Some colleges are opting out of magazine's annual survey

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

A small but determined group of college presidents is boycotting one of higher education's little-known spring rituals: the practice of lobbying each other for better "peer assessments" in pursuit of a higher spot in the coveted rankings compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report.

The reputation survey is the most important component of the preeminent collegiate rankings and the only factor that depends entirely on the opinions of college leaders, as opposed to objective metrics such as admission rate or student-faculty ratio. Every year, hundreds of college presidents seek to improve their scores by sending their counterparts at other schools glossy mailings, interactive CDs and books that celebrate their institutional feats.

In the midst of this promotional blitz, an opposition movement has emerged: A clutch of presidents, largely centered around the nation's capital, says that the lobbying campaign is unseemly and unworthy of a process that has profound impact on the trajectories of the ranked institutions.

"We have other things to do with our money," said William Durden of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Durden said he had received faculty-penned books, bound volumes of presidential speeches and coffee-table art tomes this spring at a rate of 10 to 15 a week. "We know it's a PR gimmick."

Durden opts out of promotional mailings, as do the presidents of Goucher College in Baltimore, St. John's College in Annapolis, Washington College on the Eastern Shore, Trinity Washington University in the District, Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and others.

The reputation survey, part of every U.S. News ranking since the first in 1983, asks college presidents, provosts and admissions deans to rate dozens of colleges in the same institutional category on a scale of 1 ("marginal") to 5 ("distinguished") for overall undergraduate academic quality.

The results make up 25 percent of the rankings, published in August. Upward movement can boost applications, donations, faculty recruitment and everything else that comes with rising currency. Downward mobility bespeaks failure. (The Washington Post Co. publishes Newsweek, a competitor of U.S. News.)

To mail or not to mail

In May 2007, a dozen college presidents signed a letter pledging to ignore the reputation survey and urging colleagues to do the same. The presidents of Trinity, Dickinson and St. John's helped organize the protest, and several colleges in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined it, giving the movement a mid-Atlantic flavor.

These critics said it would be impossible for any college president to confine another college, let alone dozens of other colleges, to a five-point rating system. "I would better be able to fill out a survey on refrigerators than on colleges I've never visited, never interacted with," said Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher.

Many of the same presidents have taken the boycott a step further by opting out of the annual marketing campaign directed at survey voters, a routine that Washington College President Baird Tipson terms "sordid."

Bob Morse, director of the rankings, said he thinks colleges that participate in lobbying efforts are "trying to raise themselves out of what they believe is academic obscurity." He said he has "never seen real proof that such mailings have actually moved a school's score."

Morse defended the validity of the reputation survey, which attempts to measure the "accumulated standing" of each college in the eyes of institutional leaders. "We think those views are important," he said.

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