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Columbia University drops in rankings after correcting inaccurate data

Columbia University in New York has acknowledged that it submitted incorrect data on class sizes and faculty credentials to the US News & World Report, which has published an annual ranking of US colleges since 1983, used as a reference by thousands of students choosing where to study. According to the institution, the number of undergraduate classes with fewer than 20 students and the number of full-time professors with a PhD were both over-reported. With the data corrected, the institution fell from 2nd to 18th place in the list. “We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better,” said Columbia University Dean Mary Boyce, according to The Washington Post. “Anything less than complete accuracy in the data that we report is inconsistent with the standards of excellence to which Columbia holds itself.”

Various supposed facts about the institution were disputed in February by Michael Thaddeus, a professor of mathematics at the university and an expert in algebraic geometry. In a post on his website, he said he has identified other discrepancies in addition to those that have been recognized. For example: Columbia claimed that its student-to-teacher ratio is roughly 6 to 1, but according to Thaddeus, it is actually somewhere between 8 and 11 to 1. The institution also claims to spend US$3.1 billion per year on operating expenses, which is more than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined. Thaddeus says this figure is implausible. At the time, the university’s leadership denied that there were any errors in the information provided. “It’s hard to believe that this was an inadvertent error or a minor matter of methodology,” Thaddeus said. “More likely, someone in the University knew that there was serious misrepresentation afoot. If so, who was it?” he asked.

The case reignited a debate about the accuracy of university rankings, which are often based on self-reported data that need to be verified. Last year, Moshe Porat, former dean of the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was sued for submitting fraudulent data to US News about the institution’s professional MBA programs, such as inaccurate information about students’ professional experiences and the number of students studying part-time (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 304). In 2012, Claremont McKenna College in California admitted that it had reported inaccurate admissions statistics.