June 4, 2009

Clemson, prestige, and reputation

Despite its attempt to claw back from an unintentional statement of truth, Clemson's apparent manipulation/gaming of the U.S. News rankings system should give people one more reason to read Brewer, Gates, and Goldman's In Pursuit of Prestige (library copies), about the difference between colleges and universities that try to move up the rankings, on the one hand, and those that try to serve their students, on the other hand.

As I've stated before in a few contexts, few governing boards will hire a university president applicant who says, "Yep, you've got it just about right. I'm not making any changes and have no further ambitions for this place." That's just not the nature of the beast, and U.S. News rankings are often part of the discussion of institutional ambitions. So what to do to forestall this type of corruption or battle against the subtler forms, such as when universities want to raise the average SAT score of incoming first-time-in-college students? One way inside a university is to push for the inclusion of measures that focus on the service to the public. On the education side, that includes things such as the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell grants and the percentage of students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Those links are to my own institution's strategic-plan data system, and they show that we're headed in the wrong direction on these important indicators, though the change on the Pell-grant proportion is small. I know from the development of this strategic plan that one of the measures was in there to begin with (for which the university administration deserves credit) and another was pushed by a faculty member (for which both the faculty and the university administration deserves credit).

Now here's the frustrating part: no one is holding us accountable for this. In the abstract, there are writers such as Peter Sacks who can uncover the shenanigans Clemson's administration apparently is engaged in and explain the connections to the college opportunities for children from poor and moderate-income families. But that's pretty abstract. In the din surrounding education budgets, together with shrinking news holes in your nearest metropolitan daily, there's little chance for the type of accountability that matters: discussion in a community about the public value of a college or university and where the institution should be headed to increase that public value. 

And, yes, that includes private institutions: you and I are indirectly paying for them with tax deductions to their donors.

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Posted in Higher education on June 4, 2009 7:47 AM |