Finally, a list that matters

Lists fascinate Americans. Compiling them in fact has become an industry that generates untold amounts of revenue, builds life-saving circulation for magazines, provides after-dinner entertainment and causes heartburn for those who get left off them. From the best-dressed to the best-undressed, there seems to be no end to what gets measured.

The nation’s colleges and universities have become the beneficiaries and the victims of these exercises to such an extent that administrators often obsess over how to maintain or improve their standing in the compilations of U.S. News & World Report and other publishers who produce an annual assessment. In some institutions, entire staffs have been employed to try to influence the outcome no matter that the criteria used for the rankings is often suspicious and frequently unfair. Vigorous protests of a low ranking have resulted in a considerable improvement in the next year’s results, casting some doubt on their authenticity.

The stakes are high. Colleges use the ratings to attract students and build endowments, frequently conducting marketing campaigns based on the school’s attainment of a superior ranking among institutions of similar size and academic scope. The categorizing extends not just to the overall quality and standing of a college or university, but also to its place in various concentrations _ the best 100 medical schools, law schools, business schools, chemistry departments, English departments and so forth. Often these become tiers (and tears for those among the lower-ranked), leaving one to feel that his or her degree is less than those from higher-ranked schools:

“Oh, what can you expect, he went to a third-tier law school.”

Yet another list has appeared this year as the fall semester begins. This one doesn’t name the top 25 colleges in the nation on the basis of faculty-to-student ratio or the size of the endowment or the cost of attendance or the reputation among peers whose assessment may or may not come from personal knowledge. Instead, the rating is based on the contribution the institution has made to the welfare of its community. It is a long-overdue approach that measures the school’s stature on the strength of its commitment to helping save the nation’s cities from increasing blight.

Compiled by Evan Dobelle, president and CEO of the New England Board of Higher Education and former president of the University of Hawaii, the list recognizes the “extraordinary efforts” made by schools throughout the United States in contributing to the educational, economic and civic well-being of their surrounding environment. It is a subject Dobelle knows well, having fostered and designed a unique and widely heralded cooperative effort between Trinity College, where he was president for six years, and the city of Hartford, Conn., to revitalize the neighborhood adjacent to the school, the city’s worst.

With an exception here or there, these aren’t the usual top-of-the-list institutions of other compilations. As Dobelle says, “They are not just the remarkable institutions in wonderful and cherished towns like Gainesville or Chapel Hill or Amherst or Bloomington or Lawrence or Davis. Some are famous, others should be.”

The schools from one to 25 are the University of Pennsylvania; University of Southern California; University of Dayton; Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI); Rhode Island School of Design; Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland); Clark University (Worcester, Mass.); Virginia Commonwealth University; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Emerson College (Boston); Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.); Emory University (Atlanta); Mercer University (Macon, Ga.); Middlesex Community College (Lowell, Mass.); Portland (Ore.) State University; Carnegie Mellon University/University of Pittsburgh; George Washington University (Washington); Springfield (Mass.) College; College of Charleston (S.C.); Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.); University of Missouri-Kansas City; Creighton University (Omaha, Neb.); Yale University (New Haven, Conn.); Miami-Dade College, and Tufts University (Boston).

All have figured prominently in lengthy cooperative efforts with community leaders to rehabilitate the cities around them, using their money and expertise to further the projects.

“These are engines of renewal and revitalization in cities and towns that would be spiraling downward in every indices of quality of life without their direct and indirect involvement in neighborhoods and communities,” Dobelle said. He said the criteria included long-term commitment, the amount of real dollars invested from endowments, the relationship with city officials, the continuing student and faculty involvement, and the sustainability of the projects.

Compared to such dubious exercises as the annual ranking of the best party schools, the Dobelle list is a breath of fresh fall air. More institutions should take a big gulp.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)