Examining The Place of Race In Rankings: Black Enterprise and aMagazine give Amherst lukewarm rating

This year marked the second annual publication of aMagazine’s rankings for Asian-American college-bound students. Amherst was ranked just below Colorado College and well behind several of Amherst’s closest competitors in the U.S. News rankings. Swarthmore College was ranked eighth, and Pomona College first.

Similarly, Black Enterprise has a list of the top 50 establishments for black collegians. In their most recent rankings, Amherst placed fairly high in a list dominated by traditionally black colleges such as Spelman and Morehouse.

The criteria used in Black Enterprise’s rankings included academic issues such as retention rate as well as racial concerns like the percentage of black undergraduates in the student body.

aMagazine’s ranking, however, did not take academic standing into account. Factors included the percentage of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in the student body, percentage of APA faculty and the level of financial aid given to APA students.

Although the rankings in aMagazine and Black Enterprise may not mirror U.S. News’ standards, they imply that Amherst is doing a relatively good job with minorities compared to the majority of schools in the nation. But how valid are either of these rankings as a gauge of a school’s worth for minorities?

Ranking Reactions

On Amherst’s newly revamped website, the main photographic accompanying the section entitled “Academic Life” depicts an archetypal Amherst College classroom with a teacher of Asian descent gesturing to the class. aMagazine writes, however, that only slightly more than six percent of Amherst’s faculty is Asian American.

“The absence of minority faculty would be something to look at [in judging a school’s value for minorities],” said Matthew Baltz ’03.

Asian Student Association Board Member Andy Xue ’03 felt that the ranking in aMagazine did not accurately represent campus atmosphere. “The rankings seem to imply that Amherst is a relatively Asian-friendly college. I say, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?'” said Xue.

Not all Asian-American students at Amherst feel the same way. “I’m pretty satisfied with what Amherst does for minorities,” said George Tsai ’02, co-chair of the Asian Cultural House. “I can see that the administration and the whole college community works to make this a safe environment for minorities, and by ‘safe,’ I mean as a safe place for dialogue and expression of views. You can feel comfortable with being who you are in terms of the Asian aspect of you.”

Travis J. Bristol ’03, a member of the Black Student Union, regards the ranking in Black Enterprise as appropriate. “I think it is just right,” he said. “There is a legacy; black individuals from this institution have done great things for America, but there is also plenty still to be done.”

Tess Senderowicz ’04 was impressed by Amherst’s ranking in Black Enterprise. “I think that speaking in terms of number of colleges in the country, [17] is pretty good, especially when you consider that traditionally black colleges such as Morehouse and Spelman are included,” said Senderowicz.

But Area Coordinator and Diversity Advisor Joel Estrada ’00 said he fears that good rankings may give those who deny the need for further advancement an excuse “to stop what little they already do” for minorities.

“It makes the unconverted more stubborn,” he explained. “It fosters a sense of complacency in the people we don’t want to foster it in.”

On the other hand, Estrada said that the high rankings might alternately motivate faculty members to take up the cause of improving a school’s environment for minorities. “If a progressive professor or dean sees [a high ranking], it will fuel them to try harder,” he said.

Socially Speaking

The question remains, however, of whether or not students think that a college’s standing in racial representation rankings is substantially important to the school’s value as an educational institution.

Bristol said that a larger black student population might make for a better social experience at Amherst, but he added this caveat: “You don’t come to campus to socialize. You come to get an education-although a strained social environment can impact your education.

“There are still areas where Amherst College as an institution has failed, where there are still remnants of the ‘old boys network’ and unconscious racism to some degree,” he added.

For some students, the strained atmosphere is a major concern. “Amherst gives great financial aid packages and has good support networks, but sometimes the social arena isn’t as comfortable as it could be,” said Kemuel Durham ’02.

Amber Young ’01, co-chair of the Chicana/o Caucus, agreed: “I really think that Amherst College does a great job of recruiting minorities, but I think that once you get here, you lose a lot of support systems.”

Recognizing the importance of considering social scenes in evaluating schools for minorities, Estrada suggested that rankings should look at “what dominates the social scene: a Greek system, an underground Greek system or even our TAP system.”

In his opinion, rankings should then show what “financial systems are in place for students who fall outside this system to create their own programming.”

Estrada suggested that rankings should also look at the cost of living at certain schools as a way of indicating how friendly they are to both minorities and economically disadvantaged students.

