The Myth of the Little Three: Are College Rankings Killing Wesleyan’s Culture?

BADGE!

Do you ever get the feeling Wesleyan is having a little bit of an identity crisis?

There’s a good chance that my ‘ideal’ Wesleyan doesn’t look exactly the same as yours; our concerns and tastes are different, as are our experiences here. But it is likely that the things you love most about Wesleyan are unique to it, are not quantifiable, and are not things that are in step with success as defined by any rankings algorithm. I’m serious about Wesleyan dropping out of college rankings like US News. Reed College president Colin Diver explains in a 2005 Atlantic article that “one-size-fits-all ranking schemes undermine the institutional diversity that characterizes American higher education…(as) The urge to improve one’s ranking creates an irresistible pressure toward homogeneity, and schools that… strive to be different are almost inevitably penalized.” In my opinion, Wesleyan students have been struggling against that subtle pressure in different ways for years now. 

I’ve gotten an interesting window into our administration this past semester through the lens of on-campus activism, and noticed some reoccurring patterns. Wesleyans’ activists, who are valorized by the administration in its publicity, are consistently told they’re naïve or even manipulated by our custodial staff in the case of labor issues. In the case of the recent trans activism they were slapped with heavy-handed punishments for their actions. I get the feeling our administration likes the idea, or illusion, of a vibrant culture of activism more than the potentially destabilizing reality. Sort of like how it seems to enjoy the idea of being environmentally friendly (I remember seeing an ad on our website when I was a prospective student that essentially read “If you drive a Prius…You might be Wesleyan”) but gets defensive when students start pushing for divestment. This disconnect between the idea of Wesleyan, the public image that is packaged and sold to its prospective consumers, and the reality of the institution seems to be growing.

Why should it be? It’s worth mentioning here that the WSA has passed resolutions in support of both the labor and divestment activists, so the student body at large theoretically shares those causes. Maybe its because the demands of those valorized Wesleyan activists (raising our standards of what constitutes fair labor practices, divestment, de-gendering bathrooms) aren’t changes that will make us look better on paper. These policy changes, which would reflect real institutional values, are meaningless to rankings such as US News. In fact, one thing weighted heavily in a college’s US News ranking at 15% is the result of a peer assessment survey; every year presidents like Roth are asked to grade their school’s ‘peers’, numbering in the hundreds, from 1 to 5. Not an impressive methodology if you ask me. Why should we compete with our ‘peer schools’ (whoever that may be- it’s almost certainly not in reality the Little Three nor Grinnell and West Point, with whom we share the #17 spot on US News’ 2013 list), based on variables set out by some nerds who work for US News? Is it realistic to expect the administration to completely disregard our rank and pursue its own philosophy as long as we participate in those rankings? I know anecdotally that President Roth has little regard for rankings, but also know from experience how much attention prospective students pay to those rankings in the stress and angst of the college selection process.

With Amherst and Williams as the model for a successful liberal arts college, how couldn’t things be changing? From traditions like Tour de Franzia to quirks like Westco (its an open secret Reslife is actively trying to change Westco, and rumors abound about plans to turn Westco 1 into an office building), I don’t think it’s a stretch to wonder if Wesleyan is slowly but surely losing its soul. I don’t mean to equate the ‘authentic’ Wesleyan with specific, ongoing activist causes nor traditions that were clearly never endorsed by the administration like Tour- it’s more a general sense that the Wesleyan administration is attempting to level its student culture out while carefully maintaining, in appearance, the most desirable aspects of the reputation for eccentricity that was originally produced by that non-conforming student culture. An example that will probably hit closer to home for more people is Wesleyan’s music scene: the $140,000 we spend every year bringing off-campus bands here to perform is a great example of a value-loaded decision by Wes that falls way outside the US News algorithm. The concerts we enjoy practically define the way many students spend their time on the weekends, they are an integral part of the experience of being a student here. I once asked my brother, who recently graduated from Amherst, how often off-campus bands perform there- his response was “Never”.

