Tag Archives: University of Virginia

Mighty Morphing Power Turbines

If Virginia ever develops a large fleet of offshore wind turbines, we may have a team of researchers led by the University of Virginia to thank.

Funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the research team expects to build prototypes this summer for a 50-megawatt offshore wind turbine that is nearly six times more powerful than the record-setting turbine deployed off the coast of Scotland in April, reports Greentech Media.

The massive turbine takes a radically different approach to wind turbine design. Conventional turbine blades face the incoming wind. By contrast, blades for the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR) would face downwind and fold together as the wind force increases. The design was inspired by palm trees, which have evolved to survive hurricane-force winds. And surviving hurricane-force winds is exactly what the SUMR is supposed to do.

One of the major barriers to developing a wind farm off the south Atlantic coast is the uncertainty of whether conventional turbines, which can withstand North Sea gales, would hold up to extreme hurricane winds. Before Dominion Energy Virginia is willing to build scores of turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, it wants to erect two turbines in the so-called Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project (VOWTAP) to test a hurricane-resistant design. But the utility was unable to get the project cost, last estimated at $300 million, low enough to win approval by the State Corporation Commission. The project has been effectively shelved.

The ultralight SUMR blades will be 200 meters long, almost twice as long as conventional blades, but will be possible to assemble in pieces, thus avoiding problems shipping them from the factory site to the project site. Because the blades would be constructed of more malleable materials, they also would be capable of morphing downwind.

“We’re trying to have the turbine blades be more aligned along the load path, so we can get away with lower structural mass and have less fatigue and less damage,” said Eric Loth, chair of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UVa and project leader.

The UVa-led consortium plans to test its turbine this summer at the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado and complete the design within a year.

Loth, the design leader, hopes that the new turbine will be transformative. The innovative design could reduce the levelized cost of offshore wind energy by as much as 50% by 2025, he says. “We need to come up with turbines that are not necessarily more efficient but will cost less to build and maintain.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If this research pans out, Virginians should thank their lucky stars that Dominion didn’t commit to spending billions of dollars on what in retrospect can be viewed as risky and outmoded wind technologies. Hopefully, this project will spark renewed interest in offshore wind. It would be doubly cool if Virginia could not only participate in the creation of the SUMR blades but be the first to deploy it on a commercial scale and the first to reap its benefits.

As we think about Virginia’s long-term energy mix (see previous post), we should factor the potential of this new wind technology into the equation.

Correction: Al Christopher, director of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, informs me that the VOWTAP project has not been shelved. Rather it morphed last July into Virginia Coastal Offshore Wind. “Dominion has said publicly several times recently that it plans to file for cost recovery with the SCC very soon.”

How UVa Compares to Other Flagship Universities in Out-of-State Enrollment

There’s a special burden upon state flagship universities to acquit themselves well in the national rankings — the university reflects upon the state as a whole. Thus, the high esteem in which Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia, among others, are held casts a warm glow upon California, Virginia, and Michigan.

The ranking methodology for the U.S. News & World-Report “Best Colleges in America” puts a premium on average SAT scores. Enlarging the pool of out-of-state students enables an institution to recruit more high-SAT students. As a bonus, out-of-state students pay higher tuition than in-state students. But filling up the student body with out-of-staters conflicts with the mission of public institutions to serve the population of the state supporting them with taxpayer dollars. What’s a university president to do?

The Washington Post took at look at the flagship institutions of the 50 states to see what percentage of out-of-state students they admitted. At the bottom, the University of Vermont admitted only 21% of its students from within the state in the fall of 2016. At the opposite extreme, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks admitted 89% in-staters.

Of course, here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we’re most interested in the University of Virginia. UVa admitted 66% in-state students, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous year. That was a middle-of-the-pack performance compared to other flagships.

For purposes of comparison, only 51% of University of Michigan students were native Michiganders. On the other hand, Berkeley managed to maintain its high ranking with 76% in-staters, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with 83%.

Conversely, one can look at a flagship’s ability to recruit out-of-state students as a positive. Talent comes from all around the country, all around the globe, and many of the 34% of out-of-staters recruited by UVa end up staying here in Virginia. Looking at the percentage from an economic development perspective, this might be the number we’d like to see grow.

