Wikipedia:Avoid academic boosterism

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The University of Bologna is the best university because it is the oldest in the world, unless…
Harvard University is actually the best university because of all its famous alumni, unless…
Stanford University is actually the best university because of all the companies its alumni have founded, unless…
the University of Chicago is actually the best university because so many Nobel Laureates have been affiliated with it, unless…
Texas A&M is actually the best university because of its distinct traditions, unless…
MIT is actually the best university because of its prevalence in popular culture, unless…

Wikipedia articles on colleges, universities, and other academic institutions are often written by editors who currently or previously attended the institution or who work for the institution. Editors are often motivated by conflict of interest, loyalty, and pride to portray their alma mater in a favorable light even though this often conflicts Wikipedia's core policy against the abuse of Wikipedia for promotion as well as the content policies on neutrality and verifiability. Using imprecise weasel words, non-neutral peacock words, and other words to avoid to portray an academic institution in a positive light is termed boosterism. A reader might be forgiven for concluding that Wikipedia only covers colleges and universities in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where all colleges and universities are above average.

Just as there is no single, indisputably preeminent college or university, there is no single metric which definitively establishes the quality of a college or university. Every institution is different and its Wikipedia article should emphasize these differences by summarizing what an academic institution has and does rather than serving as a shrine to its various accolades and superlatives. Notable distinctions and recognition have their place in the article, but they should not be the primary focus of the article. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia to summarize and contextualize information about these complex institutions, not an admissions brochure to convince readers of the quality of the school. Allow the facts to speak for themselves and let the reader decide.

In general[edit]

Review the college and university article content guidelines representing current consensus about articles of higher education institutions. Motivated editors should direct their energies towards describing all the various aspects of an institution to a broader audience rather than emphasizing its quality using imprecise, context-free, or otherwise ambiguous superlatives. There are many useful and reliable web resources published by an institution and other sources that can be incorporated into college and university:

  • Visit the website for the archives to expand the information on its history, campus, and traditions
  • Use the fact book or common data set to include more information on the student body and faculty
  • Incorporate information from university reports, faculty handbooks, or course catalogs to describe the administrative organization, academic programs, and research centers
  • Review the Alumni Association's website to include additional notable alumni
  • Search news archives like Google News or LexisNexis for historical coverage of the university

In the United States, organizations like the National Science Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, Chronicle of Higher Education, and National Center for Education Statistics collect and publish authoritative information about colleges and universities.

Problems and solutions[edit]

Avoid vague terms of praise[edit]

  • "…is a highly competitive university…"
  • "…is a prestigious private liberal arts college…"
  • " one of the most selective graduate schools..."

Avoid vague terms of praise and ambiguous superlatives. "Prestige", "reputation", "excellence", "exclusivity", and "selectivity" are often used imprecisely in order to create a positive impression of an institution's quality that cannot be verified or falsified. Let the facts speak for themselves and let the reader decide: a college or university is not necessarily "good" because it excludes a large number of applicants, nor well-reputed simply because it is old, nor prestigious simply because of its alumni. For example, admission to a military academy or music conservatory might be more competitive than an Ivy League university, even if the latter has higher average admissions scores.

Boosterism is particularly unpalatable to some Wikipedians when describing institutions whose "elite" status is already widely acknowledged elsewhere. For instance, in an opening summary paragraph, simply noting that a university is "in the Ivy League" or is the "main" or "flagship" campus for a larger university system succinctly establishes that the university is prestigious.

Assert facts, not opinions[edit]

  • "…is one of the best universities in the world…"
  • "…is widely recognized as a leader in…"
  • " one of the premier institutions on the West coast..."

Assert facts, including facts about opinions, but do not assert the opinions themselves. Editors should not be trying to "sell", "spin", or otherwise convince readers of the quality of the school. "One of the" and "widely recognized" are canonical weasel words: how many are among the best, what specific recognition, best on what criteria, how recent in the recognition, etc. If the statement can't stand without weasel words it lacks a neutral point of view. If a college or university was ranked 4th internationally in the most recent Academic Ranking of World Universities, state exactly that rather than contorting it into non-neutral and non-verifiable statements like those above.

Substantiate claims[edit]

  • "…is consistently rated among the best…"
  • "…has an impressive record in X…"
  • "…is a highly selective college…"

Attribute claims to known authorities or substantiate the facts behind an argument by using facts and statistics. If a college is consistently rated among the best, who is doing the rating, how long or often is consistent, and what threshold constitutes the best? If a university is selective, whose criteria are being used for this classification, how many students apply, and what percentage of students are admitted?

