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Boeing: the new U.S. News?

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 25, 2008 10:31 AM

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A Boeing 747

Boeing is stepping into an area dominated by U.S. News and World Reports: College rankings. But the aircraft manufacturer is hoping that its efforts, which will focus exclusively on engineering programs (and not, like U.S. News's, on a college's overall offerings) will have a rigor and credibility that the fading newsmagazine's are perceived to lack. (Not that anyone has come up with anything better; and some of the complaints from colleges amount to whining: Many college officials simply don't want to be judged by any standard.)

The rankings idea, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, came from Boeing VP Richard D. Stephens, who oversees human resources and administration for the company and has served on the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Stephens decided that with 35,000 engineers on its payroll, and terabytes of data on their on-the-job performance over the years, Boeing didn't have to wait for the government to figure out how to evaluate higher-education "outcomes."

Within the next few weeks, the Chronicle says, Stephens will send letters to 150 deans of engineering schools laying out how their alumni have done at Boeing, both in absolute terms and relative to the alumni of other programs. The letters will offer suggestions for improvement whenever graduates of the schools consistently lack certain skills or traits.

The rankings are theoretically for private consumption only, but Stephens said he fully expects leaks, and bragging. Some schools with small names, he hints, do disproportionately well at the company and will certainly want to trumpet that fact.

Some observers worry that the Boeing rankings will push engineering schools to be even more beholden to industry than they already are. And beholden to a certain kind of industry, which values a certain subset of engineers.

Because Boeing's chief goal is that its planes stay in the air (and let me say that I, for one, endorse this goal), its evaluation system tends to value solid, by-the-books types, some engineers told the Chronicle. "The extreme employees, either plus or minus, struggled with this," said Paul Illian, a researcher at Seattle University who left Boeing in 2001 after 22 years, "whereas the 'Billy Joe Bob' engineer in the middle flourished under it." Where do M.I.T. grads fall on that spectrum?

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