It’s a classification of universities. I’m not clear on what it means or where the term comes from. As far as I can tell from my brief web searching, the term comes from the Carnegie Foundation, as cited at the top of this, which references the classification of U.S. universities done in 1994, listed here – the assignment of U’s to categories I mean, not the creation of the classificatory system. That page lists the following as defining or starting to define a “Research I” institution:

Research Universities I :

* Offer a full range of baccalaureate programs
* Are committed to graduate education through the doctorate
* Give high priority to research
* Award 50 or more doctoral degrees each year
* Receive annually $40 million or more in federal support

The site for the Carnegie classifications has this to say:

With the 2005 revision, the single classification system was replaced by a set of multiple, parallel classifications. The new classifications provide different lenses through which to view U.S. colleges and universities, offering researchers greater flexibility in meeting their analytic needs. They are organized around three fundamental questions: what is taught (Undergraduate and Graduate Instructional Program classifications), who are the students (Enrollment Profile and Undergraduate Profile), and what is the setting (Size & Setting). The original Carnegie Classification framework—now called the Basic classification—has also been substantially revised.

According to that, the category “Research One” is somewhat outmoded:

Doctorate-granting Universities. With this edition, doctorate-granting institutions are once again differentiated based on an explicit measure of research activity. We now use a multi-measure index rather than the single measure of federal funding used in previous editions. This approach incorporates several improvements: it is not limited to funding; the funding measures used are not limited to federal funding; and the analysis considers both aggregate and per-capita measures of research activity. Using the new methodology, we have identified three categories of doctorate-granting institutions. Because of these changes, the new categories are not comparable to those previously used (Research I & II and Doctoral I & II; and Doctoral/Research—Extensive and Intensive).

It still exists in universities and their cultures, however – the term comes up where I’m at, and is used in the document from 2006 or 2007 that is the first link in this post.

Here are the new categories:

Doctorate-granting Universities. Includes institutions that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year (excluding doctoral-level degrees that qualify recipients for entry into professional practice, such as the JD, MD, PharmD, DPT, etc.). Excludes Special Focus Institutions and Tribal Colleges.

RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)
RU/H: Research Universities (high research activity)
DRU: Doctoral/Research Universities

I’m at an RU/VH.

The Center for Measuring University Performance lists the following criteria used in its reports on which are the best research universities:

Total Research, Federal Research, Endowment Assets, Annual Giving, National Academy Members, Faculty Awards, Doctorates Granted, Postdoctoral Appointees, and Median SAT Scores.

I’ve not really read any of the reports, just glanced at the intro and glanced at where my current institution falls – in 2006 #11 over all, #9 for public institutions.

I can’t deny a certain satisfaction, like “I’m at a prestigious place,” which I know a fair amount of people share here. That feeling of satisfaction goes something like this:

1. The university I’m at gets high marks according to some authoritative standard.
2. That standard is correct such that this is a high quality place to be.
3. The high quality of the place is in some way shared across the place and its residents. That is, for one to be in a high quality place is a marker of one’s own quality. Someone who is in a place of quality must be someone of quality.
4. The standard ranks universities such that this is not only a high quality place to be but is a higher quality place to be than some others.
5. Since quality is shared (3) and ranked (4), someone who is in a place of higher quality is someone of higher quality than those in other places.

These are, of course, not necessarily propositions advanced in arguments. In my case, this is more like a rational reconstruction of what I think is going on when I get this good feeling reading these rankings, a good feeling something like pride. (Incidentally, this good feeling is not something I have good feelings about. I have an uneasy feeling about it actually: I’m not proud of feeling proud of my university ranking. [Perhaps my next post will be about meta-feelings], but I don’t want to pretend the feeling doesn’t exist.)

Looking at these implied propositions, (1) is clearly true. (2) is ambiguous. Insofar as the standard in (1) is legitimately authoritative (like, the standard tracks stuff that is genuinely important), then (2) is true. Quality being relative (2) is true depending on the definition of quality.

