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The NRC's 10-year report card
Faculty participation in survey deemed crucial as influential National Research Council ranking of doctoral programs gears up

| 17 January 2007

Achieving high marks on the National Research Council's once-a-decade nationwide ranking of research-doctoral programs - widely considered the most reliable and comprehensive assessment of its kind - is a feat with enduring rewards, as the Berkeley campus well knows. In 1995, the last time the NRC undertook its ambitious survey, more Berkeley doctoral programs were ranked among the nation's top 10 than any other U.S. university could claim. That stellar showing not only earned the campus a dozen years of bragging rights but boosted its power to attract top graduate students and sought-after faculty and to secure competitive grants and other forms of funding.

Mason and Szeri
Attention, Berkeley faculty: The Graduate Division's Mary Ann Mason and Andrew Szeri - along with Chancellor Birgeneau - want you to complete your NRC online survey by the Feb.15 deadline. (Deborah Stalford photo)

The NRC report: what's at stake?
A message to faculty from Mary Ann Mason, dean, Graduate Division, and Andrew Szeri, associate dean, Graduate Division

Only Berkeley faculty who respond to their NRC online surveys by Thursday, Feb. 15, will be able to vote on what characteristics of a doctoral program are indicators of quality - and it will be those votes that will directly inform the institutional rankings. And only faculty who meet the Feb. 15 deadline will have the chance to participate in the reputational survey that will also inform the national rankings.

The reputational phase of the study bears the most similarity to the methodology used in the 1995 NRC assessment, in which Berkeley's programs and faculty ranked so highly. Thus, the stakes are huge for Berkeley faculty involvement in that process, which will be conducted later this spring.

We cannot afford to neglect any opportunity to weigh in on this competitive nationwide process. While measuring faculty productivity is a delicate business, Berkeley can meet this challenge if we capitalize on all the means NRC makes available to us.

A critical feature of the NRC's data collection should be borne in mind: The only way that faculty achievements - whether publications, research grants, or intellectual property such as invention disclosures and patents - will be recorded by the NRC is through faculty listing them on their own questionnaire responses.

Together with Chancellor Birgeneau, we deem it crucial that Berkeley faculty be well represented in these responses. Many programs will be hosting discussion meetings to foster faculty participation. Through multiple channels, faculty members can be sure that they will be urged and reminded to meet the Feb. 15 due date!

The NRC is now crafting the third version of its influential report, "Research-Doctoral Programs in the United States," and Berkeley is mounting a major effort to put its best foot forward while conforming to the rigorous and complex rules guiding the process.

Chancellor Birgeneau, who committed the campus to participation in the study, notes that the NRC assessment of 1995 - which he describes as "an objective and highly respected assessment of academic quality" - has proved invaluable. "The new study being undertaken for this decade has a somewhat different methodology," he adds, "but we are hopeful that once again it will demonstrate Berkeley's academic preeminence. It is critical that we provide the study with all the data needed to make a reliable assessment."

The chancellor appointed Mary Ann Mason, dean of the Graduate Division, as the campus's institutional coordinator of NRC survey-related efforts. In that role Mason has focused on staffing the project and collaborating with graduate deans across the country to help shape the construction of the assessment.

Faculty survey marks a new phase

About 60 Berkeley programs will be scrutinized and ranked against comparable programs at several hundred U.S. research universities. The campus's data-collection effort, led by Professor of Mechanical Engineering Andrew Szeri, associate dean of the Graduate Division, has already been "enormous in its intensity," Szeri reports. For well over a year a campuswide NRC Working Group, chaired by Szeri, has been collecting data, designing research instruments, and recruiting faculty facilitators, among other tasks.

This month marks a new phase, as some 1,400 Berkeley faculty members, along with 90,000 academics nationwide, will be asked to shine a light on their programs by responding to NRC's online survey. The questionnaire will be e-mailed to Berkeley faculty in mid-January, with responses due to the NRC by Thursday, Feb. 15. The survey will take about 30 minutes to complete; to maximize efficiency, it will be pre-populated by some centrally held data. Although faculty responses will be accepted until April 1, late responders will forfeit the chance to influence how rankings will be formed (see box above for important details on the process).

Deciding how the campus's research-doctoral programs best "map" to the NRC's list of field designations has been one important task taken on by the campus working group. While most campus Ph.D. programs will be evaluated, some important programs - including architecture, business, education, law, and public policy - are not among the NRC's selected fields. Two joint UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco programs, bioengineering and medical anthropology, will be considered in their entirety, rather than being split into their Berkeley and UCSF components as they were in the prior assessment.

Complementing the faculty questionnaires are three others: The campus's overall institutional questionnaire is being handled by Graduate Division staff Judi Sui and Andrew Smith; they are also coordinating completion of program-specific questionnaires with important input from the programs themselves, organized by a faculty facilitator in each area. Additionally, doctoral candidates are being surveyed in five specific programs. Taken together, Szeri says, Berkeley's responses "should paint a comprehensive picture of our excellence."

A radical departure

With release expected in 2007, the next NRC report will differ substantially from its predecessors in several respects. Following an overhaul of survey methodology - one that in significant ways mirrors the broad national trend toward concretely measurable "accountability" - the assessment will rely far more on quantitative data, with a lesser role for reputational rankings (based on the opinions of peer academics across the nation) so important to past NRC assessments.

The forthcoming report will differ from earlier versions in presentation as well as substance. The printed tome will be no more. In its place, a website will offer a database and analytic summary report on some 60 fields of study. The online format will permit users to compare programs within and among institutions. For example, a prospective Ph.D. student will be able to create a customized ranking based on a subset of factors - such as program size, faculty publications, or number of students supported by grants - that she or he deems most important. The NRC also plans to update the database with greater frequency than it has in the past.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, a cluster of congressionally chartered nonprofit private institutions that function as "advisers to the nation" on science, engineering, and medicine. Findings from the report on research-doctoral programs are used not only by individuals but by economists, public-policy experts, legislators, and others. Data collected will be analyzed in a variety of research studies commissioned by the council.