CORVALLIS - On today's most critical questions of ecology, forestry and the environment, residents of the Pacific Northwest don't have to look far from home to find some of the world's leading scientists and educators, a recent study suggests.
According to an analysis based on faculty publications in professional journals, Oregon State University ranked 11th in the nation in the broad fields of ecology, evolution and behavior - and even higher in some sub-disciplines, including first nationally in forest ecology.
The findings were presented in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. This ranking was about the same as two other prestigious western schools - Stanford University and the University of Washington - and far ahead of some other institutions often cited for their academic quality, such as Yale University or Princeton University in the Ivy League.
No other Oregon universities were considered among the leading schools nationally in this field. Also lagging were some other large or prominent eastern universities such as Michigan State, Ohio State, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University.
A point made in the analysis was that academic reputations are too often based on outdated assumptions about educational quality and don't always reflect the true level of scholarly accomplishments if measured by more objective standards such as published research. "Our study provides strong evidence that the reviewers. . . were biased in favor of private or otherwise highly regarded universities, and especially highly regarded private universities," the authors said in their report. "Faculty form their impressions of good and bad programs based on many factors, some of which are related to underlying quality and others of which clearly are not."
As a measure of educational excellence and faculty accomplishment, this analysis focused on publications of faculty members in peer-reviewed professional journals, which take a critical and impartial look at the quality and significance of the scientific research submitted to them for publication. It gave special weight to those publications which are generally recognized as the most prestigious in the world and whose criteria for accepting articles is the most rigorous, such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
By those standards, OSU's overall programs in ecology and evolution ranked 11th nationally; Stanford University was 10th; and the University of Washington eighth. First in the nation was a California school whose real accomplishments almost certainly outweigh its public reputation, the University of California at Davis.
The analysis also rated subdisciplines in this larger field, such as entomology, marine biology, evolution, conservation biology and others. OSU was among the top 10 universities in the nation in nine out of 21 of these subdisciplines.
"Surveys such as this help demonstrate what we've been saying for some time, which is that the people of Oregon don't have to look very far to find top tier performance and world class educational excellence," said Paul Risser, president of OSU and himself a former president of the Ecological Society of America. "I think this message is now getting out, and at least partly as a result our student enrollment has surged in recent years.
"It's always difficult to measure and quantify academic quality, but in many fields OSU is clearly producing outstanding scientific research that is recognized all over the world," Risser said. "And by keeping at the forefront of their fields, OSU faculty members are able to offer both our graduate and undergraduate students a cutting-edge education that will serve them well in their future careers."
Many of those students even participate in that research, university officials said. Graduate students at every university have traditionally assisted faculty members with research as part of their education. But at OSU, major initiatives are under way to expand the role of undergraduates in many studies, giving an immediate and exciting application to concepts they may have learned only days earlier in a classroom.
Dan Euhus, a recent OSU graduate with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, was one beneficiary of these programs, and just began a career in pulp and paper production. "Students at OSU are given the opportunity to do real world research projects with practical applications," Euhus said. "And what's terrific about it all is that it's still evolving."