Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson

Chancellor Elwood Robinson gives his opening remarks at Winston-Salem State University commencement in May.

The annual U.S. News college rankings came out three days ago, and I’ve been chasing hurricane-related college closings pretty much non-stop since then, but I want to come back to Winston-Salem State’s decision not to participate that I touched on only briefly earlier this week.

Every so often schools boycott the U.S. News rankings. In 2007, a bunch of small private liberal arts colleges (none from N.C.) declined to submit the reputational survey that now comprises 20 percent of each school’s grade. This year, Grand Canyon University, University of Missouri-Kansas City, William Peace University in Raleigh and Tuskegee University are among the schools that didn’t fill out the magazine’s statistical survey. (U.S. News notes the absence of data but doesn’t say whether it's sloth or recalcitrance.)

One school that intentionally opted out this year is Winston-Salem State. In a Sept. 6 letter to WSSU students and employees, Chancellor Elwood Robinson wrote that the university is “deliberately” sitting this one out. The TL,DR version is that Robinson thinks WSSU does some things really well that aren’t reflected in the U.S. News ranks.

As Robinson wrote: “We believe the rankings do not measure the metrics we feel are important: the number of low-income students admitted and graduated, the low cost of tuition, and the high employment outcomes after graduation.”

Here’s more from Inside Higher Ed, which mentions Winston-Salem State in its report on how U.S. News changed its rankings formula to include some measure of social mobility. At first blush you might think that this tinkering might help schools like Winston-Salem State. But Robinson is having none of it.

(An aside: Inside Higher Ed remains skeptical about the change because — surprise, surprise — the No. 1 school for the eighth straight year is Princeton. As the story notes, the U.S. News rankings still have a big fat thumb on the scale for schools that accept the most accomplished students, spend a lot of money and have outsized reputations partly because of those first two factors I mentioned.)

Back to WSSU. I reached out to the university after I saw the Inside Higher Ed report. University spokesman Jay Davis responded by email although the school was in the middle of trying to figure out how to respond to Hurricane Florence. (Like a lot of N.C. colleges, WSSU is closed for the week.)

Here are my questions and Davis' replies with some tiny edits for style and clarity:

Me: Why did WSSU feel the need to put out a statement instead of just letting the U.S. News rankings release day pass without notice?

Davis: Chancellor Robinson is passionate about creating equity in higher education and the need to close the widening academic success gap in the United States. This is an issue he has spoken about extensively in the community.

For several years, WSSU has declined to fill out the annual peer evaluations from U.S. News & World Report.

Rather than focusing on the U.S. News rankings, we have promoted rankings that are closer to our mission as a minority-serving institution and better reflect what we do. Two examples are Money Magazine’s best value rankings and the Social Mobility Index rankings. (Editor's note: WSSU is ninth nationally on the SMI.)

Last year, Dr. Robinson was asked a few questions, primarily at meetings with alumni, about the rankings. He responded in much the same way as he did in his letter on Thursday to students, faculty and staff.

This year, Dr. Robinson decided to take a proactive stand, distributing a letter before the rankings were announced. This allowed him to talk about WSSU’s historical mission and what the university values most. He also hoped this would continue the national conversation on what we value most in higher education.

Me: What sort of response, if any, have you gotten from faculty / students / staff / alums / community?

Davis: The response has been tremendously positive. We also see this as opening the conversation, especially in the university community, on what’s most important. Chancellor Robinson talked about the rankings on his new radio show on Thursday. He also shared information on Saturday at a National Alumni Association meeting.

On Friday, HBCU Digest … called Dr. Robinson’s letter “long overdue from the HBCU community.”

Me: Any regrets for not participating? And what about next year?

Davis: We have no regrets. By writing and sending a letter about the rankings, Chancellor Robinson has helped to spark a conversation here on campus and elsewhere about what is most important.

We do not anticipate that WSSU will participate in the rankings in next year.


My thanks to Jay Davis for the quick response.

One final note: Just because you don't want to play ball with U.S. News doesn't mean you're not in the game. In its FAQ about its rankings, U.S. News has this to say about schools that don't return surveys:

Nonresponders are still included in the rankings if they are eligible to be ranked. For schools that were eligible to be ranked but refused to fill out the U.S. News statistical survey in spring 2018, U.S. News has made extensive use of the statistical data those institutions were required to report to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

And, yes, Winston-Salem State appears in this year's U.S. News rankings. You can click here to find WSSU's ranking for yourself, but the chancellor probably would prefer that you didn't.

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