(Hat tip: Peter Blake)

The Battleground of Race and Public Memory

The University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello have just wrapped up an international symposium, “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & the Built Landscape.” The conference, a great success according to the symposium website, provided a forum for “a free-ranging conversation about researching the enslaved past, disseminating findings to a broader public, and breaking down disciplinary boundaries as we collectively work to tell a fuller story about our own pasts.”

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the subject of reparations came up more than once.

Said Ana Lucia Araujo, a Howard University professor of history:

This very city and campus are living examples of how such public battles over public memory can unfold. But where reparations for slavery are increasingly accepted and embraced by governments and other institutions, there is usually a great silence surrounding the idea of financial reparations for slavery.

Symbolic reparations touted by government and universities — renaming buildings, adding memorials and plaques, creating commissions, may not be enough.

Then there was this from Craig Wilder, author of “Ebony and Ivory”:

A lot of the universities have launched reports, but they have launched reports and studies somewhat reluctantly. The question of reparations was, in part, a reflection of how a lot of colleges and universities got to the point of studying their histories … which was often driven by students.

It’s impossible for us to know whether comments about reparations were typical of the sentiments expressed during the conference or cherry-picked by the Times-Dispatch reporter because they were controversial. And one can only conjecture whether the dialogue at the international symposium will reflect the tenor of the upcoming “Teaching Race at UVa” seminar, the purpose of which is to inspire UVa faculty to revise their course syllabi to “present reality of race and racism both locally and nationally.”

My fear, however, is that the sentiments expressed are widely shared by the “subject matter experts” who will be teaching the “Teaching Race at UVa” sessions. If I am correct, the Leftist views espoused at the “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & the Built Landscape” conference will inform the perspectives propagated by the “Teaching Race at UVa” seminar, which will alter the syllabi of a wide range of courses taught at UVa, which in turn will shape the worldviews of a new generation of students. Leftist thought might be diluted in the process, but the flow of influence will be entirely one way.

The study of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, racial prejudice and desegregation are entirely appropriate subjects for a university to undertake. Indeed, as a former student at UVa and the Johns Hopkins University of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and African history, I find myself intrigued by much of the symposium’s subject matter. Furthermore, I agree that it is appropriate to use history as a tool to illuminate contemporary society. We are, after all, products of the past.

What worries me is the narrow range of intellectual perspectives that are considered. The historic focus on past racial injustices is part and parcel of the larger obsession with racial and ethnic disparities today. The underlying assumption is that disparities in income, education and other outcomes are the result of America’s grievously flawed institutions and continued white privilege. The modern academy gives very little attention to the possibility that over the past 50 or so years the modern welfare state, social engineering projects and social justice initiatives have backfired badly, harming those whom the Left purports to help.

The obsessive focus on race represents a form of intellectual doubling down on the bad bet that once Civil Rights were affirmed for all, government then needed to intervene proactively to address equality. African-Americans especially have been the subjects of one botched policy experiment after another. Thus we have witnessed the devastation of intact neighborhoods by urban renewal, the concentration of the poor into housing projects, the undermining of the family structure by the welfare state, the denigration of “bourgeois virtues” that facilitate upward mobility, the assault on disciplined behavior in public schools, the push for lower-income households into home ownership and the subsequent obliteration of wealth after the housing crash, and most recently the credo that everyone is entitled to a college education despite overwhelming evidence that low-income Americans are disproportionately likely to drop out before earning a degree and accumulate debt they can never discharge.

While these policy disasters have afflicted low-income Americans of all races and ethnicities, they have devastated African-Americans most of all. The Left, fixated on race, identity politics, and the sinfulness of America, is unwilling to acknowledge its grotesque failures. Instead, it has adapted to the persistence of poverty and social breakdown among African-Americans (replicated to various degrees among Indians, Hispanics and whites) by finding racism in micro-aggressions and blaming poverty on ever-more-subtle forces of institutional racism.

