Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 11, 2014

BOB ZALTSBERG: IU should ask for a recount after influence ratings

School's living alumni least influential of Big Ten?


Kokomo Tribune

---- — Whom do you think has more influence: Robert Gates, the former CIA director and U.S. secretary of defense, or Rod Woodson, former college and professional football player who specialized in defense?

Hold your answers, please.

The folks at Time magazine had some fun with the NCAA basketball tournament and bracket-mania by posting interactive rankings of U.S. universities on its website so those who wanted to could match up schools based on the influence of their living alumni. The two names above are on the lists of five “notable” alums from a couple of the schools based in Indiana.

Speaking of influence, we have to wonder whether the people who did the rankings were under the influence of something questionable when they came up with this exercise.

The methodology was based on what is published on Wikipedia, which Time says “offers an exhaustive and largely self-regulated source of data on living people.” It presumes the number of words and links in a profile “generally corresponds to the subject’s prominence.”

Here’s more on the methodology used: “For each person in the ‘living people’ category, Time used the MediaWiki API to gather four data points: The number of words in the text, the number of internal links to other Wikipedia pages, the number of external links and the number of categories to which the page belonged. Given that these factors are all positively correlated to the subject’s prominence, we were able to reduce these four dimensions into a single measure of prominence using a well-tested method known as principal component analysis.”

That all sounds good, and I’m not going to challenge the “well-tested method known as principal component analysis.” But the results of matching up the schools in the Big Ten don’t pass the eye test.

OK, it’s important to note this column is originating in the home of what Time considers the least influential university in the Big Ten. I didn’t know Indiana University had that dubious standing when I checked to see how much more influential IU is than rival Purdue — which it’s not, according to Time. In fact, the magazine says based on its living alumni, Purdue is 1.41 times more influential than IU. That prompted a search against the University of Illinois, which, it seems, is 2.0 times more influential than IU. OK, what about Michigan State? It’s 2.05 times more influential than IU.

Knowing the University of Michigan’s reputation, it wasn’t surprising based on those other match-ups that it was considered well ahead of IU — but 7.07 times more influential? That seems pretty excessive. Northwestern also has a great reputation, and Time said it’s 2.2 times more influential than IU. Wisconsin’s pretty renowned, and Time says it’s 3.0 times more influential than IU.

Next to be compared was the University of Nebraska, which recently lost membership in the American Association of Universities, a prestigious consortium of academic institutions that includes IU. Time says the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is 1.16 times more influential than IU. Adding to the oddity of all this, Time does say IU is more influential in a comparison with simply the University of Nebraska. But IU-Bloomington is considered less influential than simply IU.

Go figure.

The rest of the Big Ten: Ohio State, 2.62 times more influential than IU; Minnesota, 2.37 times; Penn State, 1.78 times; and Iowa, 1.37 times.

I was reading this on April 1, so maybe it’s all a joke. Consider the “starting lineups” for IU vs. Purdue, listing Time’s five “notable” alums on each side:

For IU, James Watson, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist and co-discoverer of DNA; Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia; Evan Bayh, former Indiana governor and U.S. senator; sports broadcast legend Dick Enberg and former CIA director Gates.

For Purdue, Herman Cain, businessman and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2012; Drew Brees, football quarterback; E’Twaun Moore, NBA basketball player; football-player-turned broadcaster Bob Greise and football player Woodson.

Put another way, this matched a legendary scientist, a former Cabinet member, a hall of fame broadcaster, a former senator and governor and the person who co-founded the very tool on which this whole influence study was done — against three football players, a basketball player and a man who ran for public office (and lost).

IU should call for a recount.

Bob Zaltsberg is editor of The Herald-Times, Bloomington. Contact him at rzaltsberg@heraldt.com.