A school of architecture received a probationary accreditation and needed to improve its image quickly, so the head of the school wrote letters to alumni urging them to respond to a survey to determine the top schools in the country. Although the school had had a relatively low rating the year before, that mobilization of alumni propelled the school to the number one rank, even though colleagues around the country knew about the probationary accreditation. The organization that produced the ranking saw the school as simply promoting participation in the survey, although others saw it as an attempt to game the system, raising questions about the school and the ranking system itself.
As rankings have become an ever more important way for prospective students to assess the quality of schools, the stakes in getting a good ranking have also increased. A rapid drop in the rankings might mean that a university will disinvest in a program or worse, consider shutting it down, just as a meteoric rise in the rankings can lead to an increase in applications and investment. These rankings systems have real consequences not just in attracting the best students, but also in terms of a school’s survival.
Rapid rises or falls in the ranking of schools, however, should serve as a red flag. Because of the stability of the faculty and the tuition and endowments that fund their salaries, the quality of most schools and colleges do not change that much from year to year and neither should their relative rank. If a dramatic change does occur, it raises questions about the credibility of the school, the ranking system, or both. Once someone has begun to game the system – figuring out how to manipulate the results while remaining within the rules – it increases the likelihood that others will do the same out of cynicism about the whole process.
Some professional school rankings have long suffered from such cynical gamesmanship. Law school rankings, for instance, ask how many former students are employed nine months after graduation, and so schools will often put unemployed recent graduates on the law-school payroll during that particular month in order to boost the number of employed graduates and with it, the ranking of the school. While costly to the school – and a short-term benefit to employed graduates – that practice shows the extent to which, once one school has started to game the system, they all do, making that particular criteria, and maybe the rankings themselves, meaningless as a result.
That law schools engage in such practices shows that it isn’t illegal. But is it ethical? By almost any measure, the answer is no. Gaming a system to increase the ranking of a school violates such virtues as fairness and prudence, revealing a complete disregard for competing with others on a level playing field and a serious lack of good judgment in taking advantage of one’s peers. It also represents an abrogation of one’s duty to engage honestly with one’s colleagues, doing to others what a school would not like being done to them. And, it demonstrates a failure to assess long-term consequences. Whatever the short-term gain, gaming a system will either lead to others doing the same, as has happened among law schools, or to others dismissing the game itself. It may appear that this architecture school has rocketed to the top of the rankings, but it has actually rocketed to the bottom of everyone else’s estimation and esteem, which is the only ranking, in the end, that really matters.