The 40 folding chairs are arranged in neat rows in the Parish Room of St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in downtown Boston, near Government Center. Nearly all of them are filled on this Wednesday evening at 7:30 pm by men and women in sharp, professional, business attire. No one looks even the slightest bit scruffy.
A man, probably in his late 40s, stands up and walks to the lectern at the front of the room.
“Hi, my name is Frank, and I’m…..I’m a…..I’m a rankings addict.”
“Welcome, Frank,” the other attendees respond warmly.
This is the weekly meeting of Rankings Anonymous (RA), a loosely organized group of high-level enrollment and media-relations administrators from colleges and universities throughout the greater Boston area.
Every one of them is addicted to institutional rankings.
Frank (not his real name) continues. “Four months ago I hit bottom. Hell, I hit the sub-basement of bottom. We had just published an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education bragging that Toilet Studies Quarterly had ranked us #3 in New England in enrolling 1st-generation college students from public high schools that lack indoor plumbing. I was so ashamed. When I got home that night, not even the dog would look at me. He can smell when I’ve been ranking.”
“Amen, brother,” comes the reply from several in the audience.
Ranking addiction has become the opioid epidemic of the higher education community. It is an insidious illness, with a predictable gateway drug: a high ranking of one’s institution on a dimension publicized by U. S. News & World Report.
“It all started in 2017 when they ranked our cafeteria’s French toast the 3rd best in the Northeast,” says Frank. “Oh God, what a rush! I couldn’t sleep for four days. I’ve been chasing that high ever since.”
The American Psychiatric Association places ranking addiction in the same category as sex addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Both are incredibly difficult to treat, and the relapse rate is high.
Frank notes that he had once gone 7 months without using rankings in his school’s advertising: “I felt so clean, so pure, almost virginal.”
But then he was notified by Splash, an official publication of the United States Navy, that his college’s ranking as a “welcoming place for veterans who had served on cruise-missile submarines” had risen from 72 to 47.
“I became so aroused that I immediately drove home and…..well, let’s just say that the next morning my wife went out and bought me flowers.”
Frank’s ecstasy was short-lived. Within a week, he was ordering billboard advertisements filled with rankings of his school for the entire length of New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway (e.g., “#8 in Outdoor Ads Among All Colleges on the East Coast”).
“I loathed myself. I really and truly did.” Murmurs of “we’ve all been there” could be heard at the back of the room.
Frank shares with the group that he’s thinking about leaving higher education to become a shepherd, a job where there is nothing to rank.
“Don’t go Little Bo-Peep on us, Frank,” someone in the audience says. “Let the Lord be your shepherd, and you’ll find the strength you need. Remember: our chapter has the 2nd-lowest relapse rate of any RA group in Massachusetts.”
A collective gasp, then silence.