IT MATTERS ELSEWHERE. University Diaries quotes a New York Times article on the Faustian bargain Rutgers University appears to be making in order to become the next Eastern member of the Mid-American. In the comments section is a reference to an open letter a Rutgers professor, William C. Dowling, has written to the Rutgers trustees.

Professor Dowling pulls no punches.

In my view, there are three ways Rutgers can go in this moment in its history: (1) we can sustain the state of mediocrity achieved over the last 12 years under the Lawrence administration, (2) we can sink even farther down in the ranks of public institutions of higher learning, or (3) we can aim to have Rutgers among the top 5 public institutions in the country within a period of 5-10 years.

Needless to say, it is option (3) that I will address in this letter. Given its natural advantages -- one of the strongest applicant pools in the United States, a very high-powered faculty, a history and tradition going back to the colonial period -- it has always seemed to me that it is harder for Rutgers not to be one of the leading public institutions in the country than to go on in our current state of demoralized mediocrity. As a colleague of mine once said, with all Rutgers' advantages, you have to work hard to be mediocre.

It's a lengthy letter but one does not have to read far to reach tonight's Quote of the Day.

At a good university, the brightest and most intellectually motivated students on campus are at the symbolic center of the institution. They are made to feel that they are at the very heart of the university's mission to provide a high-quality education for students from less-than-wealthy backgrounds. Their intellectual commitment in turn inspires other students with a sense of purpose and aspiration.

On the other hand, most open-admissions state universities -- schools like Nebraska and Oklahoma and Ohio State -- make no pretense of trying to attract top students. Teaching at such schools takes place mainly at a remedial level. If the occasional bright student who is stranded at such a school feels marginalized, nobody worries about it.

Yet even some of these institutions have begun to see that operating a remedial learning operation for a huge and indiscriminate mass of intellectually underprepared students means depriving many other students of their one chance at a real college education. They are taking steps to do something about it.

The professor proposes merit scholarships without apology.

Rutgers should aim for an entering class that includes about 20% students from around the nation. At the same time, we should make certain that out-of-state students meet at least the same admissions requirements as entering New Jersey students, and if possible -- on an "enrichment of the whole" principle -- substantially exceeds them.

One way to do this would be to index out-of-state tuition to entering SAT scores. So, for instance, an out-of-state student entering Douglass with the same 1200 SAT as in-state Douglass students might pay a tuition of $15,000. But students with higher SATs would be "forgiven" a certain percentage of the out-of-state increment for each increase of 20 points in her combined SAT, until at a very high level (say, 1400), an out-of-state student would pay the same tuition ($5300) as entering New Jersey students. This plan should be adopted, with appropriate statistical adjustments, across the entire college system.

He also expresses reservations about the access-assessment-remediation-retention sinkhole that accompanies open admissions on a by-the-test score basis.

Most encouragingly, he notes that the tone set by the state's flagship campus can have a salutary effect on the performance of the rest of the state system.

The effect has been to give California a state system in which the top four or five campuses are all among the leading public institutions in the country. In a recent U.S. News ranking of public universities, for instance, Berkeley was listed as #1 in the nation, UCLA as #4, the University of California at San Diego as #7, and the University of California at Davis as #10. (Rutgers, in this same ranking, was tied for 24th-27th place with such lackluster institutions as Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware.)

A differential tightening of admissions standards as described earlier in this letter would immediately give Rutgers an internal version of the "cascade" principle that worked to the advantage of every student -- for all would take a large percentage of their classes with all other students at the university -- while dramatically improving the standing of the university as a whole relative to public institutions elsewhere.

(A note to New Jersey readers: in Illinois and Wisconsin, where the flagship campuses are chasing full-fare students from out of state, there are gains from trade between faculty and ambitious students closed out of Urbana or Madison. To some extent university policy makers have begun to act on those gains from trade.)

There are a number of other suggestions in the post. Taken together, however, the message is clear. An academic administration ought to be worthy of its best students.

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