The Columbia University academic whose exposure of false data caused the prestigious institution to plunge in US college rankings has accused its administration of deception and a whitewash over the affair.
Michael Thaddeus, a mathematics professor, said that by submitting rigged numbers to drive the university up the influential US News & World Report rankings, Columbia put its financial priorities ahead of students education in order to fund a ballooning and secretive bureaucracy.
On Monday, US News relegated Columbia from second to 18th in the latest rankings after the college admitted to “outdated and/or incorrect methodologies” in some of its previous claims about the quality of the education the university provides.
“I find it very difficult to believe the errors were honest and inadvertent at this point,” Thaddeus told the Guardian.
He added: “The response that the university made was not the forthright, direct, complete response of a university that really wanted to clear the air and really wanted to inform the public. They address certain issues but then they completely ignored or whitewashed other ones.”
Thaddeus embarrassed Columbia and shocked the academic world in February when he published a lengthy analysis accusing the university of submitting “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading” statistics for the US News rankings. Among other things, he took issue with claims about class sizes, which the mathematics professor said he knew from experience were not accurate, and the assertion that all of the university’s faculty held the highest degrees in their fields.
Thaddeus also said the university hugely overstated spending on instruction, claiming it far exceeded other Ivy League universities, by adding in the cost of patient care in the medical school.
Columbia initially defended its numbers before admitting on Friday that Thaddeus was right about class sizes and the qualifications of its teaching staff. “We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better,” Columbia’s provost, Mary Boyce, said in the statement.
In July, the university said it was pulling out of this year’s rankings. US News made its own calculations, based in part on federal data, and this week moved the university down a humiliating 16 places.
Thaddeus began digging into the numbers as Columbia celebrated its stunning rise in the rankings from 18th in 1988. It broke into the top five in 2011 and eventually made second place last year.
“A few other top-tier universities have also improved their standings, but none has matched Columbia’s extraordinary rise. It is natural to wonder what the reason might be,” he wrote in his analysis.
When Thaddeus began to suspect that Columbia’s numbers didn’t add up, he saw the opportunity to discredit a system he regards as a con perpetrated on prospective students desperate to ensure that the tens of thousands of dollars a year many will spend on gigantic tuition fees are worth it.
The US News rankings, alongside less influential ones by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other publications, have a significant impact on which universities prospective students favor. Thaddeus said Columbia’s fall exposes the shoddiness of a system that relies on an institution’s own numbers without checking.
“I’ve long believed that all university rankings are essentially worthless. They’re based on data that have very little to do with the academic merit of an institution and that the data might not be accurate in the first place,” he said.
“It was never my objective to knock Columbia down the rankings. A better outcome would be if the rankings themselves are knocked down and people just stop reading them, stop taking them as seriously as they have.”
It’s not the first scandal involving the US News rankings. Last year, a former dean of Temple University’s business school in Philadelphia was sent to prison for fraud after rigging data to move the college’s MBA sharply up the rankings.
But Thaddeus, who has taught at Columbia for 24 years, also had another target in his sights – his own university’s administration.
The former head of Columbia’s mathematics department described an expanding and self-replicating bureaucracy that is growing ever more expensive to maintain. He said that Columbia’s endowment is not large enough to cover the cost of the growing administration and so it is paid for by increasing tuition costs.
“It means that our educational programmes have to be run to some degree as money-making ventures. That is the secret that can’t be openly acknowledged,” he said.
Thaddeus suspects administrators rigged the data to move the university up the rankings in order to justify rising tuition fees which, at about $65,000 a year, are more than five times the amount paid by the parents of today’s students in the 1980s.
“It’s clear that the growth of university bureaucracies and administration has been a major driver of the cost of higher education growing much, much faster than inflation. We now have about 4,500 administrators on the main campus, about three times the number of faculty, and that’s a new development over the past 20 years,” he said.
“What is less clear is what all these administrators are actually doing. They say that more administrators are needed to comply with government regulations. There may be a little truth to that, but not much, because these regulations in question were enacted decades ago. There hasn’t been a lot of new university regulation that I know of.”
Thaddeus acknowledged that there was a need for more staff to provide services that were not previously available such as much more extensive career placement, counseling and psychiatric care. But he does not believe that accounts for the growth of a bureaucracy he describes as self-serving and unaccountable.
“I was kind of radicalised by the experience of being department chair in mathematics from 2017 to 2020. That’s when I saw how secretive, how autocratic, Columbia’s administration is. How they never share relevant information with faculty or students or the public. This episode has just seriously damaged the credibility of the administration. That saddens me, but it’s also important that these issues get out in the open,” he said.
Thaddeus said that initially he was not willing to accuse the university of deliberately manipulating the rankings system.
“When I first wrote my article, I expressed greater agnosticism on this point,” he said.
But he said the university’s response, including its failure to be transparent about how the false data came to be reported, caused him to believe Columbia deliberately gamed the system.
“Also, there’s been no move by the university to commission an external investigation, an investigation at arm’s length by a third party such as a law firm, which is standard practice when ranking scandals erupt. If I had seen some move like that by the university, I would be more inclined to think that the errors were honest and inadvertent,” he said.
Approached for comment, Columbia said it had nothing to add to the statements it has already made.