The issue of college rankings reminds me of some wisdom President Roth once wrote in a March 2013 installment of his Huffington Post blog titled “Conformity is the Enemy: From Groupthink to Diversity”:

As educators, we must fight conformity by subjecting it to scrutiny from a variety of perspectives. Without the push to explore alternative possibilities, we are more likely to miss potential opportunities, even rush headlong into catastrophes. Diversity of background, of values and of methods are all assets in developing iterative cross-pollination — ongoing inquiry that productively connects things that had not previously been brought together. Of course, not all combinations will be productive — some creative experiments fail. But without divergent thinking we will be more likely to fall into patterns of rationalized conformity that undermine research and teaching.

Allowing US News to determine the direction Wesleyan moves in, however indirectly, would be a catastrophe. To reference Josh Krugman’s speech at a senior cocks event last semester, he questioned whether donating to Wesleyan right now, with the best intentions, even has the potential to change financial aid policy. His conclusion was that maybe its time to stop investing in Wesleyan with our donations, and instead push for authentic changes to its priorities.

The best way to end Wesleyan’s identity crisis is to stop measuring our success based on what anyone outside of Wes thinks, start a conversation about the kind of institution we want to be a part of, and begin acting to realize those principles. Rather than wait to find out our 2014 rank so Wesleying can gripe about how stupid the rankings are why don’t we make a statement about just how little we care and stop participating altogether? If nothing else we’ll have saved President Roth from a mess of paperwork, and maybe the kids who were only interested in Wes because it was the best school they got into won’t even apply next year.

Related Posts:
Rankings Once Again Arbitrary, Wes Once Again #17
US News and Stupid Farts Report: Wes Plummets to #17
George Washington University Still in Existence After Becoming “Unranked” by US News
Wesleyan Ranks #21 in Forbes Best Colleges
Something About College Rankings or Something
Wes ranks #12 in U.S. News Liberal Arts Colleges
Another Year, Another Ranking Fluctuation

  • Come on now

    Disagree

  • Sick Nelden

    This article is right on the money.

  • Haha

    Another inept attempt to destroy Wesleyan’s soul: the administration’s (and the buffoons over in ResLife) suggestions that Fountain become a quiet, carless, and fenced off street!

    • Oh yes, destroy our souls.

      It would be carless so we don’t all get run over in the street when the ambulances come to pick up the people who have fallen down drunk and won’t get back up.

  • Stop taking down my post

    This article is more or less useless, since it attempts to merge two completely unrelated issues in order to construct a scattered and misguided argument. From my personal experience with activism at Wesleyan, the disparity between the goals of the administration and the goals of the students is generally predicated upon the student’s well intentioned, but ultimately short-sited or logistically impossible aims. Yes, the US news rankings is a flawed system, and there are perfectly valid reasons for a university like Wesleyan to opt out. That being said, I hardly think the problem has anything to do with administrative crackdowns on events that encourage binge drinking and vandalism, or any of the other subversive means of demonstrating school spirit. Issues like divestment come with serious logistical/ financial complications and are less morally black and white than students like to make them out to be. The recent trans activism controversy is similarly convoluted, since both the means of activism and the administrative response were perhaps carried out in a clumsy and poorly thought out manner. Wesleyan is a school that expects by most standards the bare minimum of proper academic conduct, but is populated by a student body quite convinced it lives in a constant state of oppression. This article is perhaps the epitome of the Wesleyan student body’s penchant for fabricating administrative evils on the impossible pretense of achieving a lawless utopia that somehow balances both the hedonistic urge to party and vandalize at no cost whilst also going out of its way to solve the humanitarian ailment of the week. Tour de Franzia, for example, is by all standards an anti-custodial staff event, just as ripping down gendered bathroom signs is. Who do you think has to pay for repairing and cleaning the school? Divestment comes with serious implications, since a university would be using its endowment for strictly political purposes. Something tells me that if Wesleyan used its endowment to support conservative causes, the student body wouldn’t be in support.

