Elwood Robinson Takes on the US News & World Report Rankings, and HBCUs Are Better For It

Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson drafted an unprecedented letter to his campus community this week, alerting them that a popular list of the nation’s best colleges upon which the school annually placed would not list WSSU this year.

The reason? Because the US News & World Report Best Colleges list is inherently unfair to non-Ivy League, and particularly historically black institutions.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

Next week, U.S. News & World Report will release its 2019 college rankings. You will undoubtedly see many universities touting their place on the list. Winston-Salem State University will not be. But not for the reason you think.

For the past several years, WSSU has declined to fill out the annual peer evaluations and statistical surveys that U.S. News uses to compile its rankings. We have done so deliberately. 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.

At WSSU, we are proud that we rate number one in the University of North Carolina System for students having jobs in North Carolina after graduation. We are proud that our health sciences graduates pass their licensure exams at rates far above the national average. We are proud that our students graduate at the highest rate of any of the minority-serving schools in the UNC System. And we are proud to have appeared in the Top 20 in the nation for four years on the Social Mobility Index (SMI), which evaluates how we are fulfilling our goal of helping students succeed in life while having a positive and long-lasting economic impact on our state and nation.

The U.S. News & World Report rankings feed the myth that the most selective schools and the schools who spend the most money are superior to schools like WSSU, which place priority on access and affordability. These rankings require focus in areas that are antithetical to our historical mission. You will note that we highlight rankings that evaluate the quality of our academic programs, the value we provide to our students, the outcomes of our graduates, or our commitment to student success. Our emphasis has been and will continue to be on offering an educational experience that provides students with the essential skills they need to be successful in our ever-changing global world while simultaneously making an impact on the economic lives of families across this state.

Dr. Robinson’s letter is long overdue from the HBCU community. An HBCU president taking the public step of detailing what many leaders have lamented over years is the medicine that can cure the near-racist elitism driving the US News ranking system, even with its minimal changes to better reflect the future mission of higher education – educating the poor and disenfranchised.

It carries heavier weight when that dissenting chancellor leads a school that is delivering the goods on that mission. WSSU has emerged as a national resource for training in some of the emergent industries the nation must build to help citizens lead healthier, wealthier lives.

The letter is also part of an emerging trend of HBCU presidents’ willingness to speak out on key issues and clear signs of disadvantage for our institutions over the last five years. Hampton University President William Harvey has voiced concerns on issues ranging from federal funding disparities for HBCUs to representation in television shows. Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis outlining the pressures and privileges for black women leading colleges and universities. Fisk University President Kevin Rome, while leading Lincoln University of Missouri, spoke publicly about that state’s efforts to gut LU and Harris-Stowe State University of funding.

Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell discussing the potential bursting of the college cost bubble; Kentucky State University President M. Christopher Brown II outlining the vulnerability of HBCUs within changing trends within higher education; these are just a few of the moments of candid conversation from leaders who see campuses and the sector from totally unique views.

It is easy for any HBCU president to take a stand on an issue or topic where there is near universal consensus on a particular position. But we should celebrate Dr. Robinson and other leaders willing to speak truth to power at the expense of consensus, or even their careers.