Portrait of Sol Gittleman with the cover of his book An Accidental Triumph

“Americans have become addicted to rankings.” An excerpt from Sol Gittleman’s new book

Our distribution partner Vesto Books published their first book earlier this month: Sol Gittleman’s An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education. An Accidental Triumph tells the engaging story of how American higher education evolved from a patchwork of seminaries in the early nineteenth century into the world’s leader in research by the middle of the twentieth. Gittleman – professor emeritus at Tufts University who served as the provost from 1981-2002 – writes with authority, frankness, and unfailing wry good humor.

In 1983 U.S. News & World Report was the third-ranking weekly news magazine in America, well behind Time and Newsweek in weekly sales and subscriptions. U.S. News needed help to survive. That help came in the form of an editorial brainstorm that the magazine would publish an issue ranking colleges and universities across the country by undergraduate reputation. The first listing appeared in 1983. The editors put together arbitrary criteria, including endowment, alumni giving, opinions of other college presidents, and more than a dozen other data points that contributed to “the list.” Questionnaires were sent out to large numbers of post-secondary institutions all over the country. Remarkably, sensing that something important might be happening and not wanting to be left out, most responded. Actually the editors made two lists: one for undergraduate colleges and another for “universities,” although one university appeared on the college list and one college on the university list. Some interest was shown by the public; a second ranking appeared two years later in 1985 and a third in 1987, and by that time Americans were hooked. The annual U.S. News & World Report rankings became the most widely anticipated list in the magazine publishing world, and American higher education was changed forever. There soon followed a “rankings industry,” with dozens of publications including the Wall Street Journal and London Times issuing their own higher education prestige ladders and competing methodologies. But U.S. News, which had got there first, had discovered the golden goose and how to exploit the American obsession with prestige. It eventually published rankings of hospitals, cars, diets, high schools, law firms, vacations, cruises, and health insurance. Americans have become addicted to rankings.

The rankings also meant that American higher education became a topic of much greater significance for the American public than ever in its history. The pros and cons of this public interest and the impact of the rankings game have been and will be argued for years. The hunt for prestige has been blamed for everything perceived as wrong with American colleges and universities: escalating tuition prices, spurring harmful admission practices, corrupting college presidents and their boards of trustees—encouraging institutions to do anything necessary to boost their rankings. What had previously been limited to the sports page—rankings of the top basketball or football programs in the country by sportswriters—was henceforth applied to academic prestige. Colleges and universities in the 1980s were now officially “big news” across the country. Higher education was making national headlines, and there was money to be made in writing about students and faculty. All that was needed next was a popular trade journal dedicated exclusively to colleges and universities.

“The hunt for prestige has been blamed for everything perceived as wrong with American colleges and universities: escalating tuition prices, spurring harmful admission practices, corrupting college presidents and their boards of trustees—encouraging institutions to do anything necessary to boost their rankings.”

That void was filled by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which had first appeared in November 1966. Initially it was a stately publication that took a decidedly detached, scholarly, and studious look at the issues affecting the professionals who worked in the field. The front-page of the first issue had a photo of the new MIT president, Howard Johnson, a below-the-fold discussion of federal grants, and a lead article about the anticipated actions of Congress in 1967. The Chronicle accepted no advertising, was incorporated as a nonprofit, and had no editorial position. It was supported by grants from the Carnegie Foundation and the Ford Foundation. However, in 1978, the publication was sold to its editors, became a for-profit corporation, started soliciting advertisements, and added an editorial page. It remained a weekly, but it was poised to become much more of a headline-grabbing newspaper than its origins would have predicted. In 1997, with the coming of the Internet, the Chronicle of Higher Education became more prominent, and American colleges and universities were in the crosshairs of public interest and a new journalism. The Chronicle headlines mimicked the more sensational print media. Scandals, failures, embezzlements, sexual activities from the top to the bottom of the academic world, and campus chaos provided red meat for anyone seeking evidence that the higher educa tion “industry” was in extremis. The Chronicle became the profession’s primary trade journal, with often scorching  headlines examining the endless problems that its report ers uncovered on campus. It also produced a cadre of investigative journalists who went on to write muckraking books with titles to match, such as The End of College, There Is Life after College, and American Higher Education in Crisis? Even the tone and titles of books written by traditionally trained academics writing about American col leges and universities and published by university presses picked up on the Chronicle’s voice: Our Underachieving Colleges, Academically Adrift, and The Fall of the Faculty.

Johns Hopkins University Press, the oldest continuously operating American university press, published books with titles such as What Ever Happened to the Faculty?, The Future of Academic Freedom, and The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance, echoing the same anxiety and chaos found in the Chronicle’s headlines. Inside Higher Education, published exclusively online and tending toward the sensational, told the faculty to get busy: “[These new books argue] that shared governance is under threat, along with the future of American higher education, and professors must take up the fight.” Not exactly the tone of disinterested scholarly detachment.

Up to the early 1980s one would have been hard-pressed to find a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education on any administrator’s desk. The trustees’ office might have had the only university subscription, generally responding to an urgent plea from the journal for financial support. The same could be said of the U.S. News college ranking issues of 1983 and 1985. Initially, neither trustees nor presidents were interested. By the end of the decade, matters had changed. Parents were paying attention. Consulting and search firms, which formerly had exclusively served the needs of corporate America, began to establish “educational practices” in the 1980s, offering their services to help recruit prestigious presidents, improve institutional images, suggest tactics, and plan communications strategies to get a higher ranking.

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