On September 30, University of Washington interim president Ana Mari Cauce sent out an email to alumni, including me, on the topic of “kicking off a new year.” The aim of the email was a pitch for donations, of course. Following a paragraph about having a record number of freshmen this year, Dr. Cauce writes about innovation:
Students also want to pursue their futures here because they see the UW gaining acclaim worldwide, as the most innovative public university in the world and as the 15th university overall in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. These rankings are well-earned, because they are reflections of the difference our faculty, staff and alumni make every day. From founding startups in Seattle’s booming innovation ecosystem to tracking poached ivory in Africa, you are truly creating a world of good.
Whatever else is wrong with this paragraph (UW was ranked 14th, not 15th, for instance), Dr. Cauce does not let on that the rankings have next to nothing to do with “the difference [UW] faculty, staff and alumni make every day.”
The Thomson Reuters “innovation” rankings are based almost entirely on patent and publication analytics, and don’t deal with innovation. Using “innovation” in the Thomson Reuters rankings is purely a marketing ploy–as it also is in Dr. Cauce’s letter. UW has spent a ton of money (millions per year) filing patent applications in the past six years. There is nothing to indicate that the resulting patent portfolio is being licensed effectively, or that new products are being made as a result. Unlicensed and unworked patents are an anti-innovation metric. If anything, UW’s patent positions are a sign of a significant lack of innovation arising as a result of administrative policy and actions.
As for startups, UW according to its own listing of companies, has been involved in licensing deals with about 13 in the past two years. That’s fewer per year than 8 years ago, when UW wasn’t focused on starting companies and was spending half as much on its technology transfer program. So UW’s output of startups is down 25% and its spending, largely focused on startups until recently, is up 2x.
For all that, inventions–even patentable inventions–are easy to make. The challenge is having the judgment to select those for which a patent will advance development. It is foolish simply to file on most everything that shows up, “just in case.” But if you are Thomson Reuters and you are all hot to sell patent analytics tools, then having the president of a major research university chirping about a “ranking” is heaven-sent bliss.
It is pretty ballsy of Dr. Cauci to invoke Thomson Reuters rankings to claim UW is the most innovative public university on the planet. As an occasion for self-flattery, it’s all good. But as a request for donations, it’s really more like fraud. Dr. Cauce–intentionally, it would seem–creates a false connection between the Thomson Reuters rankings and other university circumstances, all in an effort to get us alumni to donate. Doesn’t that seem like fraud, coming from a state agency, a public university, and a what should be a trusted senior public official?
Now consider the other ranking Dr. Cauce cites. That ranking is from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. There, 60% of the ranking score is determined by research papers in leading journals and citations to those papers–all drawn again from those happy Thomson Reuters databases. Another 30% of the ranking depends solely on the number of faculty and alumni winning major awards, such as Nobel prizes. The remaining 10% of the ranking divides in the total number of academic personnel to estimate the “productivity” of winning major prizes and publishing a bunch of articles that get cited by other articles.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University claims this is about “academic rank,” but this is a misuse of “academic” since there is nothing much about quality of instruction, commitment of faculty to their students and courses, retention and attainment of students, the movement of faculty development and discovery into instruction, and the like. Prizes and publications are creatures of research activity. The more grant money a school gets, the more publications it can churn out. But prizes and publications don’t equate to innovation or to academic excellence. They equate instead to being rich enough to be able to afford to hire celebrity researchers and having enough alumni that enough of them also become celebrity researchers. Celebrity researchers can be a good thing. Many are celebrities for a reason. But they are a poor proxy for academic excellence.
One has to keep in mind that UW, like other major public research universities, is losing money on its extramural research enterprise. To maintain all those grants, UW has to throw in another 20% or so–so, for a $1 billion annual extramural research budget, UW has to find another $200 million to cover what sponsors are not willing to pay (or UW is not willing to bill them for). That $200 million is not coming from donations or from the state–it’s coming from laundering tuition money and diverting it from instruction to pay for those celebrity researchers and the administrative overhead of supporting them.
In other words, to create an environment in which UW researchers can win a bunch of grants and publish a bunch of papers, UW has to in essence steal $200 million a year from the students, who are going into debt not to pay for their educations, but rather to pay for celebrity researchers and UW administrators to live large. If UW charged students only the cost of their instruction–the root meaning of the word “tuition”–tuition would be half of what it is now, even with no state support whatsoever. Factor in the state support, and tuition would be on the order of $4,000 a year. At $4,000 a year, most of the expensive, invasive, parasitic “financial aid” apparatus would fold up, reducing administrative overhead still further.
The rankings Dr. Cauce cites are not about the things Dr. Cauce uses them for, such as why there are so many freshmen on the UW campuses and why alumni should donate to the university. The president’s rhetoric rings hollow. If UW is so well off, doing so darned well, then why should alumni or even the state throw more money at UW? Why should the state put even more money into the top UW programs? Why not industry? Why not the wealthy alumni in those fields? “Help the rich get richer” appears to be Dr. Cauce’s theme. What Dr. Cauce does not point out is that this rich-getting-richer scheme of hers comes at the expense of instruction and of students in all those programs that are not the current political darlings.
The UW president wants the public to live in a dream world in which UW is “innovative” because it files more patent applications than it should and fakes its startup metrics, and “excellent” because it has Nobel prize winners and research faculty who write a bunch of papers that get cited. These are interesting items, but they are hardly an indication of innovation or academic excellence.
Now it may well be that UW is both innovative and academically excellent. Just because Dr. Cauce chooses to be deceptive doesn’t mean these underlying qualities are absent. But Dr. Cauce chooses to use terribly deficient rankings, perhaps because they are easy and flattering. The rankings themselves are only deceptive in their naming conventions. If they were the Thomson Reuters University Patent Analytics Ranking and the Shanghai Jiao Tong Research Awards and Publication Productivity Ranking, we’d all be fine. But then it would be a huge leap from doing well in such rankings to make pitch for donations: “Donate now to help UW file more patent applications and pay hugely to hire more Nobel Prize-winning faculty!” That pitch would not have that necessary ring to it. Dr. Cauce is deliberately deceptive in her use of these rankings. She wants alumni to donate to UW, but she is not willing to make the case directly. If you can’t trust the president of UW, who can you trust?