Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2007
During his address at Smith last spring, the Dalai Lama argued that we should never rate a particular belief system, or a particular way of life, as "the best." Using medical treatment as an example, he reminded his audience of the importance of diversity, individuality, and choice.
"You cannot say that this one medicine is the best and use only that medicine for every illness," he explained. "We need lots of variety, and I think that is much better."
This perspective resonates with me as I think about the wide variety of higher education institutions in this country. As controversy continues around the college rankings industry, institutions of all types and missions are rightly frustrated by the reductionist and pseudoscientific ways they are presented for media consumption.
What does it mean to be "the best" college or university—if not to live up to your mission with as much commitment and integrity as possible? How can there be a single "best" for everyone?
This issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly contains the Smith Design for Learning, a core element of the strategic plan that will guide us as we sustain and strengthen the excellence of a Smith education over the coming decade. I am proud of its clarity and vision, particularly since the reflections of alumnae informed so much of our thinking about the powerful intellectual and personal capacities conveyed in the Smith experience.
When you read the Smith Design, you will see that we have revisited the college's mission statement, seeking to express, with clarity and conviction, the values that make the college distinctive: "Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. A college of and for the world, Smith links the power of the liberal arts to excellence in research and scholarship, developing leaders for society's challenges."
That is our mission, and these, then, are our values:
The Smith Design emphasizes commitments to international and cross-cultural study, ecological sustainability, community engagement, and the primacy of scholarly research—and sets the goals by which we will define excellence. The Smith Design is not a checklist to produce rankings qualifications; it is a commitment to student learning and to creating rewarding lives for women.
There is no question that the U.S. News and World Report rankings have had a pernicious effect on higher education. A ranking derived from a uniform algorithm, one that essentially measures inputs over outputs, cannot measure the success with which an individual college is living up to its mission. Case in point: the selectivity measure. With only half the population to draw from, women's colleges have to work twice as hard to attract applicant pools comparable to those of co-ed colleges.
Rankings don't reflect the fact that Smith has led the nation in the number of Fulbright scholars from liberal arts colleges—and that's just one example of the awards our faculty and students garner every year. Rankings don't show the number of opportunities Smith offers for student-faculty research, work that prepares our students for highly competitive graduate schools and careers.
In fact, such rankings penalize Smith for success in its mission, pitting two of the college's values—quality and access—in direct competition. This happens because the U.S. News and World Report rankings strongly reward institutional financial resources. While Smith's endowment is generous, our student body of 2,700 is significantly larger than that of many of our peers (notably Wellesley, 2,300 students; Williams, 2,000 students; Amherst, 1,600 students). This size difference affects the endowment-per-student figure in the ranking matrix.
While our size compared to our peers lowers our score, we are committed to increasing the endowment rather than reducing the size of the student body, honoring our institutional commitment to make a Smith education accessible to as many talented, high-achieving women as possible.
The variety of colleges and universities in this country is a unique strength, providing millions of excellent students with a range of exceptional choices. The only "best" college for a student is the one that is a match to her gifts and aspirations, the right setting for her to flourish. As an alumna, you have many reasons to be proud of Smith, our faculty, and particularly our students, as they discover and develop that which is best in themselves.