An Ode to My Alma Mater (University of Florida): "To Move Up in The Ranking World, Only to Lose
Did you know, Christmas for many boards of trustees, enrollment offices, and presidents happened yesterday? By that I mean that the U.S. News & World Report released their annual “rankings” of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. I compare it to Christmas because some universities wake up to find just what they wanted (moving up in the rankings), while others receive coal in the form of dropping into a lower tier, near schools that they consider themselves better than (for example). The critiques of this academic rat race are a mile wide and you can find some of the hot takes here, here, here, and if you have more scholarly proclivities, here, here, and here.
While I largely agree with the macro-critique of rankings, what’s prompting me to write this blog is much more personal than the annual lament about the college rankings. Anyone that knows me will quickly tell you that I am a HUGE Florida Gator fan.
Not only am I a proud alum but the University of Florida (UF) is a critical part of my family tree and social network. My mom and sister are both alumnae (x3 in my sister's case)
of UF and I’ve also had three cousins and close family friends attend UF. My time at UF was transformative and is very much a major reason why I study higher education. UF isn’t perfect, by any means as recent scandals make clear, but I know first hand how the school changed my and my friends' family trees for the better through a strong educational experience, generous scholarship programs, and the unparalleled “Gator Nation” network.
So back to the rankings. Shortly after I graduated in 2011, then President Bernie Machen and the Board of Trustees initiated the UF Preeminence Campaign. It’s a pretty involved strategic effort,so I'll spare you the details, but generally it included growing the university endowment, hiring tons of new professors, remodeling and constructing new campus buildings, experimenting with alternative enrollment models, and winning national championships in a range of sports (j.k., that has happened, but for unrelated reasons #TitleTown).
All these preeminence efforts were undertaken with the laser like focus of moving UF into the top 10 public universities with the perennial dwellers like Cal Berkeley, Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, UVA, and UCLA. UF has always been the best university in Florida (UM ranked ahead for just a year, call it an accident), but it wanted to be recognized nationally for more than just Tim Tebow, Back to Back basketball championships, and Gatorade.
Per, UF's Office of Institutional Planning and Research, around when I graduated in 2011, UF was tied for 58 among national universities and 19th among public universities (oh the horrors). Last year UF ranked 14th among public universities, and yesterday, it was announced that UF finally cracked the top 10, tying for 9th (42nd Overall) with UC San Diego and UC Irvine.
You’d think as a proud alum, I’d be pumped! Yay for the perceived value of my degree going up. Yay for UF setting a goal to be a top 10 public school and achieving it despite a less than agreeable governor and at times a contentious state legislature.
But... I am not excited. I’m sad because I know a little bit about UF’s dirty little secret. It’s understood but not well-known, that Universities can and do try to game the U.S. News Rankings by focusing on variables that the U.S. News values. Let's hear U.S. News explain their "methodology" (with my added snark):
The U.S. News ranking system rests on two pillars. The formula uses exclusively statistical quantitative and qualitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality (um, false because there’s no agreed on definition of “academic quality”), and it is based on U.S. News' researched view of what matters in education (so wonderfully subjective).
To calculate the rankings, U.S. News gathers data from each college on up to 15 indicators of academic excellence (this is where we start to run into trouble).
The indicators are scored, normalized and assigned weights that reflect U.S. News' judgment about how much the measures matter (also highly problematic and changes from year to year). Next, the weighted values are summed and transformed so that each eligible school receives an overall score between 0 and 100, with the top school(s) in each category scoring 100. Finally, colleges and universities are ranked against their peers in descending order of their overall scores (a fancy way of saying we pit schools against each other to incentivize schools to try to move in the rankings).
One of those “indicators of academic excellence” the U.S. News ranks very high is ACT/SAT scores (which U.S. News buries underneath "Student Selectivity"). One thing not noted in UF’s glitzy campaign for Preeminence was that on the low, the institution started to raise it’s ACT/SAT standards in an effort to become more selective, which helps its scores and bumps up its perceived reputation. Despite all the evidence that ACT/SAT are only strong predictors of student’s first year in college and are inequitable measures for students of color and poor students (for an overview, check this out), UF and other universities still turn to this strategy to help their rankings.
So why does all this matter? I’m by no means asserting “causation” because I recognize that there are A LOT of variables at play with this situation but look at the graph below showing black undergraduate enrollment at UF since 2005:
Almost 1,400 less black undergraduates at UF. "Yay Preeminence!"
I get that this will come off as reductionist but It just feels like my beloved alma mater's effort to raise ACT/SAT scores and pursue Preeminence has decimated the black community at UF, with no end in sight.
A story I used to tell on my Florida Cicerone tours to prospective students and their families and a little known fact about me is that I was actually "wait-listed" from UF when I applied in 2006. I scored 1060 (out of 1600) on my SAT and UF wanted to see my first semester senior year grades before deciding on my application that spring. Thankfully, I got in (thanks affirmative action, j.k. that's not how affirmative action works). Then, I was almost put on academic probation during my sophomore year at UF. But thanks to a supportive community of black peers at UF, caring student affairs professionals, and the only black male professor I had while at UF, I was able to get my academics back on track and narrowly missed graduating with honors (still mad I got a B in my orientation leaders class).
I needed to be at a place like UF; I had the talent and potential but I needed to mature and learn a work ethic and the organizational skills that other students were bringing to the community. I’d like to think my leadership and service to the school enhanced the space for others too. That “educational benefit of diversity,” the ability to bring together people of different talents, cultures, and backgrounds, to live, learn, and work with each other is what makes UF preeminent in my mind. Yet, I fully recognize there’s no chance that if I was applying to UF today that I or a student like me would be admitted. That’s a shame and we know from research that declines like this will only exacerbate issues of racism and isolation on campus that impacts the learning environment for all students but especially the few remaining black students on campus.
Matthew 16:26 (NLT) reads: And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?
As a public, land-grant, space-grant, sea-grant, funded in-part by tax-payer money institution and a place with an institutional legacy fraught with a tepid, at best, record of making space for people of color and especially black people, I ask UF, how does it feel to achieve preeminence but lose your soul on the way, in terms of making space and providing educational experiences for students on the margins?
I’m actually a fan of President Fuchs (and the work he did at Cornell around diversity as Provost) and see the efforts other folks like Will Atkins, Dacia Bowra, and Christina Scott in admissions, are doing in the trenches. Keep on fighting, we black alum see you.
I’m a proud life member of the alumni association and will continue to love my school ... but as Cornell West says, “Justice is what love looks like in Public” so this is just a small effort to hold the institution I love accountable and promote justice in how it goes about improving its rankings. We can and must do better!