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Perspectives: Using White Privilege To Rank Black Colleges

Just over a month ago, days after U.S. News & World Report released the “America’s Best Colleges” rankings, editor Brian Kelly was in Little Rock, Ark., to lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. This date was on my calendar for months, as I was excited about an opportunity to question Mr. Kelly publicly.

I had crunched the numbers, comparing top-tier versus bottom-tier schools for national universities, national liberal arts schools, Southern master’s and Southern baccalaureate colleges and universities. I used the South since that is where we find most HBCUs. I went armed to ask Mr. Kelly why his methodology promotes discrimination against groups which make up a significant portion of America.

When recognized, I asked:

The top half of the top-tier national schools have one-third the total of low income students, one-fifth the total of Black students, and one-tenth the total of non-traditional students of bottom tier schools. Since Black, poor and non-traditional students generally have lower SAT scores, are retained and graduate at lower levels than White, affluent and traditional students, aren’t you rewarding those, with few exceptions, that enroll a minimum number of students from these groups while penalizing those of us who serve these students?

He seemed to have never considered that fact. So he rambled for about five minutes, rarely looking directly at me. A number of people chuckled as they commented to me afterwards, “He didn’t answer your question.” He weakly ended his “answer” by saying that the rankings don’t try to drive behavior, and that what I described were “societal issues” for which they have no responsibility.

He did, however, articulate what U.S. News values: wealth and exclusivity. When challenged by a Clinton School professor, he confidently stated and our local newspaper reported, “Wealth matters in American society. There’s no question about it. Exclusivity matters — inputs are important. Fame matters. Reputation is something that is a proxy for other things.”

Kelly’s position is an example of White privilege. This mindset purports that institutions, organizations, and even people who are not of certain backgrounds, attributes, influence and wealth, can be ignored and dismissed.

Unless, of course, there is a way to profit from the have-nots.

Therefore, U.S. News now decides to apply this mindset to rank Black colleges. The magazine took the exact same categories, using the exact same point system, to now sell a magazine that purports to tell the reader which Black colleges are the best. They asked Black college administrators to provide the peer assessment, but only 38 percent responded. So 25 percent of the score was determined by 93 somewhat informed people.

White privilege allows Kelly to completely ignore the unique nature of HBCUs, their mission, history and challenges, and simply impose his money, power and respect methodology on them. I am willing to bet none of the parties who developed this ranking system have any scholarly, theoretical or practical understanding of the Black college experience. Again, privilege doesn’t require the magazine to take this into account. It is inconsequential.

While in Little Rock, Kelly said “America’s Best Colleges” separates institutions by mission, so national universities are ranked together, as are liberal arts, master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges. He said this allows them to compare “apples to apples.” Black colleges fall into all four categories, but all are ranked together. How can you quantitatively compare my school with no graduate programs to Howard that has a medical school and a law school?

That didn’t matter. They just dumped all the Black schools together. They’re all the same.

Black colleges are competitive, maybe even more so than other institutions. We brag about our teams, our bands, even our queens. We all want to be the best, even if in our own minds. And while a ranking might be fine, Brian Kelly and U.S. News have no business applying their privileged notions of quality on institutions for which they have no knowledge on or appreciation for.

The Black college experience is more complex than what their current metrics evaluate. They can’t measure the level of social consciousness on our campuses, places that birthed the Civil Rights movement and its leaders. Even recently, as thousands marched in Jena, La., the core of the young people there were Black college students. U.S. News won’t measure this, which means Philander Smith College receives no credit for 20 percent of our entire student body marching in Jena, most likely higher than any school in the nation.

With an ambitious student body grounded as advocates for social justice attending a very progressive college, being validated by privilege is not on our agenda.

Justice is. 

Dr. Walter Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.

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