List Server

by John J. Miller on May 18, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

My NRO podcast victim this week is Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World. He has a longstanding interest in higher education. Before joining the Kauffman Foundation, Ben was education editor of U.S. News & World Report. You know what that means. He had a hand in putting together the most controversial list of colleges this side of the BCS–i.e., the U.S. News annual rankings of best colleges. He also took calls from angry presidents and deans.

Attacking the U.S. News list is a favorite hobby of the academic class. Yet I’m a qualified defender of the rankings. Here’s what I wrote about them three years ago:

Colleges and universities are among the least accountable institutions in American life. Private companies must report profits and losses to their shareholders. Even K-12 public schools, which the government protects from genuine competition, increasingly post standardized test scores on websites, allowing parents to assess their performance. The higher-education sector faces nothing similar. It remains shrouded in mystique — and it would like to keep things that way, so that it may continue to live in its cozy cocoon of tenure, sabbaticals, and parents who are willing to foot exorbitant tuition bills.

For all of its flaws, the U.S. News list is a welcome effort to hold colleges and universities accountable–a fate that many would prefer to avoid. In The Great Brain Race, Ben devotes a chapter to measuring institutional success: “Rankings seem destined to be a fixture on the global education scene for years to come. Detractors notwithstanding, as they are refined and improved they can and should play an important role in helping universities get better.”

That’s a good thing.

For those who are wondering: Yes, Ben is the son of the late Aaron Wildavsky. Ben dedicated The Great Brain Race to him.

Next week’s podcast: Andrew McCarthy on The Grand Jihad.

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