Who are the actual landscape research universities?

When the perception by respondents and other measurable metrics concord in agreement, often there is a strong case to be made for the reliability and accuracy of rankings concerning companies, organizations, or institutions.

Image of Jon Burley, associate professor of landscape architecture.
Jon Burley, associate professor of landscape architecture.

When the perception by respondents and other measurable metrics concord in agreement, often there is a strong case to be made for the reliability and accuracy of rankings concerning companies, organizations, or institutions. 

As an academic with 42 years of experience, I have noticed that respondent perceptions assessing institutional research often lag far behind the actual current performance of the institution.

I especially noticed this when a United Kingdom–based survey asked predominately English respondents to rank universities across the world. I suspect that many of these citizens had no knowledge about many of the great universities in North America and Asia. 

Not surprising, English institutions faired amazingly well, even the small schools dominated in subject areas, such as in agriculture, over the rankings of many great American universities including Michigan State University. 

Yet, the American universities have substantial numbers of research faculty, producing many Ph.Ds. and who form a large proportion of the journal literature, but who may be unknown to the United Kingdom respondents. 

In rankings that use metrics and not respondent biases, MSU becomes one of the top agriculture research universities in the world and the small U.K. schools disappear.

The situation can be complicated when the respondents are practitioners, such as in the DesignIntelligence surveys, when through no fault of their own, practitioners may not be trained in research, may not conduct much research, and who rarely even read the discipline’s scholarly literature. 

To illustrate the differences between respondent perceptions and possible scores from other performance metrics, I would like to compare the recent respondent impressions of schools teaching undergraduate landscape architecture and concurrently conducting landscape research (DesignIntelligence LLC 2017) with measurable citation scores found in “Google Scholar” June 2018. 

The goal is not to find anyone at fault, but to simply illustrate similarities and differences between the two for greater and continued discussion, clarity and understanding. Plus, I might also be suggesting that the landscape research production at MSU might be perceptually a little under-valued along with several other universities one may not even have heard about that are under-valued. 

There are numerous comparisons and figures that could be produced for an analysis.  However, just one table (Table 1), reasonably illustrates the relationship between the two sets of rankings (perceived and measured). 

Table 1: Presentation of the top 20 Landscape Architectural citations in Google Scholar per University in North America, across the world, the number of scholars producing the citations, and respondent perception in DesignIntelligence.

University Number of Citations North America Ranking World Ranking Number of Scholars Reporting Respondent Perception
MIT 7,004 1 1 2 -
Texas A&M 6,837 2 2 3 5
Davis 4,342 3 3 2 -
Rutgers 3,371 4 4 3 -
Liege 3,191 - 5 1 -
Melborne 2,284 - 6 2 -
Guelph 2,250 5 7 3 -
Sheffield 2,189 - 8 1 -
Maryland 2,115 6 9 2 -
Tufts 2,091 - 10 2 -
MSU 1,729 7 11 4 -
UNITEC 1,723 - 12 1 -
Arizona St 1,568 8 13 1 -
Minnesota 835 9 14 1 -
WUR 796 - 15 3 -
Trisackti 530 - 16 1 -
Bogor 480 - 17 1 -
Utah State 455 10 18 1 -
Malaysia 451 - 19 1 -
Klueven 434 - 20 1 -

Table 1 presents the perceptions of respondents concerning the schools that are perceived as the top in landscape architectural research (DesignIntelligence LLC 2017).  Also featured in the table are results from Google Scholar in June 2018. 

Notice that only one school ranks well in the DesignIntelligence respondent survey, and placed in the top 20 of Google Scholar citations, Texas A & M University.

The Google Scholar citations sum the number of times published materials from articles, books chapters and books are cited by other articles, books chapters and books. Notice that many of the schools highly ranked by Google Scholar are from around the world. 

The top university with the most citations does not even have a landscape architecture program and is based upon the productive career of two predominate academics who correctly claim to conduct landscape architectural research. Yet this institution has often been a significant player in landscape architectural knowledge-building and communication – the late Kevin Lynch as an academic was from this school. 

If one were to conduct a Kendall’s Concordance test to examine significant similarity, the test would reveal that the citations rankings and respondent perceptions in Table 1 do not significantly concord (Daniel 1974). In other words there is a strong probably they are not the same. Intuitively, it appears the two lists do not strongly match.

It is interesting to note that the scores and sums in Google Scholar do not present a definitive set of rankings as the schools and individuals represented only reflect the results of those academics who have decided to register and include themselves as landscape architectural researchers.

And at many of the schools listed in the table, only one or a few scholars are actually frequently cited.

The list is susceptible to just a few academics changing universities and the few who are actually productive in landscape architectural research. There are probably very good landscape architectural researchers who have selectively not participated in Google Scholar. 

It is a mistake to believe that certain schools noted for research in the institution as a whole, also do research in planning and design, such as Harvard – a great school by the way, but not a landscape architectural research school. 

Many of the top planning and design teaching schools have great faculty who are practitioners, with a masters as the top degree. These people are certainly gifted planners and designers, as well as excellent teachers. But, they are not researchers. Those with Ph.Ds. at other institutions can confirm this.

There is nothing wrong with not being a researcher to teach planning and design. Very few if any research discoveries have much of an impact in the planning and design professions. However, there is often a difference between those who practice, and those who conduct research. 

Over the past 30 years, such schools as the Big Ten and the Pacific-12 Conference, as well as other institutions have evolved to include, even demand that their faculty have Ph.Ds. conduct research and publish, as well as teach. 

I would suggest that there has been a change in the ability and ranking of schools that can conduct research in planning and design with perceptions lagging behind.

Notice in the table that four Big Ten schools are in the top 20 of the world ranking.  Many of the schools are from Europe and Asia. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell University are not, according to the Google Scholar metric, top landscape research universities. Only Texas A & M University is on both the Google Scholar and DesignIntelligence lists. 

University rankings and ratings generate much conversation, challenges, concern and pride. It may be a time for a change, where the perceptions of respondents more accurately reflect the metrics for current research performance. Michigan State University alumni participating in the annual DesignIntelligence survey can start to make that change.

Literature Cited

Daniel, W.W. 1974. Applied Nonparametric Statistics. Houghton Mifflin Company.

DesignIntelligence LCC. 2017. American’s best architecture & design schools 2017-2018: Landscape Architecture. Fisher, B. (editor-in-chief) In: DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 23(3):198–239.


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