(3) is not a given but is an empirical matter. Perhaps there are rankings and reports on this, I don’t know. Not having read the reports or looked at the methodology I can’t really make a claim, but it’s plausible that an institution might have some portion which is in some way stellar and so brings a high rating for the institution over all while still having other sections which are less than stellar and bring down the average rating. As an analogy, among other things, I’m a) a decent and relatively enthusiastic cook, c) a good listener, c) a good conversationalist, and d) generally good at getting people’s relatives to like me. At the same time, I’m e) a somewhat frequent insomniac which makes me both sometimes grumpy and sometimes frustrating to sleep close to as I might wake folk up, f) losing my hair, g) tremendously opinionated about all kinds of matters and can get pretty worked up about topics if they come up in conversation. I think a) through d) are part of what make me a desirable partner and e) through g) arguably lower that desirability (if it could be measured over all). That is to say, my stellar qualities and that I am over all really pretty amazing (and believe me, I’m awesome – just ask me, I’ll tell you all about it) do not mean that all aspects of me are stellar. Similarly, different areas of a university – which sometimes have different functions akin to some of those listed in my qualities, like cooking and listening and interacting with my partner’s relatives – are not necessarily uniformly stellar just because a university is high quality over all. I think it stands to reason that the opposite is more likely, that quality is unevenly rather than uniformly distributed across an institution (and an individual).

(4) is highly problematic. Quality being relative, like I said, then it seems to me that (4) could be true, except that doesn’t validate the claim or the satisfaction. (4) could be true relative to some standard, but it’s plausible that there are other standards which assess other qualities such that a university might score high on the first but not on the second. It’s also not at all clear how different qualities relate to each other in relative importance. Again paralleling me as a partner, it’s not clear what the standard is to measure my cooking vs my being opinionated. For some people, the latter would outweigh the former. Put differently, I’m a good partner for my wife, but that does mean I would be good partner or as good a partner for any person whatsoever. Quality partner is really quality-for-someone. I want to make the same claim regarding universities and education.

This is not to say we can’t make claims about probability. I’d probably be a good partner for lots of people [not that I have any interest at all in having a different partner, far from it] just as a person with severe addiction problems is very probably not going to be a good partner for many people at all, if anyone. This is not so much because I think there’s an objective standard for measuring partnership so much as that I think I have a good idea of what most people – at least most people I’ve met and who are anything remotely like me or other people I’ve met – have in mind in terms of what makes a good partner. I do think we can make similar claims about likelihoods re: quality of universities, but I’m not sure about some of that.

While I think probability claims are fine, I don’t know that rankings are. It’s pretty straightforward to advise person W “oh, person X would probably be a good partner for you” as a sort of assessment connected to giving relationship advice. The same goes for advice about one’s relationship to educational institutions. But rankings? I’m a good partner for my wife. Person Y is a good partner for person Z. How would my good partner-ness be ranked in comparison to person Z? If person W responded to the advice re: person X, “I agree, but what about person V? Would they be a better or a worse partner for me than X?” answering would very quickly get one onto ground that’s problematic in a few ways. I want to say the same about educational rankings as markers of differential quality. This is not to say that no ranking is possible. Person W might get involved with X and have it be bad, and make valid comparisons between X and other partners they’ve had. Likewise with educational institutions. I’m not sure about how much I trust the rankings as a guide – I doubt (2) for some important qualities, and doubt many possible case of (2) that I can imagine for some important qualities, admitted unfairly as I’ve not read the reports and where the rankings come from.

I reject (5) in part because I reject (3) and doubt (4).

This satisfaction connected to (1) through (5) is related to the myth of university as meritocratic; on this blog I’ve repeatedly mentioned disagreeing with that but haven’t really spent much time on it (writing or reading – any advice on stuff to read?). I defined it briefly here as “the idea that you get into a university by being really good at something that really matters, and that you succeed in your educational and professional career in the academic industry by being really good at something that really matters. (…) It’s true that being really good at things is one way to succeed in this industry. But some people succeed without apparently being at very much – due to patronage, favoritism, politicking, etc – and many people fail who are also really good at important things.”

That’s all for now. What I really wanted to get to was the priority teaching undergrads takes, but that will have to wait.