    • Haha

      This sums up my feelings exactly.

    • w/e

      if you think taking down “men’s” and “women’s” signs is “vandalism” then you are just a fucker, rest of post tl;dr

      • “fucker”

        I used the term vandalism in reference to tour de franzia, but in regards to the bathroom sign debate id love to go into your dorm room and smash a couple hundred dollars of your shit in the name of all those who get called “fuckers” for believe in the 3 bathroom system

  • hahahha

    This article is more or less useless, since it attempts to merge two completely unrelated issues in order to construct a scattered and misguided argument. From my personal experience with activism at Wesleyan, the disparity between the goals of the administration and the goals of the students is generally predicated upon the student’s well intentioned, but ultimately short-sited or logistically impossible aims. Yes, the US news rankings is a flawed system, and there are perfectly valid reasons for a university like Wesleyan to opt out. That being said, I hardly think the problem has anything to do with administrative crackdowns on events that encourage binge drinking and vandalism, or any of the other subversive means of demonstrating school spirit. Issues like divestment come with serious logistical/ financial complications and are less morally black and white than students like to make them out to be. The recent trans activism controversy is similarly convoluted, since both the means of activism and the administrative response were perhaps carried out in a clumsy and poorly thought out manner. Wesleyan is a school that expects by most standards the bare minimum of proper academic conduct, but is populated by a student body quite convinced it lives in a constant state of oppression. This article is perhaps the epitome of the Wesleyan student body’s penchant for fabricating administrative evils on the impossible pretense of achieving a lawless utopia that somehow balances both the hedonistic urge to party and vandalize at no cost whilst also going out of its way to solve the humanitarian ailment of the week. Tour de Franzia, for example, is by all standards an anti-custodial staff event, just as ripping down gendered bathroom signs is. Who do you think has to pay for repairing and cleaning the school? Divestment comes with serious implications, since a university would be using its endowment for strictly political purposes. Something tells me that if Wesleyan used its endowment to support conservative causes, the student body wouldn’t be in support.

  • KatCo

    word word word word

  • Guest

    “manipulated by our custodial staff in the case of labor issues” … ??

  • Guest

    As Wesleyan plummets in the rankings, the applicant pool with suffer in quality, and Wes will cease to attract the best students. Great professors will consequently be harder attract to Wes. Less bright students, especially those that are not at Wesleyan for future career purposes, will mean a declining future endowment. Professors will harder to attract and pay, resources available to students will dry up, and the quality of graduates will be comparable to schools like Fordham.

    But hey, at least Wes will be unique!

    • Oh really?

      Reed College, a highly regarded and famously rigorous institution that has chosen to bow out of rankings altogether, is a perfect example of just how wrong you are.

      • alum

        we don’t know what Reed’s average SAT, # of applications, etc. were before they dropped out…

        • doucheface

          Reed SATs look just as good as Wes’. They don’t get as many applications, but who cares.

          http://www.reed.edu/ir/cds/cds1213/cdssecc201213.pdf

          • alum

            Yes I saw that as well, but what were they before Reed stopped participating? Were they higher than Wes?

  • Boblioke

    If maintaining (or rebuilding) prestige mean sacrificing an identity, it’s worth it. There are plenty of tiny colleges with positive, very distinct identities. Problem is, their graduates work for Williams and Amherst graduates now.

    Identity is great, but prestige affects all of our futures in tangible ways. Besides a few with hardcore ideologies, most Wes students would choose a good job over a better understanding of social justice.

