CWRU plummets in Yahoo! wired rankings
Last year's "Most Wired" university is not among this year's top 100
By Elizabeth Whalen
CWRU’s ranking in Yahoo! Internet Life magazine’s annual “Most Wired Colleges” has significantly dropped from the number one spot held last year.
This year, CWRU is not even among the top 100 universities, meaning the university is unranked, since Yahoo! stopped ranking after 100 this year. In 1998, CWRU was ranked number 63 on the list, and in 1997 it was ranked thirteenth.
Last year’s survey was completed exclusively by Raymond Neff, who was then Vice President of Information Services. CWRU does not have a copy of the survey that Neff submitted, and since no one worked on it with him, there is nobody available to comment on the exact answers given in 1999. Neff resigned in October amidst rumors that he was asked to leave.
This year, the Interim Vice President of Information Services, James Barker, filled out the survey with help from the office of Public Affairs and various Information Services (IS) employees.
With regards to the survey, Barker said, “Various parts of the questionnaire clearly related to specific units within IS. When this was the case, I asked the responsible IS group managers to consult with their staff and prepare the most accurate responses possible.” According to Barker, the information he received was then collated by both the IS and the Public Affairs staff.
All of the answers were double-checked for accuracy. “In cases where we felt the supporting documentation for a response was questionable, we went back to the source and requested clarification. If after these reviews we felt our response was based on hearsay or less than reliable data, we opted to respond conservatively,” Barker said.
In March, the university issued a statement to the magazine regarding the huge drop. Part of the statement read: “The employee [Neff] who responded to last year’s survey is no longer at the university. This year’s survey responses reflect and understated assessment of our capabilities as of January 2000, building on our pioneering high-speed, all-fiber-optic configuration.”
The accuracy and validity of this year’s survey has been questioned both within and outside of the university. Jeff Gumpf, assistant director of CWRUnet services, thought that the survey over-emphasized the importance of wireless Internet access. “I think they’re exaggerating its importance,” he said, and pointed out that the current standard wireless technology is neither as fast nor as reliable as the current Ethernet and ATM networking available on campus. Each antenna provides 10 megabits per second (Mbps) access, which is shared by all the users of that antenna, meaning if 10 users were accessing it at once, each would have a maximum access speed of one Mbps.
Each of the top 50 universities either offer wireless access or will have it in place by the end of 2000, and this year’s top-ranked school, Carnegie Mellon University, offers wireless service in select campus buildings to laptop users. The speed of each antenna is only 2 Mbps. CMU expects to finish installation of the wireless equipment in all campus buildings by June.
Several major universities decided not to respond to the survey this year because of the volatility of the rankings and because they objected to the ranking criteria. Among the 13 that boycotted were Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Berekeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago and the University of Washington (in Seattle).
Included with the article in the May issue of the magazine is a short article entitled “The Wired League vs. The Ivy League” that outlines Yahoo!’s response to the boycott.
The article says that “these schools mainly objected to the fact that although all our criteria were openly listed, we do not reveal the formula we use to rank schools.”
But, the Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for Duke University, Betty Leydon, told The Chronicle for Higher Education that “The real problem with the Yahoo! survey is that it looks at things that can be quantified easily but doesn’t ask enough questions about how schools are using technology.”
The Chronicle for Higher Education also examined CWRU’s plunge in the rankings. “Last year’s winner fell completely out of the top 100 in the wake of cheating accusations. Soon after the 1999 rankings were announced, an editorial in the university’s student newspaper, The Observer, said the university had grossly exaggerated its technology offerings in answering the survey.”
On the online version of the rankings, Yahoo! addressed CWRU’s dramatic fall. “Case Western Reserve … reported much lower numbers in both the General Resources and Student Support categories this year.”
The survey itself has changed substantially in the last few years. Although last year’s questions were not available, this year’s questions are much different in structure than 1998’s, according to Barker. This year, the survey was filled out by IS officials at each school on the Web, while previously the surveys had been filled out by hand. This year’s survey is composed of 52 multiple choice questions, with a space available at the end of each of the eight sections for explanations and comments. Each of these were restricted to 250 characters or less. According to Barker, the questions in 1998 “largely requested essay responses.”
Previously, Yahoo! had invited only certain colleges to participate in the survey. This year, however, all accredited institutions were invited to submit responses. This significantly increased the pool of schools from 571 last year to more than 3,600 this year. Also, the rankings are split into several categories this year. They include: colleges, universities, two-year institutions and “baccalaureate II colleges,” which the magazine defines as being “less selective” institutions.
The model of computer use for students at CWRU also differs from some other universities. Barker describes CWRU’s model as “distributed networking,” where each student has his own high-speed network faceplate in his room. Other schools often use a more lab-based computer-use model, providing labs in each residence hall for students rather than individual network access. “I consider that inferior to what we have here,” Gumpf said. “[Here], there’s no competition for the computers.”
The controversy over the survey has been around since Yahoo! began publishing their rankings in 1997. Their criteria has changed, and some charge that the information provided on their Web site (http://www.zdnet.com/yil/content/college/) is not representative of the questions asked of the universities.
“One person’s idea about what is the best is different from another’s” Gumpf said. “You have to be thoughtful and considerate about what is [a survey] really telling you?”