Course Concerns

Academically, Amherst offers little in the way of cultural studies apart from the black studies and American studies departments, whereas other colleges offer more courses in subjects like Latino studies.

Young looks on the absence of other options as “a glaring gap in our curricular offerings. The College should make a commitment to offer programs that are more inclusive of the backgrounds of its students.”

Amherst offers very few classes in Asian-American Studies, and this is reflected in the College’s middle-range ranking in aMagazine, which considered the availability of an Asian-American academic program as one of its criteria.

Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and Anthropology Lawrence Babb, who chairs the Asian Languages and Civilizations department, spoke to this point, cautioning that his department does not adequately fill the void.

“Our department specializes in the study of Asia, emphasizing language. It seems to me that all students ought to know more about Asian studies, but it still doesn’t make it a form of Asian-American Studies.”

Nonetheless, Babb did not hesitate to praise Amherst academically. “I take great pride in teaching at Amherst College, and the reason is because I know personally the quality of the faculty,” he said. “National rankings are irrelevant.”

Not every ranking is the same, though. The Black Enterprise ranking system was based on the opinions of a large number of black faculty and administrators across the country. The aMagazine system was based mainly on admissions information and the availability of Asian American course offerings and majors.

aMagazine especially tried to attach impersonal criteria like financial aid and percentage of APA administrative staff to the quality of an Asian-American student’s experience at a particular institution.

When asked if this was a worthwhile method of judging a school, students’ reactions were mixed. In a survey of 100 randomly-picked Amherst students taken for this article, 65 percent of those polled thought that these factors offered an accurate guide. Of those students who identified themselves as minorities, 59 percent found such criteria to be appropriate.

Despite this majority, not all students were pleased with the ranking system. Senderowicz expressed concern over the connection suggested by the magazines between percentage of minority students and a school’s value to minority students.

“I think that you can help people feel more comfortable when you see people similar to you, but it doesn’t mean that if you come to Amherst and you are a minority that you’ll have a bad time,” she said.

Estrada also found fault with aMagazine’s decision not to use academic reputation in its rankings. “You might find a student who is willing to sacrifice comfort for academic reputation,” he explained, pointing out that a ranking that ignores academic standing does not take into account this give and take.

Campus Conversation

Many students pointed out that the criteria for the rankings completely neglected student input. “I definitely think they should have surveyed students,” said Baltz. “That’s a glaring oversight on their part.”

Dwayne Defreitas ’02, communications representative and publicist for Students of Mixed Heritage at Amherst College (SMHAC), had a similar suggestion for how to gauge a school’s value to minority students.

“I think that one thing that is important is looking at the youngest alumni and talking to them about their experiences,” he explained. “They just graduated, and you don’t have a clear view of the experience while you’re still in the middle of it.”

Bristol thought that, had the ranking been a student satisfaction poll, Amherst would have ranked much lower in Black Enterprise. “I don’t want to talk for all black students, but you do feel at times all by yourself,” said Bristol.

Xue felt the same way about the aMagazine ranking. “The rankings were made solely on the information supplied by the college administration,” he said. “None of the Asian student body were questioned, which in this case made all the difference.”

Even so, of those polled by The Student, 80 percent of black students and 94 percent of Asian-American students felt that Amherst deserves to be ranked among the best colleges for minorities. Of white students polled, 83 percent also took this view.

Beyond The Numbers

With such a variety of student opinion on the minority student’s experience at Amherst, it is no wonder that some students distrust rankings in general.

“If you use rankings to pick schools, then you might as well be picking out of a lottery,” said Xue. “When I applied to college, I knew that Amherst was the top liberal arts college, but I don’t think that affected my decision much.”

Baltz felt similarly during his college application process. “Yeah, it was a factor, but not the first factor-maybe the fifth factor,” he explained. “I really don’t care what we’re ranked. I don’t go to a school because of its ranking. I go because I like it.”

Number one, number 17, or number 21-however you approach Amherst, boiling down the complexity of issues such as diversity or quality of education into numbers doesn’t seem appropriate to many members of the Amherst community.

“There is a kind of consumerist mentality behind it,” said Babb.

“I applied to 11 schools, and Amherst was my seventh choice even though it was the highest ranked school. I thought it would be snobby, rich, and white,” explained Senderowicz. “So it wasn’t the rankings; it was when I actually visited Amherst. I am a minority student here, and I feel fine; I like it.”