Additionally, many campuses are bastions of economic inequality. American higher education has become a caste system for faculty, in which the lucky few enjoy permanent, tenured jobs while three-quarters are untenured and more than half, on average, are “adjuncts”—temporary teachers paid, barely, on a per-class basis. The result can be catastrophic for both faculty and their students. The U.S. News ranking does account for the proportion of faculty who are full-time, but only as 1 percent of the overall measure, and in a way that can exclude adjuncts’ low pay from the faculty salary calculation, too. And for students, the skyrocketing cost of higher education has made earning a degree a struggle for all but the wealthiest families.
COVID-19 won’t last forever, or so we hope. Even if the virus persists as a long-term human affliction, there is confidence that treatments, vaccines, and other methods will help manage it. The “novel” coronavirus will cease to be so novel, and its immediate impact on daily life will abate.
But colleges and universities will still have to address a variety of threats and injustices, and should be held accountable for how they choose to do so.
College rankings are bad. They fan the flames of economic inequality, reinforce a Matthew effect in educational opportunity, and degrade the civic function of higher education. It is never possible to capture evanescent properties like educational quality, let alone equity, with metrics shoehorned into statistical models. In 2005, Washington Monthly launched its own rankings, seeking to evaluate universities based on their contribution to the public good. It is not as influential as the U.S. News ranking, and it still tries to boil racial, economic, and medical justice down to a “score.” But if colleges must be scored, then let us judge them based on the justice they produce, not just the wealth they accrue. That would motivate their leaders to make real progress, and not just to pay lip service to these goals so the fundraising and test-score boosting can continue.
The obsession of many college leaders with preserving or improving campus metrics, rather than human lives, is a disgrace. The coronavirus offers these leaders an opportunity to demonstrate an actual commitment to social welfare and justice. That will be a difficult change for college presidents, provosts, deans, and other executives. They will have to redirect resources and revise goals. They will have to fight new battles with trustees, boards, and chancellors. They will have to stick their necks out; some might risk getting fired. But that’s what leaders are paid to do.
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