THE BLOG
12/01/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Democracy and the Rankings

Each year, the magazine U.S. News and World Report announces its rankings of colleges and universities. According to Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, the U.S. News website had more than 10 million visitors in the month the rankings appeared.

Many raise criticisms about the rankings, which use a one-size-fits-all set of measures to evaluate the immensely diverse ecology of colleges and universities. In a New Yorker magazine profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein, Botstein lambasted the rankings as a con game. "It's one of the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that's supposedly populated by the best minds in the country - theoretical physicists, writers, critics - is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine."

Frank Bruni, in an opinion piece, "Promiscuous College Come-ons," in the New York Times, described how the rankings contribute to "the glimmer of exclusivity" which is a powerful draw in our status-conscious society. Colleges seek to increase the numbers of students who apply so they can turn more of them away. Lowering the percentage of students who are admitted contributes to "student selectivity," a significant factor in the seven weighted variables which U.S. News uses to determine rankings.

Little noticed is the reality that rankings also weaken democracy. The controversies over the last several years over the rankings of Syracuse University illustrate.

In 2004, Nancy Cantor became Chancellor of Syracuse, after a distinguished career which included service as provost of the University of Michigan. At Michigan, she had been a key architect of the "Bollinger Brief," a framework which won over the swing vote of justice Sandra Day O'Connor in support of the law school's affirmative action plan.

Coming to Syracuse, Cantor made explicit her commitments to democracy, diversity, and community engagement. Cantor's vision statement included a commitment to "strengthen democratic institutions" and "educate fully informed and committed citizens."

Cantor pushed for changes in the tenure code to include emphasis on publicly engaged scholarship. She led in crafting new admissions policies which facilitated admission of students from the area, and backed these up with a coalition of local businesses which gave financial support that covered tuition of local students. She also helped to "bring the university down from the hill" above the city, creating a variety of partnerships with neighborhoods, businesses, schools and other colleges, cultural groups, and arts organizations.

The university "has helped refurbish parks, taken over an abandoned building where drug dealers once grew marijuana and turned an old furniture warehouse into a new home for academic programs in art, drama, and fashion design," wrote Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "The university is encouraging professors to focus their research on the city, while giving free tuition to local high-school graduates." The percentage of minority students at Syracuse rose from 18.5 % when she started to nearly 32 % by 2011.

These changes also ran afoul of the rankings.

On October 2, 2011, Robin Wilson authored a front page story in the Chronicle with the title "Syracuse's Slide," referring to the drop in the university's U.S. News and World Report rankings. The article featured critics of Cantor. David Bennett, a history professor, feared that "the university is moving away from selective to inclusive." The editor of the student newspaper, The Orange, echoed his views, worrying that "rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the diploma."

More inclusive admissions policies do, indeed, disadvantage colleges in the rankings. They also feed a hyper-competitive individualist educational culture, focused on "meritocratic excellence" rather than the ethos of "cooperative excellence" once central to colleges with a strong democratic identity and purpose. Excessive emphasis on individualist achievement turns higher education into a sorting mechanism for choosing "winners." It contributes to growing inequality, as I argued in an earlier blog.

A focus on local engagement also disadvantages the "academic reputation" of colleges. Academic reputation makes up 22.5 percent of the total in the weighted variables of U.S. News. Every year the magazine surveys higher education leaders, asking them to grade schools.

"Reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution's identity," explains Gladwell, in his New Yorker piece fiercely critical of the rankings system. "They are prejudices."

These are prejudices which work against local connections. The more involved faculty members are in local affairs, in their research or professional activities, the less they travel in the national and international professional circles or publish in the disciplinary journals where visibility contributes to "reputation."

More than 100 faculty wrote to the Chronicle in support of Cantor's reforms. More than 80 graduate students wrote collectively "to share our stories of engaged research, teaching, learning, and civic life as citizens of Syracuse, N.Y. and students of the university. Far from experiencing or perceiving a decrease in the rigor of our education experience, we acknowledge what a privilege it is to grow in our disciplines through sharing and co-creating knowledge with diverse and valuable communities."

But in 2013, the chair of the Syracuse board of trustees appointed a commission to study "Syracuse's slide." Cantor, feeling she had done what she could over a decade as president and not wanting the measures she had championed to become overly personalized, announced her departure. The University of Rutgers at Newark, a highly diverse urban university, sought her out to become president and chancellor.

And what happened at Syracuse?

Syracuse.com, a local on-line paper, reported recently on developments. Kent Syverud, the new chancellor, rolled back many of the initiatives of the Cantor years. Four student protests erupted this fall in the space of two months, including a student sit-in. More than 8,000 signatures from students and alumni called for reinstatement of the Advocacy Center, a support center for victims of sexual assault. Students said that the decision to close the Advocacy Center illustrated a pattern of decision making excluding broad input. Among their other grievances were the administration's elimination of "community engagement" and "strengthening democratic institutions" as university goals.

The Syracuse story dramatizes how the rankings of U.S. News and World Report block the advance of democracy.

In a national and international environment where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, it is crucial to push back. We need to build the democracy movement in and around higher education. One task is to overturn the rankings, a new tyranny which holds us all in thrall.

Harry Boyte is editor of the forthcoming Democracy's Education, a collection with many stories drawn from the democracy movement in and around higher education (Vanderbilt, 2015)