    Sorry…

    • Itsamoree

      “most Wes students would choose a good job over a better understanding of social justice.”
      I’m sorry that this is your interpretation of your peers because it actually epitomizes what the author is arguing–a changing identity for the Worse. As a senior, I know very few, if any, students that would actually ascribe to this, and this is one of the most important aspects of Wesleyan, what distinguishes it from its peers and why it is unique. Students looking for a unique experience and perspective come here, not students who are looking for a ho hum student body that enjoy “prestigious” connections.
      One of the most valuable lessons I have learned here is that there is more to life than what is socially accepted as “a good job.” “A good job” is what I make of it, “a good job” is doing what makes me happy, not what makes me the most money.
      Very few institutions and student bodies today are brave enough to teach their students and peers to not fear the treacherous world of a lower paid job and to not fear actually living their lives as they choose to live them.

      • Wes ’16

        I’m aware that there’s a large portion of the student body that ascribes to this ideology, where “a good job is doing what makes me happy,” but isn’t that kind of self-serving? Not even kind of, isn’t that completely self-serving?

        Sure, it may be the case more often than not that focusing solely on a job’s salary or prestige leads to amoral or immoral or “un-Wes” career paths, but telling yourself that nothing else matters besides your own subjective feeling of happiness leads to a life full of jobs like busking or random minimum wage shifts, where you might be content but you only make enough to get by and thus don’t contribute a cent back to Wesleyan or its future student body after you graduate. The funny part comes when these same hedonistic students (am I wrong to use that word, hedonistic? Another poster used it, too…) turn around and protest the lack of university policies like divestment and need-blind aid, policies that require substantial amounts of money/donations. But I’m digressing.

        My point is that Wesleyan teaches students how to think and act in altruistic, innovative, and counter-cultural ways, and while that should and does include a freedom from the “money matters most” mindset, it’s ridiculously naive and unhelpful (for Wes, other students, yourself) to pretend that income, power, and the opportunity to create future connections shouldn’t come into play at all when looking for a job.

        • Boblioke

          Agreed. Another point is that if Wesleyan wants to produce graduates that can impact social justice and change the world for the better, those graduates need the money and influence to do it. A graduate making 30k a year at an unknown nonprofit can only go so far. A graduate making much more, with better connections and decision-making power, and with more intellectual prowess can make a much more significant difference. For instance, on average, Wesleyan cares about social justice much more than a place like Harvard. But I guarantee that Harvard graduates have made more of a difference in the world. Becoming Granola Community College won’t help Wesleyan achieve it’s goals.

          • Ron Medley

            About twenty years ago, I was pretty heavily involved in my class reunion’s fund raising efforts. One of the studies I was privy to at the time had to do with comparative zip code addresses of Little Three alumni from the same graduating classes. It turns out, we all tend to congregate in the same neighborhoods. If there is any evidence to suggest that’s changed over the past twenty years, I’d like to see it.

          • Boblioke

            I would love to see this information as well, if it exists. I would think, though, that Wesleyan graduates of a few decades ago would be much more likely to be on equal terms with other Little Three graduates than those graduating more recently. Wesleyan used to be considered on par with those two schools (hence: the “Little Three”). However, in the past two decades, Wesleyan has slipped dramatically in terms of prestige, and I would think that that dramatically affects the status of graduates. Even if the education quality is the same, most business and organizations simply do not consider Wesleyan an equal to schools like Amherst and Williams anymore.
            Like you said, though, recent data like that would be enlightening.

          • Ron Medley

            I don’t share your premise. As someone who remembers well the supposedly more prestigious days when Wesleyan was the “richest per capita college in the country”, the truth is that it got tired after a while, especially since that was pretty much ALL Wesleyan was known for at the time. Some of the leading lights of the mid-twentieth century found their way to Wesleyan while I was there as a student, including John Cage, William Manchester, Susan Sontag, Frank Capra, Joan Crawford and Buckminster Fuller; we hosted an historic concert by the Grateful Dead, brought Miles Davis to Mocon and even converted Andrus Field into a helicopter pad for John D. Rockefeller Jr., yet most of it might as well have taken place on the dark side of the moon because all the media was interested in was how much money Wesleyan had.

