Until a couple of weeks ago, Florida State University’s football team ranked No. 2 in the nation.  But after the University of Louisville dropped 63 points on them, no more.  Closer to home, not so long ago Miami’s football team ranked among the Top Ten across the country and Yager Stadium was filled.  No more.

In considering Miami’s position in U.S. News rankings for undergraduate education, these sports developments suggest three lessons:  first, rankings can be lost as well as gained. Second, once lost, high rankings can be difficult to re-gain. And third, rankings are backward-looking to the past, rather than forward-looking to the future.

An important policy decision at Miami seems to have been made behind closed doors to substantially increase student enrollment:  since 2004, enrollment on the Oxford campus has increased steadily by nearly 20 percent.  The construction of new residence halls (on Western, on the site of Withrow Court, on South quad, on North quad, conversion of Miami Inn) suggests increasing enrollment is to be substantial and permanent.

Without any public discussion, enrollment has been increased more than twice as much as total faculty, with the result that classes grow larger, students have a harder time getting the classes they need, and there is less direct faculty-undergraduate interaction (and more resort to teaching assistants, students teaching students, and students teaching themselves — try explaining the latter to families laying out $30,000 a year).  Meanwhile, faculty and students know less about each other, and relations grow more bureaucratically impersonal.

Increasing admissions and enrollment is crack cocaine for college administrators and trustees:  it produces a quick pop in revenues.  But the cost over the longer run — not just in dollars, but in what economists call the “opportunity cost” of what is sacrificed) — can be considerable.  Miami traditionally has held a uniquely attractive place in American public higher education:  a little bigger than small colleges, a lot smaller than big universities, while offering the advantages of each, especially the former, on a human scale.  But if we become just one more middle-sized institution, our current rankings might become merely a memory. 

Ironically, decisions made today which are justified by referring to our current rankings may jeopardize the quality and character of the institution that are the underlying basis for those rankings tomorrow. “Love and Honor” today might be seen as “Dishonor and Degrade” in the future.