The University of Virginia is probably the best public university as well as the self-proclaimed "number one party school in America," according to the recently issued New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges, a book that's causing controversy in school circles.
The new guide gives some statistics and flippant profiles of what it deems the nation's 265 "best and most interesting" colleges.
Unlike other college guides, it rates colleges with * and $ signs, similar to a Michelin Guide to restaurants and hotels.
Counting the stars, as most readers and colleges have been doing, The Times guide rates Brown and Stanford as the top private colleges. Harvard, Yale and Princeton, while rating a top five stars for academics, fall in the third or fourth level if their rankings for social life and quality of life are included.
Washington-area institutions generally are rated as average, except for bottom-ranked George Washington University and top-ranked Johns Hopkins, St. John's College in Annapolis and the University of Virginia.
The ratings and spicy profiles, based largely on two dozen student questionnaires sent to each campus last year, have brought outcries from low-ranked colleges and widespread criticism of The Times.
There has been so much criticism, in fact, that publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger announced last week that no future printings or editions of the two-month-old guide will bear the newspaper's name.
Times education editor Edward B. Fiske, who wrote the guide with a part-time staff of freelance writers and Times clerks, said the guide's new title will be simply "A Selective Guide to Colleges."
Fiske said the stars may disappear from future editions of the guide. "The stars are just an index, a shorthand to the write-up. It never occurred to me that anyone would count them. At first I thought of using mortar boards, beer mugs and evergreen trees. I think we'll probably go to some symbol no one will want to count."
Because of complaints and "additional information," Fiske said at least one college, Colby in Maine, will be getting an additional star in the guide's next edition. The first printing is sold out.
The guide lists about 175 of the generally acknowledged top colleges, Fiske said, plus some major state universities, some black colleges, including Howard and Morehouse, evangelical colleges such as Oral Roberts University and a few unique small colleges, like the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me., and St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Md. The guide describes St. Mary's as "a maverick," part of the state's public university system but offering the benefits of "a small, yet exclusive private college."
The area college ranked lowest academically, receiving only two stars, is George Washington University. Its location is "a downtown business district, not a campus," the guide says. It is composed mostly of transfer students taught by a largely part-time faculty, and provides, in the words of an anonymous student, "an average education at an above-average price."
"If The Times review of us is typical, I shudder to think of the dreadful disservice done to other colleges," said Joseph Ruth, GW's director of undergraduate admissions. "With the imprint of The New York Times, a lot of people will be thinking this is the gospel. It's just plain sloppy reporting . . . there's just no way that we're the worst university in the Washington area," below Catholic, Howard, Maryland and American universities, Ruth said.
The book rated local colleges as follows:
The University of Maryland, rated academically one star above George Washington, is faulted for "the largeness of everything . . . long lines . . . classes that fill quickly, and hassles everywhere."
American University is a good home base for "those who prefer to capitalize on Washington's resources rather than on academic opportunities."
Catholic University is a friendly campus in an unfriendly neighborhood, a very rigorous and religious school for those aware "of what they are getting themselves into."
Georgetown, a four-star academic school in the guide, is given an upbeat description, located near "chic Georgetown" and the delights of the nation's capital, although it remains a "sexually uptight campus."
The only local schools rating five academic stars are St. John's in Annapolis, with "its mystical reverence for learning" and 100 great books curriculum; Johns Hopkins, one of "the most intellectual of the nation's top-rated schools" despite its "cinderblock cubicle" dorms, and the University of Virginia.
"Youveeay is probably America's most elite public institution of higher education," the guide reports in a laudatory profile. But it notes that Virginia can "be an uncomfortable place for minorities" and "those who come should be prepared to live in peace with the Southern conservatives who still dominate the student body."
Fiske insists that if colleges are to be rated, readers should at least not count the stars for social life, "where four or five stars means it's a party school. That should be a negative."
The quality-of-life is "a social science" term, the guide states, which weighs such things as physical surroundings, "cut-throat" academic pressure, sexism and whether the colleges "are splendid places to spend four years."
The low rating and negative profile of George Washington University was mild compared to others. For example, the University of Rhode Island is "a high school after high school," according to an anonymous student there. Fiske's own summary: "As long as you don't ask too much of URI, it won't ask too much of you."
The guide's rankings angered Syracuse University, whose complaints to The Times apparently spurred the newspaper into removing its name from the guide. Syracuse is one of 50 universities invited into the prestigious 82-year-old Association of American Universities, a group of the nation's top research universities. Syracuse testily notes in its letter to The Times that many of the universities ranked higher in the guide are not members.
The Higher Education Research Institute recently ranked undergraduate colleges on evaluations by thousands of professors on specific departments, including biology, chemistry, history and English. Its top nine include Amherst, Dartmouth, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Haverford, Pomona, Reed and Swarthmore. Most of those have appeared on other top undergraduate ratings, but several are given fewer than five academic stars in The Times guide.
Some highly rated colleges, such as Ripon in Wisconsin and the nation's military academies, aren't mentioned in The Times guide. Fiske said he hopes to include the academies in future editions, but didn't initially because he didn't think students would answer his questionnaires.
The controversy over the first edition came not just because of the star rating system and the informal essays, but because many colleges complain that The Times is lending its name to what basically is a student rating.
Letters to The Times from professors like Syracuse University historian David H. Bennett objected that the guide claims to be "based on the same kind of reporting that goes into the creation every day of The New York Times" and states on the cover it offers "careful research done by The New York Times."
Fiske agrees "that is certainly ambiguous, but it's not inaccurate." He adds that while The Times is removing its name from the guide, Sulzberger's official statement also praises it as "an excellent book that is based on solid reporting. We are pleased to be publishing it."
The Sulzberger statement adds that "upon reflection, we feel use of the name of The New York Times so prominently in the title was inappropriate, since the judgments about the colleges and universities are those of The Times education editor . . . not those of this newspaper."