            You people have no idea how lucky you are to be attending a college widely known and celebrated (if even in a snide, back-handed way by its detractors) for its smart, quirky, courageous student body and the serious scholars who teach them. That, and the fact that no one refers to it as “Connecticut Wesleyan” anymore.

  • Skeptic

    I feel like the white washing of Wesleyan’s activism isnt directly related to US News and World Reports… Rather, US News is just an assessment of our endowment, which actually needs to grow larger. How would an issue like divestment be influenced by the ranking systems?

    • alum

      Precisely. This article muddles a lot of issues and meshes them together. As Skeptic said, Wesleyan’s fall in the US News ranking and subsequent worrying is almost 100% related to the endowment. However, Wesleyan does just fine with regards to fundraising, alumni donation rates, and alumni salaries – maybe not Amherst or Williams level, but right in line with Middlebury, Vassar, etc.

      Student activism and endowment do intersect at topics like divestment, however. Yet, students haven’t proven that divestment wouldn’t hurt the endowment, and Bowdoin came out and said they would lose $100 million if they divested. Seems fairly at odds with another activism topic – financial aid and loss of need blind. Perhaps it’s not the administration trying to ignore its activists and instead simply a good-faith effort to grow the endowment so there’s enough money for need blind (and perhaps boost the US News ranking as a side effect of a larger endowment)?

      As for the Tour – why wouldn’t Wes be concerned about an event that always sends tons of students to the ER due to alcohol poisoning? Wes wouldn’t give two shits about the Tour if people could hold their liquor. Wes also wouldn’t give two shits about WestCo if the drug use dropped a bit. Wes doesn’t actually care about changing student culture, it just doesn’t want a reputation as an unsafe party haven where people don’t take their work seriously. Wes certainly doesn’t want the opposite reputation, either. That would make us… Swarthmore, I think. Ugh.

      • sophomore

        On the issue of divestment, the number that came from Bowdoin is precarious at best. They used backtesting, picking a random fossil free index and comparing it to their returns over the last ten years. There are plenty of socially responsible indexes they could have chosen, many of which have done better than major ones like the S&P500. It is impossible to prove distinctly that divestment won’t hurt the endowment, but it seems very unlikely that it will considering the future uncertainty of fossil fuel stocks given the carbon bubble argument. 17 major foundations with over $2 billion just divested, joining dozens of cities like SF and Seattle as well several campuses. The only consequences so far have been good press and a clean conscience. The divestment activists aren’t unreasonable, they just want a serious conversation.

        In terms of need blind, Brown lost a third of its endowment in the 2008 crash and aid went up 11% so there is no reason that it should ever be at risk if the endowment is managed properly.

        • alum

          It’s not that the fossil free indices are poor performers – it’s ending relationships with managers and imposing restrictions on managers that could hurt the endowment. As for Bowdoin’s analysis, Tufts came up with something similar, as have other schools. Clearly, it’s not something that can easily be defined or calculated, and there is some short-term financial risk involved. Not sure if Wesleyan, with its current endowment situation, is in the best position to take on additional risk right now.

          As for need-blind, Brown’s endowment per student is larger than Wesleyan’s, and Brown only went need blind in 2007 (only for US students). Indeed, as you said, there is no reason that it should ever be at risk, if the endowment is properly managed. The problem is, it wasn’t managed properly at Wesleyan from 1970 until 2010 (mostly due to overspending and lack of soliciting donations, not investment performance). The ship is righted, but it’ll take time to get resources back to where need blind is sustainable.

          • earth other

            If they do divest, it would be over a period of 5 years or possibly more which is plenty of time to do it responsibly.

          • pyrotechnics

            I also want to add that, in comparison to Brown, Wes also lost about a third of its (much smaller) endowment after 2007 and by 2012 financial aid had increased by… 48%.

            Although I don’t know where you got your 11% from so maybe I’m comparing apples and pears.