Shanghai Jiao Tong University recently published its Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for 2012. As usual, it contains both general university rankings and many specialized field and location based lists.
Ranking universities is an impressive dimensionality reduction challenge:
map from academic institutions to one dimension, hoping that your projection relates to loosely defined concepts like academic reputation. Think of trying to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier while reading Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to understand the concept of landing.
Rankings of specific departments are much less meaningless compared to university rankings and serve different purposes. As a student, I must admit that rankings seemed very useful. They allegedly help in another aircraft carrier landing task of choosing a school.
Just like everybody else, I still look rankings but now I have several concerns. Graduate school rankings in particular create a self-fulfilling prophecy: the best students and young faculty join higher ranked schools when given the option, hence creating a positive feedback loop.
US News almost has a de-facto national ranking monopoly, especially in the eyes of students. This sounds like a dangerous thing. Universities and departments have strong incentives to optimize a specific formula involving indicators like PhDs awarded per year and papers per academic staff. Aligning with a specific ranking methodology might not necessarily align with society’s or student interests.
Instead of thinking about these important questions, I compiled my personal ranking of world university rankings. The methodology is highly scientific: I read through each list and counted how many times I screamed: ‘Seriously, you ranked this school higher than this other school?‘.
The ranking with the lowest number of screams wins. Interestingly, ARWU wins my least absurd ranking award. The rest are:
(RatER, Forbes remain unranked)