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Some colleges are opting out of magazine's annual survey

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; B01

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.

A 2009 study by researchers at Michigan State and Penn State found that, of more than 1,000 colleges studied, 20 had reputation ratings that varied by more than half a point in a nine-year span. The average rating across academia held constant at 2.9, one-tenth of a point below "good," suggesting that the marketing blitz might be a zero-sum game.

Presidents send the mailings anyway, with "the faint hope that for producing and sending out expensive, pleading materials, voters will think better of them -- and vote for them," said John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

Most presidents acknowledge receiving the brochures. Few acknowledge sending them.

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity, said she received one brochure this year that chronicled "An Academic Rebirth" at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg. Another brochure recounted "A Decade of Excellence" at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J.

R. Mark Sullivan, president of the College of Saint Rose, sent a magazine along with a letter, noting a recent mention in the New York Times, a "gleaming new academic building" and a host of "new and exciting programs" at the Albany, N.Y., campus. Drew Bogner, president of Molloy College in Rockville Center, N.Y., told of record enrollment and plaudits in the Princeton Review and, yes, U.S. News.

"It's a tsunami of glossy, four-color magazines," McGuire said. "I have this huge box that I toss these things into."

Tipson, at Washington College, used to play along. His marketing staff would send brochures touting the Chestertown, Md., school to dozens of other college presidents whose ratings shaped its ranking. And then, a few years ago, he stopped.

"It's money that could be spent on educating students," Tipson said.

Direct approaches

There is a subtle art to collegiate self-promotion, especially when the target audience is other presidents. A direct appeal for votes is bad form. Most mailings make no mention of U.S. News or its rankings.

Lately, reports have circulated of colleges using a more direct approach to improve their ranking.

In June, a Clemson University official said at a public gathering that her administrators gave low marks to competitors on the reputation survey to make the South Carolina institution look better. A subsequent investigation by the online publication Inside Higher Ed found a University of Wisconsin administrator who rated all but two of the school's peer colleges "adequate," including Harvard and Yale.

Many college leaders remain supportive of the survey, whose instructions allow presidents to rate only the colleges they know. Morse said the average voter rates about half of the colleges listed on the form.

Antoine Garibaldi, president of Gannon University in Erie, Pa., said he finds time to read some of the promotional mail from his peers. This year, Garibaldi said, his own college sent the latest issue of Gannon Magazine to every Catholic college in the country and to many other schools in its region. Garibaldi said they were sent in the spirit of sharing and not to burnish Gannon's reputation. There was nothing in the actual correspondence to prove otherwise.

Garibaldi completes the survey every year. "It's not perfect," he said. "But the fact of the matter is, people look at it."

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