That’s the problem I have with these academic seminars and symposia. Far from fostering “free-ranging conversations,” they tolerate only a limited spectrum of views. They ignore strains of thought that would threaten their sinful-America paradigm. Instead of embracing a positive approach — how can individuals and communities lift themselves up from poverty — they pursue a divisive, zero-sum game. Reparations in the United States is a non-starter. The idea of collectively punishing one race for the sins of committed by members of that race more than 100 years ago in order to repay the descendants of the victims is intellectually incoherent. Not only does the idea stir great resentment, it distracts us from the proper task at hand — identifying policies that actually work.

What’s Wrong with UVa, and What’s Not

Photo credit: Washington Post

There is something wrong with a university that sits on an endowment of $8.6 billion while raising the cost of an undergraduate tuition to $63,000 a year for out-of-state students and $32,000 a year for in-state students, writes Brendan Novak, opinion editor for the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia student newspaper.

Novak goes on to make some very good points and some very misguided ones. Both are worthy of discussion.

First, Novak decries the idea of UVa as a “Public Ivy.”

The label “Public Ivy” reeks of a desperation for prestige that is increasingly characteristic of schools like the University. Traditional Ivy League schools have known for centuries that wealth confers status and status confers wealth, and now that public schools like the University have caught on, they seem committed to emulating this model. From a self-serving perspective, this might appear to be a positive development — one could reasonably expect students to celebrate the University’s pursuit of prestige. It’s true, the University’s growing prominence only serves to better the opportunities available to students — and yet it’s hard to not find this obsession with cultural eminence fundamentally troubling. The University is first and foremost a public institution, and its pursuit of elite status detracts from its primary responsibility — to serve the Commonwealth.

Outside of the career schools, higher education in the United States is a non-profit endeavor. Colleges and universities are not profit-maximizing institutions. Rather, they are prestige-maximizing institutions. Elite institutions such as UVa are engaged in a never-ending prestige “arms race” to increase prestige — measured by student SAT scores, the volume of research, faculty distinction, and the like — even while the Harvards, Yales, MITs, and Stanfords seek to preserve or improve their own rankings. There is no limit to institutions’ creativity in devising costly new ways to recruit star students and star faculty; hence there is no upward limit on how much they crave in tuition revenue and endowment size.

So, Novak is quite correct: Insofar as UVa is obsessed with achieving parity with the most prestigious nationally ranked universities in the country, it is detracting from its primary responsibility to serve the Commonwealth.

But then he goes astray. He faults UVa for its under-representation of underprivileged Virginians.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1-in-10 residents live below the federal poverty line. … At the University on the other hand, almost the same proportion of undergraduate students come from the top 1 percent of wealth. Further, two-thirds of students come from the top 20 percent, while less than 3 percent come from the bottom 20. In an ideal world, public schools like the University would be powerhouses of economic mobility, granting underprivileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class. …

Whether it’s a problem of outreach, financials or community development, it is clear that the University could be doing much more to make meaningful inroads into low-income communities.

If the University of Virginia were the only public university in Virginia, Novak might have a point. But UVa is only one of fifteen public four-year institutions in the Virginia higher education system. The system, not UVa, has an obligation to provide “under-privileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class.”

There is nothing wrong with having institutions that are elite by Virginia standards. As Virginia’s flagship university, UVa sets the highest merit-based admission standards and provides the most rigorous academic education (with the possible exception of the College of William & Mary). Given the powerful correlation between socio-economic status and academic achievement in high school, it is inevitable that the UVa student body will be compromised disproportionately of students from higher-income households. The university provides generous financial assistance to the small number of students from lower-income households who defy the odds and become high academic achievers. No one is turned away for an inability to pay the tuition. The barrier to having more lower-income students at UVa isn’t insufficient financial aid, it’s the lack of lower-income students who meet the admissions qualifications. That is the fault of failing K-12 institutions, or perhaps society at large, not UVa.

Practically speaking, the only way to achieve Novak’s goal of greater socioeconomic diversity is to lower admissions qualifications. Does anyone want UVa to relax standards — especially when considering that there are numerous other institutions in Virginia that are well equipped to educate students with less-rarefied credentials?

