William M. Chace

"Ranking" America's Colleges?


As this magazine goes to press, the University is "putting to bed" our admissions work for the year. Although the summer will see some shifting of statistics as prospective students make final decisions, our entering classes for the fall look very strong.

In Emory College alone, the grade-point average for those admitted to the Class of 2001 is 3.6, and the average SAT score is 1315. Clearly, Emory continues to be very attractive for some of the finest students anywhere.

This makes it all the more timely for me to say a word about the ranking of universities by U.S. News and World Report. Most of you are familiar with this annual ritual,

in which the weekly magazine surveys both subjectively based reputations of institutions and so-called "objective" measures such as number of faculty, admission yields, and library holdings.

In the past decade, Emory has improved consistently in virtually every category measured by U.S. News, and, more importantly, has followed an overall trajectory of sustained enhancement of which our alumni can be quite proud. In faculty salaries, financial aid, retention and graduation rates, admissions applications, resources dedicated to teaching and building community-by all of these measures, Emory has become steadily stronger. During the same decade, curiously, the U.S. News ranking of Emory has see-sawed: 25, 22, no rank, 35, 32, 21, 25, 16, 17, 19.

What appears to be a fluctuation in Emory's quality, however, has little to do with our steps to improve quality and more to do with the way the magazine changes its formula each and every year. It is difficult to trust figures that suggest a jump of eleven rungs in one year, a fall of four the next, and a further jump of nine the next-especially when the formula for calculating each of these final "ranks" was changed from year to year.

Grievous errors have been made both by U.S. News and Business Week in the ranking of professional schools. The former had to retract its 1997 law school rankings when forty-four law schools were misranked because of a processing error. More recently, our own business school was reported by Business Week to have had a precipitous decline in the number of firms interviewing on campus. The actual figures show that placement interviews increased from 1994 to 1996.

Recently, my colleague Gerhard Casper, president of Stanford University, announced he will no longer complete the questionnaire by which U.S. News asks educators about institutional reputation, and he indicated that Stanford will not submit data to the magazine after this year. This welcome move will, I hope, encourage others to take similar steps.

I have long been disturbed by the ranking game, in part because it undermines one of the core values of American higher education-peer review. By means of peer review, universities are accredited, research findings are validated, and conclusions about our work are reached after intensive scrutiny and reflection by recognized experts. The foundation of peer review is not simply information; it is the trustworthy judgment of qualified professional colleagues. One does not expect such judgments to be made in haste or in capricious and ever-changing ways.

When assessed against this norm, the refusal to rank universities on purely subjective grounds makes sense. Such a refusal represents an unwillingness to surrender professional judgment to an irregular and inappropriate process. It is a statement that such rankings are unreliable, inconsistent, and incompatible with the essential values of higher education.

My own resistance to the exercise stems from something even deeper than a quarrel with methodology. I believe that the ranking is in conflict with the purposes of universities, especially the liberal arts and sciences. The great value of the arts and sciences lies in their capacity to expand a young person's thinking, to guard against intellectual habits that are imitative, reductive, or routine. We aim to teach students to apply judgment to a problem, rather than to adopt uncritically the categories another person or institution defines. By their nature, the arts and sciences do not lend themselves to ratings or ratios. Indeed, such devices are examples of the very habits of mind a liberal education is designed to question.

I have written to James Fallows, the editor of U.S. News, to share these thoughts. I also have begun a conversation with my colleagues at Emory about whether to submit reputational or statistical data to U.S. News in the future. As the magazine considers these responses, the editors might be tempted to believe that we in universities are merely whining, or that we are tired of playing musical chairs. What we are really doing, however, is working to help parents and students become better informed about the advantages we offer. Rather than reducing universities to categories, we invite journalists to help students consider our complex and extraordinarily rich institutions in light of the students' own needs and requirements. Should journalists at U.S. News agree to do so, they will help students begin the habits of thinking that are the real value of the education they seek.

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