Sheep, Lions, and Your Institution’s Self

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving on I-80 through Iowa, as I did when I took my daughter back for her second year of college, you know that the long, rolling road is abundant not only with views of corn and soybeans, but opportunities for the mind to wander.

Mine wandered right to my iPhone, where I had queued up two works for the drive: “The Lord of the Rankings,” from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, to be followed by the Audible version of Anthony DeMello’s Awareness.

About 5 hours into the drive back to Appleton, I realized just how fortuitous (if accidental) a pairing these two pieces were.

Gladwell’s episode tells the story of how, in the 1980s, US News & World Report, a magazine struggling in distant third behind Time and Newsweek, reshaped itself through a shrewd (if cynical) marketing play to become the rankings juggernaut it is today.

(That a third-ranked magazine would develop the yardstick by which “the best” colleges would be measured should, itself, raise a question or three, but I digress.)

Gladwell centers his narrative around two opposing forces: the people at US News (including the episode’s eponymous Robert Morse, chief data strategist for the magazine) who developed and now maintain, as he describes it, “the secretive formula to rank the best colleges and universities in the United States”; and Reed College, which has famously refused to participate in sharing data with US News, and where a group of plucky data scientists set out to prove their college was being punished in its rankings. (Spoiler: it was.)

At the 16-minute mark, Gladwell turns his attention to the peer assessment score, which, at 20% of a college’s total ranking score, is not only the single most heavily weighted component, but also the most problematic one. For the unfamiliar, each college’s peer assessment score is derived from ratings it receives from three officials (president, chief academic officer, and chief admissions officer) at each of the other colleges in its category (e.g., National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges).

To illustrate the arbitrariness—you might even say capriciousness—of the peer assessment score, Gladwell introduces a new character to the episode, “Dean,” a chief admissions officer whose voice the show’s producers digitally altered to hide identity, conjuring images of harshly backlit FBI informants on 60 Minutes. Together, Gladwell and “Dean” go through the list of institutions in Dean’s category and … well … it doesn’t take long to see some of the problems. While Robert Morse blithely insists that he and his colleagues expect raters to assess the college based on their informed “view of the institution’s academic quality,” Gladwell and Dean show that the ratings are based more on uninformed views, at one point giving one school a favorable rating because Gladwell’s cousin went to one of them and another because it had a nice coffee shop. (Dean claims to have greater qualifications to rate players for the Baseball Hall of Fame than for US News.)

You see the point.

The peer assessment activity may explain why, each year, I receive so many brochures and alumni magazines of colleges in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category, each sent presumably with the hope that I will judge them favorably when I come to their college’s name on the annual US News survey.

(That I rate only my own institution—the only one with whose quality I am deeply familiar, and thereby qualified to rate—may dampen my colleagues’ postal enthusiasm.)

Which brings me back to Anthony DeMello, whose Awareness is a guide to—among many things—living a life that is governed not by what others think of you, but by what you come to know and understand about yourself. (Your “I” as he calls it.) He argues that seeking approval or validation of your worth by others is a foolish pursuit, that it leads you further away from the truth of who you are. You are reacting to an unreality, instead of acting in reality.

To illustrate his point, DeMello tells the story of a lion that pounces on a flock of sheep, and starts running around, and notices among the sheep that there’s another lion, one that had been raised by the sheep ever since it was a cub.

The attacking lion approaches the sheep lion and says, “What are you doing? You’re a lion.”

And the sheep lion says, “No, I’m not. I’m a sheep.”

The attacking lion says, “Come with me.” The two walk over to a pond and look into their reflection together, and the sheep lion sees that it is, in fact, a lion—and is forever changed.

Colleges often talk about becoming better versions of themselves, but far too often, they look to other colleges to determine what that better version of themselves should look like. In the process, they can miss what is unique to them.

What is it about your institution’s self that makes you unique? Or to frame it in more urgent terms: in an unforgiving marketplace, what makes you worth the investment you are asking families to make?

Looking within is an excellent place to start.

My colleagues here at RHB can help with that. The Journey to Coherence is a tried-and-true, research-driven process that can help your institution understand who you really are; what you are communicating about yourself; and what others think and say about you. The order of the process is essential: first looking inward before looking outward.

Four years ago, my Lawrence colleagues and I embarked on this journey ourselves. Speaking for myself, I had been working at Lawrence for nearly a decade and a half, and had slipped into the belief that I really understood everything about Lawrence.

The Journey to Coherence revealed that I did not.

And—like the sheep lion who discovered that it was, in fact, a lion all along—I and my colleagues began to understand that there was a different story about ourselves. More important, we learned how to tell, show, and live that story for our students and their families in clear, confident, convincing and coherent ways.

What is your institution’s self?

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management at RHB.