Speaking as a Virginia citizen and a UVa alumnus, I want to see UVa continue to strive for excellence, but not at the expense of displacing more Virginia students or making the cost of attendance more financially burdensome for qualifying middle-class students. There is a proper balance, and UVa hasn’t achieved it. But adopting Novak’s critique would push university priorities even further off kilter. The solution would be worse than the cure.

Is the “Bias” at UVa Worth All the Attention It Gets?

The University of Virginia promotes an “inclusive and welcoming environment for all.” It encourages students to promptly report bias-related incidents so the administration can evaluate them to determine if university policies have been violated. The university also collects data on “bias” incidents reported by students.

The incidents include verbal, written or physical threats, harassment or intimidation, and it covers a wide range of protected groups based on age, color, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status, marital status or — get this — family medical or genetic information. You can find the report for the 2016-17 academic year here.

The UVa administration divides bias reports into four categories. Category 1 consists of actual threats or harassment. Category 2 describes conduct directed not at individuals but protected groups generally. Category 3 includes incidents that do not appear to involve any bias-motivated conduct, and Category 4 covers allegations lacking sufficient detail to evaluate. Categories 1 and 2 are the only ones worth worrying about, so I will exclude the other two from this discussion.

Now, in a 24,000-student university ruled by identity politics, how many Category 1 and Category 2 bias incidents would you expect to be reported over the course of the year? 100? 500? 1,000?

None of the above. Depending on exactly what you’re counting, the number is more like 40 to 45.

Most of the allegations involved verbal or online harassment. Only one incident rose to the level of someone making a threat. One entailed vandalism, and one involved property damage. Not one physical altercation was reported.

And remember, these are allegations — before UVa has investigated the truth behind the charges. UVa does not reveal the results of its investigations, but it would be interesting to know how many cases were verified as real, and how many had mitigating circumstances. For example, how many incidents arose during an argument of escalating rhetoric and insults? How many consisted of “micro-aggressions” made unwittingly?

Conversely, it is likely that some bias incidents were never reported. Still, the numbers — roughly one report filed for every 530 students — strikes me as astonishingly low given the hyper-sensitivity on college campuses these days.

The hopeful message from this data is that the vast majority of UVa students of all races, ethnicities, and religions mix easily with one another. There may be the occasional incident like that one I noted yesterday about pro-Palestinian protesters busting up an event sponsored by Jewish groups, but that is a rarity.

The low number of incidents also tells me that the campus obsession with identity politics is misplaced. The overwhelming majority of Americans want to get along, and in fact they do. The right-wing and left-wing political extremists who stoke racial and gender grievances represent the biggest problem. If UVa categorized the students who filed complaints by their level of political consciousness, who knows what else we might find?

More Data to Inform the UVa Seminar on Race

Earlier this week I asked, “Will UVa Provide the Data Needed for an Open Discussion about Race?” The University of Virginia is organizing a seminar to instruct faculty members about the history of race locally and nationally and current issues relating to health, educational and economic disparities. On the assumption that seminar participants will examine UVa’s role in race relations, I humbly suggested a few data points that should be considered.

I lacked hard data on several topics that I thought worth examining. But I have since been directed by a friendly source to two data sets. The first tells us the net price paid to attend the University of Virginia, broken down by income range. Net price takes the list price and deducts all sources of federal aid (Pell grants primarily), state assistance, and institutional assistance. The table above, taken from the College Navigator database maintained by the National Center for Educational Statistics, provides that information for UVa.

Entering full-time students from poor families (making less than $30,000 per year) paid an average net price of $9,463 in the 2015-16 school year to attend UVa. Students from affluent families (making more than $110,101) paid almost three times as much — $27,814. UVa kids from poor families pay considerably less than poor kids at, say, Norfolk State University, where the net tuition works out to $13,952.

How is that relevant to a discussion of race? Insofar as black students are statistically more likely than whites and Asians to come from poor families, they benefit disproportionately from UVa’s financial aid system. If we’re talking about the persistence of institutional racism at UVa, then a highly relevant data point is how much members of different racial/ethnic groups actually pay to attend. (College Navigator does not break down financial aid by race, but UVa undoubtedly has that information.)

