Washington State University recently convened a “visioning conference” as part of the process for updating the institutional strategic plan. More than 600 faculty, administrators, students and staff from across the state worked in small groups to discuss the values of our institution and how we measure our progress as we Drive to 25, an effort by WSU to be recognized as one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities by 2030.

While Drive to 25 is our rallying cry for exceptionalism, it can also be viewed through the more sterile lens of comparative college rankings. College rankings are typically based on variables such as federal research and development expenditures, number of faculty awards, how much is donated annually, size of endowments, SAT scores, etc.

I picked seven regional universities plus one midwestern university and collected their rankings from U.S. News and World Reports, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Not surprisingly, rankings by these commercial organizations were pretty unflattering for smaller, non-Ivy League schools. For example, WSU was ranked 166 by U.S. News and World Report and 223 by the Wall Street Journal. University of Idaho was ranked 179 and >500, respectively.

WSU has elected to focus on some of the metrics used by an organization called “The Center for Measuring University Performance” at Arizona State University. MUP uses metrics similar to the commercial outfits, but WSU is considered a member of the top 26-50 institutions according to the MUP. As appropriate to our institutional values, WSU is also tracking undergraduates involved in scholarship, placement rates and diversity of faculty, staff and students.

At the conference, I had the pleasure of discussing these topics with two professors from WSU Extension. I think “extension” was mentioned over a dozen times by different discussants as a major strength and opportunity for WSU. One of my extension colleagues told me that he has recruited 25 percent of area high school students into 4-H.

As a parent who has all of his children involved in 4-H (equestrian, poultry, and robotics), I “get” how important such experiences are for learning life skills. Having lived in a relatively poor county during my high school years (Grays Harbor), I also “get” what 4-H can do to engage kids and teach them how to flourish and steer clear of less savory life choices. In fact, I’m wondering if my extension colleague has had a far greater positive impact on the future of Washington State than I’ve managed in my nearly 20 years in the academic ranks.

Ironically, as a research-focused professor, the metrics that always seem to rise to the top for college rankings are the ones for which I can make a solid contribution, whereas my colleagues in extension, humanities and arts probably don’t see themselves in these metrics despite making invaluable contributions to the WSU land-grant mission. This is disheartening for everyone, but also an opportunity to ask if we can find metrics that better reflect our core values?

Consider college rankings by an outfit called Washington Monthly. Their rankings are equally weighted for social mobility, research and community and national service. Incredibly, WSU ranks at 29 out of 395 universities (University of Idaho ranks 135). By this method, WSU is in the top 10 percent for the nation, and if you examine the variables used I think that every faculty member at WSU will be able to “see themselves” in these metrics and how they map to our core values.

In fact, as a Cougar alumni for more than 30 years, I can say that I’m incredibly proud that we rank so well by these measures. Incidentally, the Washington Monthly rankings correlate poorly with the other outfits, which tells you that Washington Monthly is measuring something genuinely unique.

I might be accused of moving the goal post by suggesting that the Washington Monthly rankings are a much better institutional ranking, but think where we might go with such a perspective. For example, such a perspective might encourage our leadership to champion a state initiative that would revitalize and expand our extension activities … and such a focus would map beautifully to our core values and benefits for our state. This is less likely to happen if we focus too much on metrics that come naturally to Forbes.

In the final analysis, the metrics we choose will reflect our core values, either the ones we espouse, or the ones implicit from the metrics. Hopefully, we will choose metrics compatible with a road forward that embrace all of our community and that explicitly recognize the core values of our exceptional land-grant institution.

Douglas Call is a microbiologist. He and his family have lived on the Palouse for more than 20 years.

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