This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
My current sort-of employer, the College of Charleston, has stated its top institutional goal is to become a “nationally preeminent, student-focused, liberal arts and sciences university, with outstanding professional programs in Business and Education.”
I like that “student-focused” part. I’m worried about the “preeminent” thing, though.
I’ve seen this play before. During my time at Clemson University (2005–11), the school was in the midst of its drive to become a top 20 public university. That’s top 20 in the U.S News & World Report rankings, which we all know bear little witness to what’s happening when it comes to the actual quality of education, but Clemson’s president, James Barker, had declared it an institutional priority above all other goals, so the game was on.
And a game it was. In 2009 a Clemson staffer on the inside of the institutional data sausage-making process revealed the myriad ways that Clemson had gone about climbing the rankings. Influencing? Manipulating? What’s in a word? The school became more selective by shrinking its incoming class. It increased the number of small classes (fewer than 20 students) and started including the cost of benefits in reporting faculty compensation.
And Clemson climbed the rankings. Ranked 38th when Barker took the helm in 2001, in 2014, after a number of years inside the top 25, it finished tied for No. 20. It’s since dropped back to 23rd, even though its score is higher now than it was when it reached No. 20. Of course there was a shady side to the enterprise, one that may cause us to question the underlying values of the pursuit of a higher ranking.
Shrinking the incoming class required raising tuition. The greater proportion of small class sections were made possible by also increasing the size of other sections, say from 55 to 70. During my time, in fall, when the data would be collected, all of my writing classes were capped at 19. Come spring, though, those same courses would climb to 22, even 24 students.
On the reputational survey that makes up a significant portion of the U.S. News ranking, Clemson administrators were urged to rate every peer institution below average. Clemson, a public institution, became all but closed to any student outside the top-third of their high school classes. The percentage of first-generation college students dropped. The ranking became more important than access or opportunity.
The most absurd personal moment of rankings-driven madness was when all faculty who weren’t tenure-track were summoned to a meeting with the provost, who proceeded to tell us how great it would be for Clemson’s ranking if we all went out and got Ph.D.s in our spare time. (The proportion of faculty with terminal degrees is part of the rankings.) Would we be eligible for the tenure track if we did this? No. Would we get a raise? No. Meanwhile, I worked in an English department where more than 75 percent of the sections offered were taught by contingent faculty, most of us making $25,000 a year or less.
When Clemson did crack the top 20 in 2014, Barker, no longer president but still bleeding Clemson orange, said (emphasis mine): “The goal has always been about making Clemson a better university and increasing the value of a Clemson degree.”
In this formulation, prestige equals value. No doubt, this is true to a certain extent, but no one seems to be able to prove that a Clemson degree is now “worth” more. No one is talking about Clemson being an elite university in anything other than football.
It seems to me that prestige only accrues to those at the very top—not top 20, more like top five—and when we’re talking prestige, we’re almost exclusively talking about private institutions. Unfortunately, the only way to survive in a culture that continues to turn away from education as a public good is to “compete,” and the only way we know how to compete is for “prestige.” But what is the cost on public institutions of chasing prestige? For sure, there is a dollar cost. Clemson blanketed the country with glossy PR packages while trying to boost its reputation among its peers. (Even as it slagged those peers in the U.S. News survey.)
There has also been a cost in terms of fostering a culture where, rather than seeing our public institutions as part of a cooperating ecosystem, they are in competition with one another. Only the winners deserve support, but why are we choosing winners in a system where we’re trying to make sure there’s opportunities for all?
Public universities in poorer states such as South Carolina are forced to chase out-of-state students, not only for their tuition dollars, but also for their often superior SATs. Meanwhile, the citizens the school is supposed to serve are denied access.
Of all the places I’ve worked, I would recommend College of Charleston above all others as the best place to pursue an undergraduate education. As an institution, it is far more focused on undergraduates than my previous employers (University of Illinois, Viriginia Tech, Clemson), and my personal experience witnessing the work and care of the faculty gives me high confidence that students are getting a good experience.
It is a wonderful choice of school, but College of Charleston is not “preeminent.” It never will be. We are too poor to become a research powerhouse. We are too large to work like a small liberal arts college. We could never compete with Williams, with Amherst, with Swarthmore.
Nor should we. College of Charleston is a public institution that does great work at what it’s supposed to do, often under trying circumstances. But the disinvestment of the state of South Carolina has left little choice but to compete for pre-eminence. The higher tuition for out-of-state students is what allows the College of Charleston to balance the books. A dip in that out-of-state enrollment left a $7.4 million shortfall in tuition revenue.
This is why tourists coming from the airport are treated to giant billboards touting our excellence. A month of one of those billboards is more than my salary for teaching a course. So because the public will not support public education, we must become the kind of place that people from elsewhere will overpay for. I wonder what compromises of the core mission will be necessary, what costs we will incur beyond those billboards. We can’t all become pre-eminent. What happens to those of us who fall short, who merely do good but unheralded work?