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The Final Word on Rankings

Iíve received some emails tonight in response to my applauding of Rob Fishmanís article. For those who missed it, Fishmanís article was critical of those who stress out about college rankings. The emails mostly contend that Cornell is a lot better school than Reed, and therefore Cornell shouldnít try to be like Reed and needs to worry about the rankings.

But Fishman never suggested that Cornell should emulate Reed College. In fact, he suggested the opposite. What Fishman argued is that all universities should fulfill their educational mission in the way that is best suited for them. Such an action is what Reed College has done, and so in Cornellís case, this would necessarily involve paying careful attention to what's best for Cornell in fulfilling Ezra's founding mission, and not necessarily doing what is best in the eyes of any given rankings system. Moreover, this is what the University's leadership has continually strived to do since 1865.

Every university is inherently different, and each must approach its policies mindful of the specific characteristics that make their institution unique. And, as any Cornell alum can attest to, Cornell is a lot more unique than your average top university in a lot of ways -- be it its educational mission, outreach, decentralized governance structure, teaching philosophy, location, size, etc.

If anything, the experience of Cornell's rankings over the last twenty years should prove that caring about rankings are is futile: Cornellís ranking has floated up and down and up again among a cohort of extremely good institutions, subject to the whims of capital campaigns, federal research dollars, student preferences, and arbitrary changes in methodology.

And guess what? As long as the University keeps on doing what it is doing, and baring any major catastrophe or change in the University's relationship with the State of New York, Cornellís ranking will continue to float up and down within its band of peer schools.

Now I am sorry that some Cornell students may feel that Cornell's ranking is not good enough in their eyes, or that they feel that the value of their degree fluctuates with each way the wind blows. But I hate to break it to them: the value of a degree does not simply rest on the reputation of a school. And the value of an undergraduate degree most certainly does not rest on whether or not a school is ranked tenth or eleventh or twentieth.

I'll be the first to admit that Cornell faces its fair share of challenges. And any of the top administrators at Cornell will tell you that as well. These challenges include, but are not limited to:

- Hiring the next generation of professors as the current cohort retires.
- Raising the capital required to provide Cornellís researchers with the very best equipment and laboratories.
- Improving the quality of the undergraduate experience and student satisfaction with Cornell especially for underclassmen
- Operating in a depressed economic environment without the richness of services that schools in larger cities may have at their fingertips.
- Managing the Universityís relationship with the State of New York and stewarding the contract colleges into their 21st century roles.
- Paying for the maintenance costs on an extremely large and ageing physical plant.
- Reaching out to the Universityís alumni base to keep alums engaged and excited about what the University is doing.
- Continuing to help to make college affordable and accessible to students from all walks of life.

And yes, part of these challenges include Cornell properly managing its external image: But Cornell had made commendable strides in this department over the last five years; so much so that it is no longer a major concern for the Cornell community. (But of course, the University should be mindful of its image.)

When it comes down to it, focusing on the University's rankings will not help Cornell overcome these considerable challenges in any meaningful way. Not one.

Rather, the university community needs to focus on what Cornell can do to better fulfill its mission--a mission that is inherently unique to Cornell. These are the truly important things for a university to consider, and include things like:

- The undergraduate educational experience.
- The quality of research that the university produces and the reputation of the Universityís graduate programs.
- The outreach that the University conducts, in the region, the state, the nation, and the world.
- Whether the University is admitting those students who can best take advantage of its resources.
- The quality of life experienced by undergraduates.
- And, perhaps most importantly, whether or not the university is doing all that it can do to allow its students to obtain the skills, perspectives, and ingenuity in order to succeed in contemporary society.

So letís stick to things that matter. Any and all talk about rankings results in nothing but wasted air, and reflects poorly upon Cornell. Quite frankly, it can make the University and all those associated with it look petit, bourgeoisie, and unsophisticated. And we all know Cornellís better than that.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 05, 2006 (#)

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