Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Right Response To Ranking Exercises: We are X, And We Should Be The Best X We Can Be

Prof. Peter N. Stearns, the soon-to-be-ex Provost of George Mason University, has what I think is one of the best responses to the ranking exercises that seem to have a nasty effect on the sleep cycles of many university leaders. In his recent post entitled Mason Goals, this is what he has to say (and I hope he won't mind the extended excerpt), and with bold emphasis added by me:

T... [W]here should we be heading? I don’t mean the details of the new strategic plan, which is ambitious and fine, though my comments relate to the overall directions of the plan. I refer more to University identity.

And here we confront a puzzle: George Mason is really hard to categorize. When I first arrived I assumed my job was to help make the University even more recognized in the standard ways – move up in US News rankings, get mentioned more often as a research hub, become more selective, and so on. And we did do some of these things. But we also wanted to keep identities we already had, that were equally valuable: center of student diversity (US News shamefully ignores this in its main ratings); accessible to large numbers of first-generation students – and not just accessible – serving as a means for their academic success; eager to seize new opportunities and innovate where appropriate, without as much traditionalist resistance as is common in many other places.

We wanted, in other words, to be George Mason. I heard talk of earlier goals of becoming the “Harvard of the Potomac”, but this reference has faded partly because we simply lack the means, and partly because that’s not fully what we want to be anyway. Yet at the same time we’re not simply innovative and accessible. We really do want to move meaningful research forward. We really do want to combine opportunity with serious quality standards — otherwise we might have more degrees to brag about, but without the real service to students a good university must pledge. We want to be a distinctive mixture, and that’s what I hope we’ve been accomplishing and will accomplish in the future. We want to maintain an active, creative tension between serious conventional standards and the distinctive flavor we’ve developed as an up-and-comer.

Several years ago, pressed by a Board of Visitors interested in Mason aiming at “world class” standards, we hired a consultant who actually said it most clearly: strive to be the best George Mason we can be. Take pride in the difficulty people have in pinpointing us too easily. Take pride in the combinations. In the process we’ll find, as we already do with some of our international visitors, that other institutions will be seeking to adopt our formula.