New College Ratings—“First Things”

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First Things, a journal of “religion and public life,” has periodically over its 20 years in press published insightful essays on both religious universities and the place of religion in secular institutions, both independent and state funded. It is one of those journals that anyone interested in the intersection of religion, theology, culture, and politics must pay attention to, whether one likes their slant or not (I do), to keep up with the conflicts and positive developments in our public life. It gives the lie to the notion that religious experience, commitment and thought ought to keep quiet on public issues, relegate itself to the real of the private, thus producing in the words of FT’s founder, Richard John Neuhaus, a “naked public square.” Its intelligent and often pointed discussion of our faiths, high and low culture, legal and political developments, conflicts with radical Islam, and education, to name just a few, have raised the level of discussion across the country, and have occasionally produced considerable heat.

One again they are agitating, this time by presenting a new, and commonsensical way of understanding the quality of our universities (see the November 2010 issue). The conventional rankings typically use the standard utilitarian measures. They assume, it seems, that the percentage of alumni giving, of faculty members with terminal degrees, and the typical incoming academic scores of its students are indicators of academic quality. And they are to some extent. However First Things has become practical and asked the questions that parents and families might ask, and that, when I speak with them, I encourage them to ask.

To produce their rankings, and their descriptions of the included universities, they polled students and others connected to the institution about their experience on the campuses. They then group their scores in three categories: academic, social life, and religion. The academic category is the more conventional, relying on the polls, the usual published rankings, and publically available governmental data. There seems little extraordinary here, except that they recognize that some of our religious institutions are also some of our finest academic institutions. The two do and should go together.

The social category focuses on “sexual activity, drinking, drugs, etc.,” reputations for “party schools” and published news and publically available descriptions of “crime rates, sexually transmitted diseases, public drunkenness.” The religion category similarly focuses attention on “friendliness to religious faith and theological reasoning among the faculty, the administration and students,” and about “vibrancy of campus ministries, student faith,” and “the holding to the religious mission of the school.” In others words they asked whether our schools are healthy places to send our students to live and learn. And they considered whether the institutions were respectful and active in religious concerns, commitment and experience, or whether they had imposed intellectual and institutional barriers to this prominent concern of the majority of our citizens.

The social and religious scores (on a fifty point scale) range from 2 to into the high 40s. Low scores indicate relative hostility to healthy lifestyles and lack of openness (being closed) to faith and religion. High scores indicate encouragement and active engagements with healthy living and religious depth. The descriptions of the schools are engaging. Most of what I read sounded accurate and realistic given my experience with a number of the schools; some of it was new or more pointed than I might have assumed, and some surprising. There are lists of the best Protestant schools, the best Catholic, the best public, those that are up and coming, those suffering gloom–much to consider.

Not all schools are there (we aren’t) and I hope FT will develop the report in the future. But for now it provides something that other studies do not. It asks the practical questions that students and parents ask themselves. Is this school one that will help me or my child succeed academically? Is the depth of intellectual engagement such that students will be ready for their chosen profession? Is it open enough to engage all of life or is it closed and unresponsive to our deepest concerns? Is it a healthy place or will the student find him or herself in the midst of officially tolerated or promoted lifestyles that can destroy lives?

If you can’t find the November issue of First Things in your local book store, you can order it or see some of the articles at the First Things
website. Check it out—you might find that you become a regular reader.

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