Bowdoin doesn't actually exist within a bubble, and for that reason, it is sometimes necessary to market our "brand" to the outside world. Yet evidence exists that Bowdoin and other Maine schools, like colleges throughout the country, have increased their efforts to sell college as a market commodity. For instance, last year, Bowdoin created a new position in the Office of Communications for a director of news and media relations. According to the job description, the employee is partly tasked with spreading Bowdoin's name in the popular media. On Thursday, the College chose to make prominent on its home page references to the media's apparent newfound love for Bowdoin: "'NBC Nightly News' to feature Wil Smith," "The New York Times features Bowdoin College Museum of Art," and "Southern Maine towns receive accolades in the press."
Exposure initiatives are not inherently bad, but as Time magazine recently reported, some institutions can take them too far. U.S. News and World Report is both famous and infamous for its annual review of colleges. According to the Time article, some colleges calculate how to inflate their ranking and then make decisions based on that calculation. For instance, higher spending creates a higher score in one of the evaluation categories, thus many schools chose to increase spending?a move that did nothing to ameliorate skyrocketing tuition costs.
We were pleased to see that in the 1990s, Bowdoin chose to restrain spending and not follow the crowd. At a time when its peers were increasing spending, the College chose to balance its budget. As a result, according to Time, the College dropped from fourth to eighth in the U.S. News rankings. The publisher apparently likes something Bowdoin has done in the interim, as we've since moved to seventh place among liberal arts colleges.
The Time article said that some colleges are considering working together to stop providing data to U.S. News, stop advertising their ranks, or develop an alternative system of ranking. Bowdoin officials told an Orient reporter that they haven't yet received details about the proposal, but their statements indicate that they aren't in a rush to initiate a revolution anytime soon. We can understand why: Bowdoin does well in the rankings, and as former Dean of Admissions Jim Miller told the Orient a few years ago, prospective students do use widely available guidebook data to help simplify the overwhelming admissions process.
While it is fun to see Bowdoin's name in print and to learn that we end up on highly publicized lists, the College needs to continue to be careful that institutional policy is not used to increase our rankings by guidebook publishers. After all, such references are in many ways superficial, dependent upon outside perception or quantitative data that lacks context. However, given that rankings will continue to exist in the future, the College should take seriously the prospect of working with other institutions to respond collectively to a system that, at least in the 1990s, may have penalized Bowdoin for making responsible choices.
The editorial represents the majority view of The Bowdoin Orient's editorial board, which comprises Bobby Guerette, Beth Kowitt, Anna Karass, Steve Kolowich, and Anne Riley.