A second data set tells us how likely African-Americans are to graduate from UVa within six years. I had speculated on the basis of incomplete information that the differential was about 6 or 7 percentage points. In fact, the disparity is only 4 percentage points.

Percentage of Full-time, First-time Students Who Began Their Studies in Fall 2010 and Received a Degree or Award Within 150% of “Normal Time” to Completion for Their Program

We can look at this data in two ways. If we adopted the approach of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s research on mortgage loan discrimination (See “Racism, Racism, Everywhere You Look“), we would emphasize that African-Americans are almost twice as likely as whites (9% compared to 5%) to drop out. Sounds like institutional racism to me! On the other hand, we could emphasize that African-Americans are only 4.4% less likely to graduate than whites. Sounds like African-Americans thrive at UVa!

One could dig even deeper, comparing the graduation rates of whites, Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans within the same income ranges. That would filter out the effects of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage.

To my mind, these data help provide a starting point for an honest, open discussion about race at UVa. We could broaden the conversation by developing comparable data for all public institutions of higher education in Virginia and by comparing UVa’s performance to that of other colleges and universities.

Will these data become part of the dialogue, or do the organizers of the seminar have some other approach in mind? I have no idea. But I would love to be a fly on the wall to find out.

When Virginia Universities Fund their Own Research, Where Does the Money Come From?

In the previous blog post, Reed Fawell makes the argument that America’s research universities are subsidizing their R&D programs to the tune of some $18 billion a year. The subsidies, which are especially high among public universities, contribute significantly to cost pressures that drive up undergraduate tuition. There is significant variability among universities and higher-ed systems in the fifty states, however. Does the national trend that Reed describes apply to Virginia?

Examine the table below. It breaks down sources of 2016 R&D spending for Virginia’s six leading research universities as well as the total for all U.S. universities. The column headed “institution” covers funding from university sources — tuition, state support, endowments, and the like. All told, Virginia’s six research universities contributed $478 million toward $1.39 billion in R&D. 

How does that contribution compare to the national average for all universities? The following table tells the tale.

The average “institution” contribution for all U.S. universities is 25% of the total raised for research. Virginia Tech, George Mason University, the College of William & Mary (primarily the Virginia Institute of Marine Science), and Old Dominion University all exceeded the national average by wide margins. The University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University fell short of the national average by small margins. In other words, Reed’s critique does apply to Virginia higher-ed institutions.

Furthermore, his argument that research funded by the universities themselves has increased in recent years applies to Virginia institutions as well. This table compares research funding from all sources (“total”) to funding paid with university resources in 2010 and 2016, a period which saw a surge in institutional funding nationally.

The raw numbers aren’t as meaningful as the change in the numbers. In the following table we see the increases in total funding and institutional funding, both in absolute dollars and expressed as a percentage.

Here the variability between individual institutions is evident. Between 2010 and 2016, ODU slashed its institutional support for R&D by $33 million, or 53%. Not surprisingly, total R&D funding declined by a similar amount, $27 million. William & Mary increased its institutional support modestly, by $1.2 million, or $6.3%, and its total R&D funding increase was likewise modest.

By contrast, Virginia Tech pumped $123 million additional institutional dollars into its research program in just four years, while UVa upped its ante by $69 million, VCU by $27 million, and GMU by $24 million.

Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation doesn’t tell us where these so-called “institution” dollars come from. Tuition increases? State aid? Gifts and endowment? Some other source entirely? We don’t know. If the institutional dollars came from gifts and endowments, students and taxpayers have little cause to complain. If the dollars came from state support or undergraduate tuition, it’s a very different story. But the NSF data is not granular enough to allow us to confirm Reed’s hypothesis — that undergraduate tuition is subsidizing research — for specific universities.

To do that, we need to dig deeper. While the universities do publish a lot more data than the NSF does, the data does not necessarily answer the questions we are asking. I’ll poke around and see what I can come up with.

Quashing Offensive Memes at UVa

On Jan. 19, Patrick Hogan, the chief operating officer of the University of Virginia, sent out an email community advisory to students, faculty, and staff asking people witnessing “suspicious activity” such as posting “offensive flyers and memes” to please call 911.

“The safety and wellbeing of every member of the University community remains our top priority, and we ask for your assistance in remaining vigilant of your surroundings,” said Hogan.

