Opinion: Doing Something Different than a #31 Rank

Earlier this month, US News & World Report released their annual ranking of national universities, placing Boston College at #31 for the second consecutive year. This news was greeted warmly by BC’s administration, but I’m not quite sure why. It seems to me that the US News rankings, while bearing limited usefulness as a means of comparison between schools, do little to measure the core elements of our mission at Boston College. The rankings focus on the assessments of other college administrators, student retention rate, and faculty resources, among other things. While one might imagine some correlation between these measures and BC’s stated mission, what we’re trying to do here, particularly as a Catholic university, surely goes well beyond what can be demonstrated by the SAT scores of incoming students or the percentage of alumni who donate to the annual fund. As Jason Welle put it at The Jesuit Post, “are we just trying to play a better game…or aren’t we really trying to do something different altogether?”

In principle, there is no problem with rankings, and neither US News’ nor BC’s claim that the rankings completely capture the quality of our, or any, institution. But it is naïve to pretend that the prominence of rankings, and their power to create “prestige,” does not impact the behavior of universities. The classic example of this phenomenon is Northeastern University, which has consciously targeted metrics used by US News to guide its efforts at institutional reform. I’m not accusing BC of doing the same, but discussions about what we can do to further improve our ranking strike me as asking the wrong question. To me, the rankings signify that we are the 31st best school in the country at something that is measured by the rankings; whether that has anything to do with our mission is a totally different, and seemingly more important, question.

Of course, all of this begs a different question: what is our mission? Should we care about being a “top school” at all? My argument is that we should not, precisely because we understand and present ourselves as a Jesuit, Catholic institution. In my mind, this designation has little to do with the physical presence of a Jesuit community on campus, or the administration’s position on social issues. Being a Jesuit university means aspiring and striving to become a community of people for others, most of all those Others who reside outside the boundaries of our cozy little bubble. Being a Catholic university indicates that the paradigmatic example for our practice of being for others is Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Palestinian Jewish rabbi who lived among the excluded and was executed by Roman imperial authorities.

While one must be careful not to generalize about Jesus’ message, at a minimum we can say that he had a mission. It seems to follow that a university organized around a community professing to follow him in a missionary way is categorically different from a secular university. This is to say, BC should not understand itself in the same way as Harvard, and we should not judge ourselves by the same standards. Inasmuch as the Church is called to be “in the world, but not of it,” a Catholic university must be deeply skeptical of the standards of judgment deployed by “the world.” If BC truly aspires to follow a despised, rejected and crucified man, who praised those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, what consolation may we find in the accolades of the world?

Of course, there is a tradeoff here: Given that BC does things differently, (despite occasional assimilation to the ways of the world) isn’t it better to have a broader appeal for our mission, even at the price of branding ourselves in a certain way? On the other hand, how much of the radical nature of the Catholic tradition are we willing to give up in order to, shall we say, gain the whole world? There is no clear answer, though I would argue that it is precisely the tension of these polar opposites in which BC’s mission should be negotiated and enacted. Framing the problem in such a way affirms, at a minimum, that the tension is there and that the standards of the Church are not the standards of the world. To put it another way, Jesus would not have done very well in the US News & World Report rankings. As a Catholic institution, we must constantly call into question the powers that be, not to devalue “the world” against a sometimes abstract notion of “the Church,” but rather in recognition of the historical heritage we claim and the different standard to which we are called.

Maybe it isn’t the place of a non-Catholic student to insinuate that BC isn’t adequately, or properly, Catholic. My argument is somewhat hypocritical, to the extent that I, like many of us, likely wouldn’t be here if BC hadn’t presented itself as a “prestigious” option. Still, on some basic level, we’re looking at two different standards of communal and individual success: US News & World Report has one. The Gospels provide another. If there is a prosperous future for a genuinely Catholic institution in an increasingly secularized world, it is to be discerned in the productive tension between those two options.

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