President Joseph Castro wants to boost Fresno State's academic rating

The Fresno BeeSeptember 14, 2013 

The Fresno State Bulldogs, energized by a promising season, are hoping to break into the Top 25 of national football teams. Meanwhile, President Joseph Castro wants Fresno State to compete with the nation's most scholarly schools — but new national academic rankings show the university has a long way to go.

The university was named the 36th best university in the West last week in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of the nation's top colleges.

That's two spots up from its ranking last year on the list that includes schools in California and other Western states: Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska, Oregon, Hawaii, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.

Among the West's top public schools, California State University, Fresno ranked No. 8.

Fresno State might find it hard to crack the lineup of best national universities — headed this year by the Ivy League schools Princeton, Harvard and Yale — in part because that list ranks schools with a range of doctoral programs, which CSU schools don't offer.

Castro, who has said he wants university athletics and academics to "rise together," said he hopes to give students more academic support and invest in the university's agriculture and engineering programs as a way to lift Fresno State's rank.

He said he is gunning for the No. 1 spot among the West's public schools.

"The seven institutions above us who are public regional universities better watch out," he said. "We're on the rise, we're heading to No. 1."

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, N.M. took the top three slots among public schools.

Three other CSU schools — Long Beach, Pomona and Fullerton — also ranked above Fresno State, as did Washington-based Evergreen State College.

Regional university rankings list schools that offer undergraduate and master's degrees, but include few schools with doctoral programs. The rankings are based on several factors, including freshman retention rate, class size, graduation rates and faculty resources.

University statistics show about 83.5% of Fresno State freshmen return after the first year. The average class size is 24 students and the average four-year graduation rate is 14%. The average six-year graduation rate is about 48%.

Castro said he is aiming to improve those numbers — particularly graduation rates — as one way to rise in the rankings.

Adding more tutors and investing in academic counselors will help students stay on track to graduate, he said.

Pumping more dollars into programs the university already is good at — viticulture and engineering, for example — could also help distinguish Fresno State, he said. Castro said consolidating majors isn't on the table, but he said he will need to make some "strategic" program choices.

Attracting faculty

Recruiting top faculty is also part of the plan. About 45 new professors, who largely replaced retiring or departing staff, were hired this year. Castro said he plans to keep up "aggressive" searches as the university brings in new talent.

What is attracting those new hires isn't necessarily how well the university ranks.

Falon Kartch , a communications professor who came to Fresno from Milwaukee, Wis., said she took the job at Fresno State because the student body is so diverse.

She said she also gets more time with students than she would at a large research institution.

"Not that I don't like research, I do, but I'm excited to have more classroom time," she said.

But while some faculty might care more about details the rankings don't capture — like diversity and spending time with students — those on their way out the door might be paying more attention to factors the ratings do measure, like salaries and faculty resources.

The most recent survey of starting salaries of new tenure-track faculty show Fresno State is third to last among the 23 CSU campuses. The average annual salary for a new tenure-track faculty member at Fresno State is $64,921.

Andrew Hoff, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, said other universities are looking at Fresno State's employees when recruiting. Holding on to the best faculty, he said, is both a challenge and a priority.

"It's not necessarily a major problem, but it certainly has occurred on some occasions in the last couple of years where our outstanding faculty will get offers," he said.

A tough break

A lack of doctoral programs will likely keep Fresno State off the top national academic tier for the foreseeable future.

Doctoral programs are essentially a prerequisite for making U.S. News and World Report's national university list, where schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA appear. CSU system spokesman Michael Uhlencamp said CSU schools can't offer those degrees under the state's long-standing master education plan.

There are three exceptions: separate bills passed since 2005 let certain CSUs offer doctoral degrees in education, nursing and physical therapy.

More doctoral programs would require new legislation, Uhlencamp said. It also could force the state to take a second look at its master plan, which encourages the University of California, CSUs and community colleges to focus on different missions.

"We would have to really reinvent the master plan," he said, "which goes back to the idea of what are the workforce needs of California."

Some question if it's fair to put Fresno State athletics and academics on the same stage — or whether U.S. News & World Report's list is even that meaningful.

Hoff said comparing academics with a national football ranking can be tricky because they're funded so differently.

Kevin Ayotte, vice chairman of Fresno State's Academic Senate, was pleased that Fresno State climbed up a few slots in the West region ranking, but assailed the ranking's methodology.

"I'm not sure, for example, where Fresno State's incredible student diversity fits into that," he said.

Castro said he still plans to aim high and try to raise Fresno State's national academic profile in the long run.

One option: adding more doctoral degrees, if the state allows it.

"There's a good chance we'll see growth in that area," he said. "When I look at other institutions like us and ask the question, 'How are we doing?' I would like us to be the best or among the very best (and) I think that is fully within our grasp."

  U.S. News & World Reports

Top universities, Western Region

1. Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas)

2. Santa Clara University

3. Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles)

4. Gonzaga University (Spokane, Wash.)

5. Mills College (Oakland)

6. Seattle University

7. Chapman University (Orange)

8. University of Portland

9. (tied) California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

9. (tied) Whitworth University (Spokane, Wash.)

32. California State University, Long Beach

33. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

35. California State University, Fullerton

36. (tied) California State University, Fresno

36. (tied) San Jose State University

42. (tied) California State University, Chico

42. (tied) Sonoma State University

53. Humboldt State University

54. San Francisco State University

57. (tied) California State University, San Bernardino

57. (tied) California State University, Stanislaus

60. California State University, Northridge

66. (tied) California State University, Channel Islands

66. (tied) California State University, Monterey Bay

66. (tied) Sacramento State

70. California State University, San Marcos

90. (tied) California State University, Bakersfield

90. (tied) California State University, East Bay

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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