To the Editor:
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that Monday, the day when I opened an email from both the chancellor and the provost of Vanderbilt University, expecting interesting updates about my former graduate school but finding instead their — their what? Explanation? Complaint? Excuse? Condemnation? What I saw in that email was an excessively defensive and somewhat embarrassing response to the newly released rankings by U.S. News & World Report.
Until now, I’d felt only gratitude and affection for Vanderbilt: My studies there were rewarding, my department was supportive, and the institution set me on a path for which I’ll always feel thankful. I went on to serve 20 years in the teaching faculties at several institutions, then another twenty in administrative roles, first as a provost and then as a president.
I thought I’d spent enough time in higher education to have seen everything, to be incapable of surprise; but, surprised I was. To realize that the chancellor and the provost had devoted even one minute of their time to the U.S. News rankings, that they had dug into the publication’s methodology, and then had composed this plaintive email to Vanderbilt alumni was startling.
Quibbling over the magazine’s methodology and speculating about where the university might have ranked under different methodological choices vividly demonstrate the very point that people have been making for decades. U.S. News chooses to emphasize a small selection of facts from the reams of data that could be drawn from every institution; and people have long contested whether those choices meaningfully reflect the quality of a student’s educational experience.
Chancellor Diermeier and Provost Raver take issue with the magazine’s elimination of “key measures of academic quality,” including “the number of faculty with the highest degrees attainable in their fields and the percentage of entering students who are in the top 10 percent of their high-school class.” Good grief; these are among the most commonly contested criteria, and yet Vanderbilt mourns their demise?
When Alasdair MacIntyre held the W. Alton Jones Professorship at Vanderbilt, he served on my dissertation committee, and, although he lacked a terminal degree, I was honored by his interest in my work, as Vanderbilt was honored by his service to the institution. In the present day, perhaps the most widely known member of the faculty is Jon Meacham, best-selling author and popular pundit, who holds the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in American Presidency, despite lacking a terminal degree, or even, I believe, a graduate degree.
Likewise, homing in on the percentage of entering students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high-school class demonstrates a choice, but we in higher education have been debating the import of this choice for decades. Which institution is of higher academic quality — the one that admits a high percentage of top-10-percenters and does no damage to the prospects they already enjoy, or the one that admits students further down the scale and nurtures their growth, empowering them to achieve more than they had thought possible?
Diermeier and Raver complain, too, about the College Scorecard, which has deeply concerned many of us since the Department of Education first rolled it out. Of course, it’s inaccurate, but all schools grapple with the same problem. Indeed, the Scorecard’s only virtue is that it levels the playing field by offering a comparably distorted snapshot of each institution.
Diermeier and Raver’s email conveys a sense of their having arrived late to a party that’s already well into the wee hours. When they say that this “year’s changes come after several years of questionable decisions by U.S. News & World Report,” they call to mind Captain Renault’s famous line in Casablanca: ‘I’m shocked! Shocked to find that U.S. News & World Report is making questionable decisions!’ Really? Only now have they noticed?
Years ago, U.S. News developed a brilliant business model, one that warrants a grudging tip of the hat. Stripped to its essentials, the model expects people who work at colleges and universities to serve as uncompensated researchers. The publication seeks data in the format it prefers, enlisting each institution’s thinly stretched staff in its pursuit of profit.
While some institutions have the stature to thumb their noses at U.S. News, most do not and therefore reluctantly comply with the request for data, fearing that any slip-up in format or accuracy will prompt a dreaded footnote or some other stigmatizing sign suggesting that the institution is hiding some secret. Most institutions lack the capacity to fund any but the leanest research offices, yet, instead of using their meager resources to ameliorate the causes of attrition, for example, they devote overworked researchers’ precious time, as well as substantial energy and hard-earned expertise, to bolster U.S. News’ s bottom line.
Vanderbilt’s leaders are “considering . . . next steps in light of this year’s developments.” Gracious! For decades, members of the higher-education community have been raising questions about the credibility and utility of these rankings; several institutions (including Vanderbilt’s own law school!) have taken principled decisions to stop participating in such endeavors; but only now, after dropping five spots from 13th to 18th, the chancellor and provost are “considering” their next steps. Saddest of all, the language of their email leaves little doubt whether they would be considering “next steps” if the university’s ranking had suddenly risen five spots.
Instead of challenging the decisions made by editors at a magazine, chancellors and provosts should focus single-mindedly and untiringly on pursuing their institutions’ missions, gathering and allocating resources to that end. Whether or not U.S. News takes the College Scorecard too seriously bears no relevance to their work and deserves not a single thought, much less a second thought. Among the many responsibilities shouldered by a chancellor and a provost, they simply have no time for such a distraction.
In collaboration with faculty, staff, and students, as well as many other constituencies, senior administrators are charged with fulfilling the institution’s promise; and, if that effort requires fewer faculty with terminal degrees and a lower percentage of students in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, then so be it. By the same token, if fulfilling that promise requires more such faculty and an even higher percentage of students in the top decile, then so be that, too.
Simply put, administrators should be attending to their institutions’ work, not U.S. News and World Report’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if decisionmakers at leading institutions made that point loudly and clearly, both on their own behalf and in behalf of everyone in higher education?
Darrel D. Colson
Centenary College of Louisiana