Omit original research[edit]

  • "…was ranked third among public universities in X…"
  • "…11 of the 15 programs offered have been ranked in the top 10 over the past 9 years…"

These are both examples of potential original research that lack reliable sources to verify them. Recontextualizing or narrowing the criteria may increase an institution's standing in a ranking, but unless the source explicitly offers recomputed rankings of universities on their public or national basis (for example), it is inappropriate to perform these calculations yourself as this original research cannot be verified. Similarly, making historical statements or analyses about rankings without providing reliable sources stating the same is also original research, even if they are true.

Do not synthesize claims[edit]

  • "…is widely acknowledged as the preeminent university by most university rankings"
  • "…is historically recognized as the top university in A by X, Y, and Z."

Do not combine material from multiple sources to reach a conclusion not explicitly stated by any of the sources. As above, simply and neutrally state the facts. The statements above could likely be changed to "…is ranked A by X, B by Y, and C by Z" and "…was ranked A by X in 2007, 2008, and 2009" which is a neutral and substantiated presentation of verifiable facts without any POV, weasel words, or peacockery.

Avoid undue weight[edit]

  • "State University is the #3 ranked public university by Magazine X. It is a public research university located in X,Y,Z."

Do not give undue weight to rankings in the lead paragraphs or elsewhere in the article. Make sure to state the obvious in the first sentences of the lead paragraphs: it doesn't help the reader to know a university was ranked highly if he or she doesn't even know what or where it is in the first place! Moreover, the lead is not a section to astonish readers by establishing the quality of the college or university, only to serve as a summary of the rest of the article. Nor does the lead of the article have to include a preponderance of rankings and superlatives to establish the notability of a college or university since all accredited colleges and universities are inherently notable.

Do not parse rankings[edit]

  • "State University ranked 34th in publication X which only considered Y and Z. However, it ranked 3rd in publication A which considers B and C."

Rankings should be neutrally worded without modifiers or disclaimers. Similarly, do not exclude notable rankings simply because they are inconveniently low or you disagree with their methodology. An article about a university is not the appropriate venue to debate the merits of various rankings' respective methodologies. If a reader wants to know about the methodology, they can follow the citation that should already accompany any ranking or the wikilink to the Wikipedia article describing that ranking in more detail.

It's not a score board or horse race[edit]

  • "…has 65 Laureates, 102 Award Winners, 165 acres of land, 72 academic programs, 15% admissions rate, 13 national championships, …..."
  • "…has the second-largest student body, third-largest campus, fifteenth-largest faculty, seventh-largest research expenditures, sixth-most applicants, second-most award recipients …"
  • "Compared to X, Y has a larger student body, campus, faculty, research budget and lower admissions rate and failure rate."

It is tempting to replace claims of prestige or academic excellence with a cascade of related or unrelated facts intended to generate the same impression. While this is a large improvement over the vague claim, remember that a university article's lead paragraph should be a summary of the most important facts about that institution. Move detailed listings of facts deeper into the body of the article.

Likewise, an encyclopedia article is not the appropriate venue to play out intercollegiate rivalries over who has more and better: describe information and statistics in absolute terms rather than relative to your rival institution(s) or in abstract ordinal terms (first, second, third).

Be concise, precise, and honest[edit]

Claims that an institution "places highly" in rankings are just as vague as claims that it is "prestigious", "highly selective" and "excellent", and are more dishonest in that they seem to cite an authoritative source. Limit rankings to a single section rather than spreading them throughout the article and be sure to include a comprehensive cross-section of rankings by national and international publications reported as numeric values with publication years and verifiable sources. Do not attempt to include every ranking by every publication for every school or program since some rankings are more notable than others. However, do not exclude notable rankings on the basis of not being in the Top X. Finally, do not use rankings in the lead as these are specific facts that should appear later in the article and give undue weight to one publication's rankings or methodologies.

Some popular rankings such as "Best Colleges" by U.S. News and World Report and "America's Best Colleges" by Forbes rely on undergraduate-only data and are only intended to rank or classify the undergraduate program, not the university as a whole. In this case, it is inaccurate to say that "University X is the 27th best university" when UX's undergraduate program is actually ranked 27th.

Other examples of boosterism[edit]

  • Amongst the University's highly-ranked schools…
  • …is one of the best colleges in …
  • No public or private university in the (region) can match the breadth and quality of the university's research endeavors
  • [The university] is the one of the most highly-regarded institutions in the region..."
  • [The college] is considered one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the [country]
  • the most selective in...

See also[edit]