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.
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