I’m generally skeptical of published rankings, whether they are for college football teams, albums of the last year/decade/genre, or polls of Iowa voters in July. Depending on the stakes, subjectivity, sample size, and bias taint the results to a greater or lesser degree. Few rankings are harder to verify than those for higher education, an endeavor that aspires to pseudo-science. Parsing a litany of criteria, including programs, school resources, and particular niche fields of excellence can be, and usually is, a fool’s errand.
That being said, if you think I haven’t plastered the graphic above onto every pixel of digital real estate available to me, you are kidding yourself. Forget for a second that I’m a bit old to buy into the irrationality of school pride. Push out of your mind that as a graduate student, I’ve already distributed student loan debt to a healthy roster of institutions. And forget, of course, the obnoxious manner in which my present institution peddles its trademark better than any other. If school pride is irrational, program pride takes that irrationality to the hyper specific. I can almost see myself in that ranking, and I’ve only been here three months.
For context, DesignIntelligence, the closest thing design fields have to U.S. News & World Report, released their annual architecture school rankings. The University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning was ranked first. It was the first time Harvard hasn’t topped the list, ever. The rankings are only about fifteen years old.
The news comes with a major caveat: DesignIntelligence’s ranking system is based on employer response surveys, in which leading architecture firms in major cities are polled on their perceptions of recent graduates from every school. What that means for methodological consistency is anyone’s guess. One would expect fairly consistent results. Schools and their graduates are fairly even on a year-to-year basis in terms of the type of students they attract, and the caliber of education they provide. However, the rankings are anything but stable. Schools vacillate between the top tier and absent from the rankings altogether. Michigan wasn’t even ranked in the Top 20 last year and the year prior it was ranked ninth. The year before that it was ranked seventh.
Michigan’s ranking can be explained in part by the tenure of a new dean, Monica Ponce de Leon, who has implemented balanced pedagogy between theory, research, and technology-based design practice. The approach integrates various areas of expertise (history, engineering, planning, etc.) into the design studios and pairs these studios with courses in other areas of concentrations. DesignIntelligence acknowledges that the ranking appears to be as much a vote of confidence in Ponce de Leon’s leadership as it is a direct result of graduates performance. Michigan ranked fifth this year in a survey of deans of architecture schools.
The ranking also notes two distinct advantages that Michigan has over other top tier institutions. One, the school’s facilities easily outpace those of every other school in the country. Michigan’s FABLab is one of only two school’s in the U.S. with extensive robotic fabrication facilities—Harvard is the other—and the school’s emphasis on digital fabrication is deeply ingrained in student’s working process not only as a means for production, but as a research trajectory. Taubman College differs from other schools with other similar technology in terms of access to these facilities. It’s students have ready access to many of the facilities, either through hands-on use of the technology, or easily accessible work-study appointments.
Michigan also works to overcome its geographic disadvantages. Lacking a major urban market (which isn’t to say that Detroit isn’t an asset in other regards), their graduates don’t have the same exposure to employers in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Despite this, the school has done an incredible job putting together major conferences and lectures, using the fellowship programs to bring in a continuous infusion of young talent, and creating employment externships for their students.
I can feel myself turning into a shill right before my computer screen, which means it’s time to draw this to a close. Let’s just say that I’m pleased for this ranking’s recognition of my program. Survey methodology aside, it gives me something to smile about. At least until the next all-nighter.