When US News & World Report releases its annual college rankings, university and college administrators indulge in their annual display of cognitive dissonance: decrying the rankings as nothing more than an academic beauty contest, while whispering to their aides, "Where did we land?"
No doubt, critics of the rankings will point to the minor firestorm that erupted this spring when a Clemson University official admitted to gaming the system as evidence that the US News poll is fatally flawed.
As president of a college that, a few years back, moved into the Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges in the magazine's survey, I'd be lying if I said that our ratings in US News don't matter to us. They do.
Among college presidents, the rankings issue is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue of academia — everybody looks at it, but few admit to liking it. In the absence of a more effective system — and surely in this age of Google algorithms and World's Sexiest Man polls there must be a better way — let me offer a few modest proposals for success in getting your college better ratings.
Summer in the Hamptons: Nothing is more effective than personal contact. US News publisher and real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman likes to vacation there. Perhaps a wealthy trustee can buy an estate that your college can turn into a research center. Invite Mort over for tennis. Invite Countess Luann de Lesseps (the star of "The Real Housewives of New York City") over. Mingle. Discuss. Maybe something good will happen.
Trump your campus: Get Donald Trump to put his name on something on campus. It shouldn't be hard to convince him. This master of self-promotion gets fawning press coverage for whatever he's involved with. Plus your architecture faculty can initiate a research project to determine how his hair remains in place.
Send gifts: To be honest, sending merchandise to buy votes from colleagues in the US News reputational survey probably won't work — in large part because the president rarely gets to see the goodies sent (other administrators snag them beforehand). So, to make an impression, think big. Send a car. It worked for Oprah. And this year is the perfect time. You can probably get a great deal on a fleet of American brands.
Double your faculty: One of the most important criteria in the survey is small class size. If your institution has lots of classes with more than 20 students in them, just hire twice the faculty. Of course, in this economy that move will bankrupt your university, and when the crisis is over, thanks to tenure, you'll have hundreds of professors with very little to do. But go for it anyway and you'll move up at least three slots.
Work very hard: At any college or university, or business for that matter, be innovative, encourage risk-taking, insist on striving for improvement, constantly evaluate programs, empower every employee to influence policy, and have fun while you're doing it.
That last one is not very tongue-in-cheek, but it's really the only way to ensure that families recognize the quality of an institution. If you're fortunate enough to get a student to visit the campus, the quality of the educational program should be apparent at the end of the day. If the student is still unmoved, then whatever college he or she is touring has some work to do — or that college is unsuited to that student. (Don't despair, it happens to all of us.)
Do we really need a poll to tell us that Harvard and Yale are good schools? With their billion-dollar endowments and huge faculties, they'd better be. Don't bother gaming the US News rankings system, because good work is always rewarded. If you're doing things right, students and families will recognize that.
Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., which is ranked 85th in the US News Top Liberal Arts Colleges. He'd like it to be higher, much higher, but it's not the focus of his life.