That communiqué struck Hans von Spasovsky, a scholar with the Heritage Foundation, as an egregious affront to free speech. Here’s how he responded in an article published by the Foundation’s Daily Signal:

Apparently, in Hogan’s mind, saying something “offensive” is the same as committing a heinous criminal act. How do we know that? Because his email tells students to call 911 if they see someone “posting offensive flyers or other material.”

No, really. Posting such material violates the university’s “posting and chalking” policy and is included in Hogan’s definition of “suspicious activity.”

Hogan was particularly concerned over any “offensive” material that might be distributed at “buildings and centers for under-represented groups, particularly Women’s Studies.”

In other words, if you decide to exercise your First Amendment right to speak at UVA by, perhaps, calling the “Women’s Study” program a faux social science curriculum, or by pointing out that its graduates may have a very tough time finding a job in which they can actually support themselves, then law enforcement officers will be called to come after you—a total abuse of the 911 emergency response system.

This is apparently UVA’s version of the “Thought Police” from George Orwell’s “1984.”

Spasovsky makes a searing indictment. Is it fair? Here is the full text of what Hogan wrote:

The University of Virginia is aware of reports of solicitations by national organizations to encourage distribution of offensive flyers and memes at colleges and universities across the country during the upcoming weekend. The reports indicate that the organizations are specifically interested in buildings and centers for under-represented groups, particularly Women’s Studies. We are not aware of any specific threats to the University of Virginia and its facilities. We still believe it is prudent to make members of the University community aware of this possible activity.

If you witness individuals engaged in suspicious activity, including posting offensive flyers or other material in violation of the University’s Policy on Exterior Posting and Chalking, please call 911. The University Police Department and the Ambassadors are aware of this information and will be closely monitoring activities on and near Grounds. We will be maintaining an enhanced security environment across Grounds this weekend.

The safety and wellbeing of every member of the University community remains our top priority, and we ask for your assistance in remaining vigilant of your surroundings.

Oddly, it’s not clear from Hogan’s advisory who these outside groups are or how their flyers might prove offensive — although his epistle implies that “women’s studies” might be targeted. He’s not aware of any specific “threats” to the university, but the rumored activities are alarming enough that university police have been notified and the administration will maintain an “enhanced security environment.”

The advisory is so vague that it’s hard to make heads or tails of it. While Spasovsky might be jumping to conclusions, it is easy to see how he made the inferences that he did. Reading between the lines of Hogan’s email, it sounds like feminist groups on campus were having fainting spells at the prospect of someone posting material — offensive “memes” — that assaulted their snowflake sensitivities. We do not know that for a fact. However, given the tenor of campus politics these days, it is a not unreasonable supposition.

Adding plausibility to Spasovsky’s spin on the memo, Hogan’s words must be interpreted through a filter of modern-day academia-speak. The document referred to women’s studies as an “under-represented group.” Only in an academic culture steeped in the culture of victimization could an institution where women comprise 55% of the student body possibly refer to them as an “under-represented” group.

When asking for UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn for a copy of Hogan’s advisory, I asked if the university had a response to Spasovsky’s column. De Bruyn did not respond. It’s all very mysterious.

For the record, conservatives on campus can play the victimization game, too. In December I wrote how the UVa Student Council had denied the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative student group, recognition as an official student organization. YAF called foul. UVa responded that the non-discrimination policy had been applied in error and that the student council would reconsider. De Bruyn informed me today that the YAF had been approved as a CIO (contracted independent organization) last week.

A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking

There are plenty of people in the college rating game these games, from the venerable US News & World-Report to Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Results vary depending on the criteria selected and the weight assigned to those criteria, both of which entail decisions and value judgments subject to human bias. But what if Artificial Intelligence was used to compile the rankings?

That’s what MetaMetrics, a Durham, N.C.-based company specializing in educational metrics, has tried to do. MetaMetrics research engineer Steve Lattanzio explains:

Was it possible to have a computer algorithm take in a bunch of raw data and, through a sufficiently black-box approach, remove decision points that allow ratings to become subjective? … Could an artificial intelligence discover a latent dimension hidden behind all the noise that was driving data points such as SAT scores, admission rates, earnings, loan repayment rates, and a thousand other things, instead of combining just a few of them in a subjective fashion?

