and a prominent rankings critic, said of the allegations. "Colleges have been 'rank-steering,' -- driving under the influence of the rankings," he said. "We've seen over the years a shifting of resources to influence ranks."

Ms. Watt's comments came Tuesday in Atlanta at a meeting of the Association for Institutional Research -- usually a staid venue for discussions about data collection. However, Ms. Watt dropped a bombshell, detailing Clemson's single-minded pursuit to become a Top 20 public research university, according to reports from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed .

Ms. Watt, now director of the Alliance for Research on Higher Education at Clemson's Strom Thurmond Institute, described practices many rankings critics believe are common, but rarely acknowledge. Clemson, she said, "walked a fine line between illegal, unethical and really interesting."

U.S. News students; last year it reported 48 percent did.

Most explosively, she reportedly claimed Clemson officials ranked other institutions as "below average" in the magazine's peer reputation survey. She reportedly later clarified that Clemson administrators had not been told to do that, but their surveys "had that effect."

Clemson issued a three-page response that didn't name Ms. Watt but called the reported statements "outrageous."