At the Methodist school I attended years ago, the principal would announce the school’s achievements in an annual speech. He would talk about academic competitions, sports prizes, and other honors that our institution had won.
But the biggest focus of the speech always seemed to be the annual school rankings, where the local education ministry would rank the schools. Students, parents, and teachers alike would ask questions on how our school was faring, and whether our school was making progress. By and large, the dominant ethos seemed to be the Barry Goldwater theme: “Why Not Victory?”
What brought this to mind was a recent report buried in Google.
According to the latest results released by Times Higher Education, which ranks universities, Stanford was ranked behind six Ivy League schools, MIT, Chicago, Cambridge, and Oxford. We were ranked a dismal 16th. That’s the bad news.
And the good news? We were ranked 17th last year. We’ve improved one notch.
Of course, there have been criticisms of university rankings in general, and the Times rankings in particular. Some say that the formula used by the Times is subjective. But the formula doesn’t seem to affect Harvard, which has always taken top spot, or Yale, which has rotated between second and third. How does the Times formula affect us and not them?
Can the Stanford administration—whose jobs and bonuses depend on the perpetuation of academic excellence in this school—do something more to help make this institution number one? And can the student body be mobilized to that end?
Today, we seem to have an unspoken rule that one must not speak about rankings because they invoke feelings of competitiveness. Of course, this rule is a charade: we regulate only the speech, but not the sentiment. For many, rankings may not be everything, but they aren’t nothing. And if we’re going to be ranked no matter what, why not play to win? Why not victory?
Although Stanford used to be ranked first in the U.S. News rankings back in the 1980s, we have since lost that spot to the Ivy trinity of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Since then, Stanford hasn’t been ranked in the top three in quite some time. What’s happened?
Some folks go to the extent of calling rankings unfair: “How do you reduce an institution to a mere number?” But in reality, we all do that all the time. We rank football teams and tennis players. We rank entire countries by their GDP. We rank companies in Forbes and the Fortune 500. And we rank schools, because rankings indicate excellence.
In sports, we demand nothing less than excellence. Watching the Stanford-UCLA football game on October 3, which the Cardinal won 24-16, one feels an enormous sense of pride. We see why Coach Jim Harbaugh receives contracts worth millions of dollars, six-footers like Andrew Luck fill the football team, and students crowd into Facebook groups like “Toby Gerhart for Heisman.” (Gerhart deserves it; he scored three touchdowns against the Bruins).
Stanford people are an enormously competitive bunch. We care greatly about getting jobs in firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. We seek seats in Congress and the Supreme Court. We aspire to cure cancer and AIDS. We shoot for Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals.
Surely Stanford can find a way to beat the Ivies in the college rankings. Why not victory?