The company drew upon the College Scoreboard, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Education database on colleges, students, and student loans. Lattanzio continues:

We use neural networks to perform “representational learning” through the use of what is called a stacked autoencoder. I’ll skip over the technical details, but the concept behind representational learning is to take a bunch of information that is represented in a lot of variables, or dimensions, and represent as much of the original information as possible with a lot fewer dimensions. In a stacked neural network autoencoder, data entering into the network is squashed down into fewer and fewer dimensions on one side and squeezed through a bottleneck. On the other side of the network, that squashed information is unpacked in an attempt to reconstruct the original data. …  the AI isn’t figuring out which subset of variables it wants to keep and which it wants to discard; it is figuring out how to express as much of the original data as possible in brand new meta-variables that it is concocting by combining the original data in creative ways. …

It turns out that we were able to compress all of the information down to just two dimensions, and the significance of those two dimensions was immediately clear.

One dimension has encoded a latent dimension that is related to things such as the size of the school and whether it is public or private (in fact, the algorithm decided there should be a rift mostly separating larger public institutions from smaller schools). The other dimension is a strong candidate for overall quality of a school and is correlated with all of the standard indicators of quality. It seems as if the algorithm learned that for higher education, if you must break it down into two things, [the data] is best broken down into two dimensions that can loosely be described as quantity and quality.

Got that? Good. So, here are the results for the top 20 colleges:

  1. Duke University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Vanderbilt University
  4. Cornell University
  5. Brown University
  6. Emory University
  7. University of Virginia
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Boston College
  10. University of Notre Dame
  11. College of William & Mary
  12. University of Southern California
  13. Wesleyan University
  14. Yale University
  15. Massachusetts of Technology
  16. Northwestern University
  17. Bucknell University
  18. University of Pennsylvania
  19. Santa Clara University
  20. Carnegie Mellon University

What? No Harvard or Princeton? Correct. The AI does not take into account intangible factors such as prestige. By the AI’s reckoning, it appears, those institutions are over-rated.

Virginia higher-ed officials looking for bragging rights can surely find them with this methodology — at least if they don’t dig too deep. UVa ranks 7th in the country and W&M ranks 11th. They are two of only three public universities on the list. The University of Richmond, described as a “hidden ivy,” logged in at 32nd, while Washington & Lee University scored 63. As comedian Larry David might say, that’s pretty, pretty impressive.

Virginia’s non-elite public universities scored fair to middling, according to the AI’s way of thinking. Out of 1,313 institutions nationally:

James Madison University — 146
Virginia Tech — 157
Virginia Military Institute — 199
George Mason University — 316
Radford University — 482
Longwood University — 495
Virginia Commonwealth University — 504
Old Dominion University — 951
Norfolk State University — 1,164
Virginia State University — 1,213

I could find no mention of Mary Washington University or the University of Virginia-Wise.

MetaMetrics provides plenty of caveats, which you can read here. The ranking “is not perfect and the rankings should not be viewed as infallible,” writes Lattanzio. “But when viewed among other college rankings, its validity is undeniable. It’s not merely a measure of prestige, and it addresses most of the concerns of critics of college rankings, while undoubtedly raising some new ones.”

I do fine one thing very curious. The company is located in Durham, N.C., home of Duke University. Four of the company’s top 11 senior executives have Duke affiliations — as does Lattanzio himself. Who ranks as the No. 1 university in the country? Duke, of course. Pure coincidence? Let’s just say, when Duke plays the University of North Carolina in basketball, you can probably find the AI in the stands rooting for the Blue Devils.

(Hat tip: Mary Helen Willett)

Virginia Falling Behind in R&D

Declining research funding in Virginia, 2010 to 2015. Blue bars=Virginia, gray=national. Source: TECconomy Partners LLC

Virginia universities are slowly gaining ground compared to their peers in R&D, but Virginia businesses are falling behind. Academia and industry need to cultivate closer ties, says strategic consultant Mitch Horowitz.

