Bob Morse runs U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges guide. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Bob Morse is a wonk, a number-cruncher who works in a messy office at a struggling publishing company in Georgetown.

He’s also one of the most powerful wonks in the country, wielding the kind of power that elicits enmity and causes angst.

Morse runs U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide, the oldest and best-known publication to rank America’s premier colleges.

The annual release of the rankings, set for Sept. 13 this year, is a marquee event in higher education. Some call it the academic equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Colleges broadcast U.S. News rankings on Web sites and in news releases, tout them in recruiting pamphlets, alumni magazines and “Dear Colleague” letters, and emblazon them on T-shirts and billboards. Institutions build strategic plans around the rankings and reward presidents when a school ascends.

“U.S. News doesn’t advertise the rankings,” Morse said in a recent interview at the publication’s headquarters. “The schools advertise for us.”

Morse, 63, has endured for two decades as chief arbiter of higher education’s elite.

No one can stake a credible claim to academic aristocracy without a berth on the first page of a U.S. News list. He is to colleges what Robert Parker is to wine.

College presidents dismiss the rankings. They line up behind conference microphones to denounce Morse and his methods.

Privately, college administrators fret about rankings and ponder how to move up. Presidents and deans telephone U.S. News several times a week to ask “why they rank the way they do,” Morse said. He usually takes the calls himself.

At industry meetings, Morse answers his critics in a halting monotone. He speaks with a mild stutter.

“His manner is disarming and, in its own way, very effective,” said Ted Fiske, a fellow traveler in the college-guide business, who rates colleges but does not rank them. “It just sort of takes the air out of the room.”

The rankings have changed the way colleges do business. Critics see their influence every time an institution presses alumni for nominal donations, coaxes noncommittal students to apply or raises the SAT score required for admission.

Twenty-eight years after the release of the first U.S. News lists, Morse and his publication dominate the college-ranking business they spawned. Last year’s publication drew more than 10 million Internet hits on launch day.

In a conference room one recent afternoon, Morse heard reports from a group of overworked editors and producers, many in their 20s and wearing comfortable shoes.

“We have a lot to get through. We’re two weeks away from launch,” said Anita Narayan, deputy education editor. Conversation drifted from the “countdown clock” on the U.S. News Web site to potential media coverage to a shift in categories that will place the U.S. Air Force Academy among liberal arts schools for the first time.

The rankings typically make up more than half of the Web traffic at U.S. News, a onetime news magazine that retreated from weekly to biweekly to monthly and finally ceased print publication altogether this year. Morse presides over a staff of six.

Many of the nation’s college presidents, deans and professors say the rankings are worthless. They contend that ranking colleges is as senseless as ranking zoo animals: Every college is unique. So, too, are their applicants.

“The question is not, ‘What’s the best college?’ ” Fiske said. “The question is, ‘What’s the best college for me?’ ”

U.S. News declared Harvard the best university in the nation last year, awarding it a perfect score of 100 based on a formula that considered such factors as acceptance rate (7 percent), graduation rate (98 percent) and student-to-faculty ratio (7 to 1).

The ranking did not measure how much Harvard students learn, how much they read and write, or how many go on to graduate school or high-paying jobs. Much of that data, to be fair, is not publicly available. To Morse’s critics, it is a fatal flaw.

“This is the prime fallacy of U.S. News: They think they’re measuring excellence, but they don’t have measures of excellence,” said Paul Glastris, editor of Washington Monthly, one of several publications that offer alternative rankings. “They don’t deliver the thing they say they deliver.”

To its credit, U.S. News created a means for the public to compare institutions on matters of admission and completion — and did it two decades ahead of a surging national movement toward greater accountability in higher education.

U.S. News first ranked colleges in 1983. The editors were trying to break out of third place among newsmagazines (after Time and Newsweek) with a campaign of consumer-friendly “news you can use.” The idea was to list the best colleges in order of quality, the way Consumer Reports ranked automobiles and dishwashers.

Morse is neither a journalist nor a stereotypical East Coast snob. He has an economics degree from the University of Cincinnati, which his publication ranked 156th among national universities last year, with an overall score of 29. He has an MBA from Michigan State, which was ranked 79th.

He joined U.S. News in 1976 as part of its economics unit, a team of non-journalists who wrote studies to which journalists would append quotes. He moved to the rankings team in 1987 and has overseen the annual project since 1989.

The first rankings judged colleges on a single factor, academic reputation, as measured by presidents in a survey. Morse designed a more sophisticated survey that is still in use, with some tweaks, today.

Graduation and freshmen retention rates count for the largest share of the 100-point ranking, 27.5 percent, with extra points for schools whose graduation rates exceed statistical expectations based on socioeconomic mix and other factors. Academic reputation counts for 22.5 percent, based on surveys completed by presidents, provosts, admission deans and high school guidance counselors. Faculty resources (including student-faculty ratio) count for 20 percent. Selectivity (including admission rate) counts for 15 percent, financial resources for 10 percent, and alumni giving for 5 percent.

The rankings have always mirrored the established order: Harvard, Princeton and Yale top the list of national universities; Amherst and Williams generally head the list of liberal arts schools.

Some former U.S. News employees say Morse and others have engineered the rankings to guarantee that the same schools come out on top, allegations laid out in a 2000 Washington Monthly article. Morse denies ever putting his thumb on the scales.

College presidents complain that schools near the top of the list never change. That’s not entirely true.

Since 1991, Columbia has risen from 10th to fourth among national universities; the University of Pennsylvania, another private institution, climbed from 13th to fifth; and Northwestern from 23rd to 12th. The University of California at Berkeley has dropped from 13th to 22nd and the University of Virginia from 18th to 25th.

Critics say the ranking undervalues public universities because it measures wealth and they are not wealthy. Since 1991, each of the five public institutions ranked highest on the U.S. News list has slipped at least seven places.

“Chancellors and presidents only quote rankings when their schools are doing well, and so I never quote U.S. News at all, ever,” said Robert J. Birgeneau, Berkeley’s chancellor.

Other publishing firms have followed U.S. News into the rankings business, including big names such as Kiplinger and Forbes. None has seriously challenged U.S. News, which has the advantage of being first and, critics say, of affirming the status quo.

Asked whether he remembers when U.S. News had its first competitors, Morse replied, “I’m not sure that we have competitors now.”