Monday, April 09, 2007

Against Rankings

From today's Chronicle of Higher Education (

Maybe we need to figure how to downplay these as well. . . .

Letter Circulating Among College Presidents Asks Them Not to Participate in Rankings Survey

A letter urging presidents to distance themselves from college rankings circulated last week as the leaders of several liberal-arts institutions renewed their criticisms of U.S. News & World Report's college guides.

Last Monday, a dozen college presidents received the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, which describes college rankings as "misleading" data that "degrade the educational worth for students of the college search process."

The letter asks presidents to make three "commitments," including refusing to fill out the U.S. News "reputational survey," a measure the magazine uses to assess administrators' opinions of peer colleges (the results account for 25 percent of a college's ranking).

The letter also urges presidents to refuse to promote their institutions' rankings or refer to them as an indication of institutional quality, though it stops short of advising against referring to rankings at all.

"In accord with these commitments, you may want to provide a link on your Web site to information about how you are ranked," the letter states, "but to do this in a way that simply provides information, not in a way that suggests you value the specific ranking or support the ranking project."

Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College and a co-author of the letter, said the rankings implied a false level of authority and failed to account for differences among diverse types of colleges. "The aggregation of lots of data, none of which is based on sound measurements, is crap, deep and deep through," Mr. Bennett said. "The reputational survey is the passing along of rumors."

As copies of the letter zipped through academe last week, reaching officials at dozens of institutions, several presidents in the Annapolis Group, which represents 124 private liberal-arts colleges, said they had stopped filling out the reputational survey this spring. Others said they were considering doing the same next year.

Christopher B. Nelson, chairman of the Annapolis Group and president of St. John's College (Md.), said members of the organization would discuss the possibility of taking a collective stand against the rankings at their next meeting, in June. Although he did not speculate on whether he thought such an action was likely, Mr. Nelson said he detected increasing frustration about the rankings among his colleagues.

"In a culture where everything is measured, commodified, and quantified, one gets a little tired of thinking that we ought to play this game, because a liberal education is not something one can measure," said Mr. Nelson, whose college has long declined to participate in the U.S. News rankings.

The anti-rankings letter was circulated by the Education Conservancy, an Oregon-based nonprofit group that opposes commercial influences in college admissions. Lloyd Thacker, the organization's director, said he was encouraged by the initial response to the letter, which also urges presidents to work with the Education Conservancy to develop "better approaches" to evaluating colleges, including measures that would assess student learning.

Mr. Thacker plans to send the letter -- with signatures from the first group of presidents -- to the leaders of nearly 600 colleges and universities later this spring.

"This is a big step," Mr. Thacker said, "in an experiment to call college presidents to demonstrate their leadership as trustees of education, to speak beyond institutional self-interest and to a greater cause."

Representatives from U.S. News have previously said that the reputational survey is a meaningful assessment of institutional quality, and that the magazine could develop alternative ways of compiling it if a large number of presidents stopped participating in the measure.

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