Last Friday, President Barry Mills and the presidents of 18 other elite liberal arts colleges released a joint statement acknowledging that U.S. News and World Report's popular ranking of "America's Best Colleges" and similar lists are inherently flawed.
"We commit not to mention U.S. News or similar rankings in any of our new publications," the presidents pledged, "since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number." The colleges also committed to making the raw data they submit to the magazine available on their Web sites.
President Mills told the Orient he thinks that amid the growing opposition to the U.S. News methodology?which counts schools' reputations among their peers for a quarter of their final score?he and his colleagues wished to end the "notable silence" on the part of schools that are typically ranked in the top 25. These are the schools, after all, that benefit most from the credence many ascribe to the current system.
This appears all well and good. But in terms of fomenting positive change, how effective will this gesture be?
Probably not very. Mills himself admitted being skeptical as to whether Bowdoin's declination to advertise its No. 7 honor will alter how people view the U.S. News rankings, and he pointed out that most of the raw data that the College has committed to displaying on its Web site is already available there, just not all together in one place.
The statement, Mills said, was intended to "send a message." But what message is that? The text is vague?perhaps intentionally so?on the coalition's specific complaints about the rankings formula, implying only that rankings oversimplify the matter generally. Furthermore, the actions prescribed by the statement appear too weak to effect real change.
By breaking their silence on the U.S. News rankings controversy, the presidents of these well-heeled colleges are on the right track.
But if they truly believe such lists "mislead the public," they need to do better than this toothless document. If these college presidents agree the system is flawed, they should either join the growing opposition to U.S. News rankings by eschewing the magazine's patently un-scientific reputational surveys or develop a different protest strategy based on their own qualms.
Otherwise, this sort of protest lite might be interpreted as mere posturing.