Cui: Northwestern deserves US News rankings drop

Tom Cui, Columnist

Northwestern freshmen — those of you still soaking this campus in, whose greatest worry is getting to class on time — I bear bad news. You are arriving just as this school’s reputation is falling from its peak. NU fell one place in this September’s U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Even though admission rates have plunged to half of the rate a decade ago and much more is now spent on marketing the brand, it seems like NU’s reputation has plateaued. The University spent four consecutive years at twelfth place and it is not close to cracking the top ten.

That first paragraph is a bit hysterical, but it makes a point. Since Morton Schapiro’s appointment as president five years ago, NU has marketed itself better to undergraduate applicants despite a general lack of improvement. What prestige NU earned came from this university’s scale, 12 schools and almost a hundred departments that cover most academic disciplines of note. Its reputation may have gotten worse, stained by stories of students in blackface and in Native American garb and of sexual assault incidents. And there are more problems, masked or unwritten, that hit closer to the bone than the prestige that attracts us here.

In one way, the campus is still going through growing pains. It is not just that there is a North Campus-South Campus divide; there is also a divide between groups with different expectations of what NU should do for them. There are students from the North Shore who want to fight their way to a fancy business job, with “work hard, play hard” as their life motto. There are others from less fortunate backgrounds, roiled by the University’s financial aid regime and anticipating nothing but graduation and escape. For every theatre major working through the night on a set, there is an engineer working through the night in an underground lab.

In another way, the campus has its share of college-specific challenges like any other school. Books are expensive, dorm life gets lonely and a bad midterm feels like the world falling away at your feet. Greek recruitment puts students through a wringer, and midterms crash into your life all at once. All the research and extracurricular opportunities undergraduate admissions advertise are meaningless if someone, frozen in the culture of busyness NU perpetuates, doubts his or her worth on this campus.

It is true NU has a swarm of study abroad programs, internship connections and student groups. What those opportunities will not do is help students deal with everyday problems on this campus, or help students cope when they must confront loss or defeat.

When it comes to this part of college life, it is NU that squandered its opportunity. Counselling programs, like those at CAPS or at CARE, remain understaffed. Multicultural Student Affairs is a weak mediator on behalf of minority students. Little things like the biology major’s course inflexibility and the chore of finding funding for extracurricular projects are less serious, but just as prevalent issues.

These problems, combined and assembled, are why I hear just as many people wishing they never came here as those who are glad they did. In terms of alleviating the anxieties of college life and of fostering a community for its students, NU is nowhere close to being ranked 13. It could be ranked anywhere between 13 and 130.

NU is in the throes of an alumni donation campaign, and you can expect the administration to double down on the canvas it has painted of this school. You will hear more jibber-jabber about building well-rounded students, research potential and “opportunities,” and you will find how little that relates to campus life as it is. Yet these are also the moments when you can distance yourself from the busyness and confide in others, or sign up for programs like Sustained Dialogue – a support group started and managed by students. I bet that some of your love in this university, as an institution, will chip away – but that only means you have to redirect love to the people around you.

Tom Cui is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].