UNC editors bemoan 'privatization' caused by university rankings

Comparing the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to other universities is a “grandiose [display] of privatization,” according to the editors of the student newspaper.

“As a board, we frequently oppose grandiose displays of privatization and suppression of free expression,” begins an editorial published Tuesday by The Daily Tar Heel, which goes on to assert that both conditions are fostered by the practice of comparing universities to one another.

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“This board opposes this process due to the lack of democratic accountability, the distortion of university standards, and the increased financial evaluation of the University,” the editors declare, arguing that “comparative studies fundamentally remove democratic accountability by considering universities' standards in comparison to other universities.”

In 2011, the UNC system identified 15 institutions (10 public and five private) as “official peers” for UNC-Chapel Hill based on metrics such as mission; quality of faculty, students, and programs; and research productivity.

The problem with this arrangement, as the Daily Tar Heel editorial board sees it, is that it “preempts the community’s ability to produce norms and values to guide the university” independently by tying self-examination to the conditions at other schools.

For instance, the editorial frets that comparative analysis tends to foster a greater emphasis on tangible improvements to the institution, such as a new student union, as opposed to “responding to students’ demands for the removal of Silent Sam” and other social justice-oriented initiatives.

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Two of UNC’s peers, moreover, are part of the University of California system, which the editors point out experienced a 330 percent increase in student fees between 2000 and 2011.

“Based on comparative analysis, the radical shifts in student fees would be deemed acceptable as peer institutions deemed it acceptable,” they say worriedly. “The inclusion of the University of California system in the set of peer institutions would make it seem like fee increases are the only possible way to counteract changes in university structures.”

Conversely, the editors lament that the City University of New York is not among UNC’s peer institutions, noting wistfully that CUNY is “a public school where there is active debate about eliminating tuition outright.”

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In addition, the Daily Tar Heel observes that UNC’s internal comparative analysis is buttressed by the annual rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, claiming that both processes contribute to “the financialization of public universities” by creating a situation reminiscent of stock market valuations.

“The future value of the university, measured by these ranking systems, results in the universities investing in schemes to increase ratings as opposed to projects that benefit current students,” the editorial contends. “The current student is not valuable under the model of shareholder valuation, as the current student does not factor into future value.”

Notably, though, many economists believe that competition is beneficial to a marketplace because it allows for a person to evaluate the market and choose what is best for that person. Economics Online describes a competitive market as one in which “large numbers of producers compete with each other to satisfy the wants and needs of a large number of consumers.”

In that same vein, U.S. News explains that the point of its ranking system is to allow families to compare prices and quality of education to help them make decisions on what college fits them best.

Nonetheless, the Daily Tar Heel editorial condemns what it calls the “privatization of our university” that results from competitive pressures, concluding that “privatization removes the public from the decision-making process.”

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