Avoid judging institutions only on their reputations

It’s easy to miss or undervalue the academic accomplishments of universities when they are rated on their reputations alone, argue Pam Benoit and Suzanne Austin

September 21, 2018
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Higher education puts great stock in reputation. It influences which institutions students attend and where businesses hire, where faculty and staff want to work, and where philanthropic and grant support are directed – and most often, rightfully so. 

Reputations are earned, and tremendous effort and resources go into maintaining them. We should not discount institutions that have built great reputations. But neither should we take a shortcut that ignores others and limits our understanding of the scope of higher education.

We challenge our campus communities to avoid lazy thought, and to push the boundaries of innovation rather than accept what we know today.

In June, the University of Alabama at Birmingham was named the top US university and the 10th worldwide in the Times Higher Education Young University Rankings 2018 and it reinforced to us how we so often do not take the same thoughtful approach to assessing a university’s reputation as we do to our academic pursuits. 

The ranking measures all the traditional criteria that other international rankings assess – teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income. But because it is looking at institutions younger than 50 years old, reputation is not as heavily weighted in the formula. As such, institutions are judged less on the subjective notion of what others think of them and more on academic accomplishments.  

UAB has a rich history of such accomplishments. In its formative years, faculty were conducting the collaborative and interdisciplinary research that is today the academic standard. That innovative and synergetic culture has propelled UAB over five decades, as faculty have continually pushed frontiers and amassed an impressive number of firsts in the sciences and medicine including leading an international team that discovered the origin of HIV in West Africa and collaborating on the first triple-drug cocktail to treat Aids.

Another example of a young institution’s transformational impact includes the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute, an internationally recognised centre for transplant volumes and clinical outcomes.

UAB physicians are engaged in the longest live-donor kidney transplant chain ever conducted at any site in the world, recently surpassing 100 transplants.

And a new undergraduate programme in digital forensics began this autumn, combining computer science and criminal justice to prepare students for the rapidly changing world of cybersecurity. In recent years, a team of UAB cyber-forensics faculty and graduate students worked with the FBI to identify and apprehend a $70 million money-laundering ring operating out of Ukraine.

These and other accomplishments across many disciplines – at UAB and other young universities – are a reminder to us that we sometimes initially ignore or undervalue impressive results when we take the reputation cognitive shortcut. At UAB, we have made an effort in the past few months to avoid that shortcut by taking more time to seek out the transformative contributions so many younger institutions make to our global society. 

As a result, our appreciation for higher education and the people working in it to make a difference is richer and more personally fulfilling.

After all, as wonderful as it is to receive global recognition, we were the same great institution the day before the rankings were released as we were the day after. 

Pam Benoit will be part of the panel discussion “Research universities – unique learning environments for the future?” at the 2018 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 25-27 September at the National University of Singapore

Pam Benoit is the provost and senior vice-president of Academic Affairs, and Suzanne Austin is the senior vice-provost and senior international officer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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