As a principal of TEConomy Partners LLC, a Bethesda, Md.-based research firm specializing in technology-driven economy development, Mitch Horowitz has had the opportunity to view a lot of technology-leading metropolitan regions close up. And Northern Virginia stands out… but not in a good way.

“I cannot recall a state that has a great technology hub like Northern Virginia that doesn’t have many great research institutes growing up around them,” said Horowitz while briefing the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia yesterday on the challenges in Virginia of linking university and industry R&D to stimulate new business formation and create jobs.

Despite strengths such as a highly educated workforce and access to venture capital, Virginia universities and companies have done a poor job of translating R&D into new business and jobs, said Horowitz.

All told universities, corporations and federal labs in Virginia conducted $10.5 billion in research funding in 2015, ranking it 13th highest in the country. But Virginia’s economy is larger than that of most states, so research as a percentage of GDP ranks the state only 21st nationally in R&D intensity. Even more worrisome, Virginia is losing ground. While research funding grew nationally between 2010 and 2015, it shrank in Virginia. Worst hit was “federal intramural” funding (federal labs). University R&D actually grew faster than the national average, but industry R&D declined 3.6% in Virginia while it surged 21% nationally.

“Decline in industry research and development in Virginia [is] not simply a reflection of strong dependency on federal R&D contracts, but weakness in company funding of R&D leading to the commercialization of new products and process,” stated Horowitz’s PowerPoint presentation.

A root problem is the lack of alignment between university strengths and industry strengths, which reflects the comparatively weak ties between Virginia universities and corporations, Horowitz explained. When Virginia universities do invent something that can be commercialized, Virginia companies typically are not the ones to benefit. Of 137 technology licenses issued by Virginia universities in Fiscal 2017, said Horowitz, 108 went to out-of-state companies.

While Horowitz did not specifically address the geographic imbalance between the location of Virginia’s leading research universities and its technology companies, his observations were entirely consistent with the observation on this blog that Virginia’s leading tech clusters are located in Northern Virginia while its leading research universities are located downstate. George Mason University, the sole public research university based in Northern Virginia, only recently passed the $100 million mark in R&D. The state’s R&D powerhouses, Virginia Tech ($504 million in 2015), the University of Virginia ($373 million), and Virginia Commonwealth University ($219 million) are located in Blacksburg/Roanoke, Charlottesville and Richmond respectively. However, it is worth noting that the rise of the promising Center for Personalized Medicine in Fairfax County under the aegis of the Inova health care system is developing institutional ties with the University of Virginia as well as with GMU and other institutions.

The good news from an economic development perspective, said Horowitz is that Virginia’s research universities have narrowed the gap with their national peers in recent years. The bad news is that all that effort is not translating into much economic activity beyond the research itself.

To stimulate local economic growth, says Horowitz, there needs to be a “line of sight,” or alignment between university research strengths and industry expertise. His analysis shows four broad areas where this alignment exists: life sciences; networking, communications, and data analysis; cyber and cyber-physical security; and system of systems engineering solutions.

“You can’t be a winner in every technology area,” says Horowitz. Virginia needs to build on fields in which it enjoys a competitive advantage.

To exploit these advantages, universities and corporations need to bridge the disconnect. Faculty researchers are scientists. While they are expert in the science, they cannot be expected to be experts in potential commercial applications. They need to partner with business. “We need our universities to build relationships with industry,” Horowitz says.

One small step lawmakers have made to bridge the gap is to create the Virginia Research Investment Fund, which dispenses $8 million a year to leverage other research dollars for projects showing a strong potential to create new enterprises and jobs. But the funding is small potatoes compared to the R&D commitment made by leading technology states. Massachusetts is investing $1 billion of public dollars to build its life-sciences sector. Texas has invested multimillions in its innovation ecosystems.

SCHEV board member Tom Slater called Horowitz’s report a “wake up call that’s desperately needed.”

“It’s a call to action,” said Gene Lockhart, another SCHEV board member. “I think there’s a lot of kidding ourselves, a lot of complacency.”

“This kind of effort lifts all boats,” said SCHEV Chair Heywood Fralin. But, he opined, “none of this is free.”