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The Daily Tar Heel

Opinion: Methodology of comparing universities is bad

As a board, we frequently oppose grandiose displays of privatization and suppression of free expression. 

This is essential, but a critique of the bureaucratic processes by which these decisions are made is also necessary to change the direction our University is heading. 

The prevailing methodology employed by the University is comparisons between ourselves and similarly situated universities. 

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.

Comparative studies fundamentally remove democratic accountability by considering universities' standards in comparison to other universities. 

In practice, a new student union would generate more perceived value than responding to students' demands for the removal of Silent Sam, as the new union would provide a direct point of comparison between UNC and other institutions.

The question therefore becomes how UNC stands in relation to its peers. With this move, normative considerations are removed from the processes. 

Community members are unable to decide the future of the university, as the future is determined by the present conditions of other universities. This preempts the community’s ability to produce norms and values to guide the university. 

Community discourse and the democratic process itself are subservient to the norms of other universities. The comparative study becomes the exact apparatus that excludes community voices from determining the university's future.

With peer institutions establishing standards, the bias of existing institutions contaminates self-evaluation. Consider a peer institution like the University of California system, which between 2009 through 2011 saw a 20 percent decrease in state funding. Between 2000 through 2011, the system saw a 330 percent increase in student fees. 

Based on comparative analysis, the radical shifts in student fees would be deemed acceptable as peer institutions deemed it acceptable. The flaw in this methodology derives from the biasing of the mean that occurs through the selection process. 

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.

The real picture is more complicated, requiring an intricate set of political decisions as to what gets funded. The politics even occur at the level of what schools are considered peer institutions with the City University of New York, a public school where there is active debate about eliminating tuition outright — but CUNY is excluded from the set of UNC's peer institutions on unclear grounds. 

The set of schools itself and the sample statistics derived from the set distorts the true status and direction of the university by placing our future in the hands of administrators.

The generalization of these conditions not only fails to include community voices but is methodologically flawed.

Finally, the model of peer evaluation fits into the financialization of public universities. The peer comparison model operates with the understanding that our university will be rated against the other institutions in U.S. News & World Report college rankings. 

According to University of California-Berkeley professor Wendy Brown, ranking and ratings share a value system with shareholder valuations common in the financial system. 

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 current student is not valuable under the model of shareholder valuation, as the current student does not factor into future value. 

The peer comparison model is a subtle but dangerous component of the privatization of our university. Privatization removes the public from the decision-making process. 

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