In this section, we focus on the discursive and institutional “enablers” (Abend, 2020), which made it possible for rankings to become a legitimate and an increasingly more used method of publicly comparing higher education institutions in the US. We do not aim to offer a definitive list of enabling conditions. Rather, we see each enabling condition as resting on further enabling conditions, and we only go as far in the chain of enablers as we find necessary for the argument. We also stress that we do not treat these enablers as causal explanations but as discursive and institutional conditions that played a critical role in the history of higher education rankings as we conceive of them in our conceptual framework. Finally, we intentionally do not write an exhaustive history of all relevant developments for the US higher education in the period covered, but we instead focus on those aspects which we find to be directly relevant for the history of rankings.
We focus on three discursive enablers, which were more or less specific to the US postwar context. The first enabler refers to the performance of a university being discursively tied to the performance of the national higher education “system”. The second enabler builds on the first, and it refers to the performance of one university being constructed as relative to the performances of other universities in the system. The third enabler, finally, refers to the performance of a university constructed as continuously changing and therefore established through repeated quantitative assessments and comparisons published by a third party.
In the following section, we examine the origins of these three discursive enablers and their institutionalization in the US higher education. Specifically, we highlight how each of them contributed to the new understanding of what it meant to perform as a higher education institution. In the subsequent section, we show how this understanding crystallized in rankings in the 1960s. Finally, we show how the practice of ranking was normalized during the 1970s, further propelling the new understanding of performance in academic discourse.
The rise of the “system”
The idea of higher education as a “system” can be largely attributed to the rise of functionalism to the status of a dominant intellectual paradigm in the postwar period and its role in shaping both academic and policy discourses (Heyck, 2015). In a nutshell, functionalism called for every aspect of society, culture and behaviour to be defined and examined in systemic terms. This meant, roughly put, seeing the social world as a complex, hierarchical structure, made of interrelated units and subunits, functions and processes, in which action was purposeful and behaviour adaptive. By offering a highly rationalistic vision of society, functionalism presented itself as a fitting way of thinking also for the increasingly more technocratic style of federal policy making (Heyck, 2015).
Together with its intellectual derivative, modernization theory, functionalism had a profound impact on the national policy discourse in the postwar decades (Cohen-Cole, 2014; Gilman, 2003; Heyck, 2015; Jardini, 2000). Federal planning, which had been present in some areas already in the period of the New Deal, became a common macro-policy approach across sectors during the 1950s and 1960s. This development was accompanied by an increased interest in examining complex issues and in devising ever more efficient ways of addressing them. As a result, between the second half of the 1950s and in the 1960s, the amount of data collected and studies produced in virtually every policy area was unprecedented. This was particularly enabled by the advancements in computer technology and increasingly more sophisticated methods and tools for data collection and analysis (Astin, 2003; Hutt, 2017).
Higher education institutions—as a home of both education and science—were of strategic interest to the federal authorities during this period. This interest is usually interpreted against the backdrop of the Cold War, with standard reference to the events such as the launching of Sputnik and Gagarin’s space journey (Geiger, 1997; Wolfe, 2013). These events were important in at least two ways. First, they instilled in policy makers and university representatives a view of the American education and science as a collective national project. Second, they led to a significant increase in federal funding for both university education and university-based research. On the research side, the federal authorities were especially interested in expanding capacities by investing in state-of-the art scientific facilities on university campuses across the country. Accompanied by a dramatic increase in student enrollments in the 1960s, this “federal largess” led to “an ephemeral golden age in American higher education” (Geiger, 2005, p. 65).
It was during this period that the appreciation of higher education as a system came of age.Footnote 3 The functionalist “system thinking” also informed policy discourse, not least by shaping the outlook of some of the most prominent intellectual figures in the policy scene in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Clark Kerr and Martin Trow, as well as many of their peers among university administrators and scholars. Kerr’s work stood out in particular, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, first as the leader of the California Master Plan for Higher Education and then as the chair of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education (Marginson, 2016; Wellmon, 2021). Referring to the historical “marriage” of functionalism and higher education in this period, Wittrock (1993) would write some decades later, “functionalism gave American university representatives a self-understanding which seemed to make perfect sense of the realities of their institutional situation” (p. 337). In light of this, Kerr’s California Master Plan of 1960, which inspired blueprint planning in other parts of the US (Marginson, 2016), was emblematic of the “system thinking” about the plurality of roles higher education institutions played in society.
It was perhaps not a coincidence that Talcott Parsons—a leading figure in systems theory and functionalist thought—would often use higher education and science as an empirical subject in his publications (Parsons & Platt, 1968, 1973). For Parsons and Platt, no other academic system in the world “remotely approximates the peaks reached by the most eminent American universities” (Parsons & Platt, 1968, p. 497). This superiority in performance, they argued, could be attributed to a value system of “instrumental activism”, a kind of specifically American Protestant ethic that drives people to constantly strive to improve, bringing about a productive system of closely interrelated universities as its potent parts (Parsons & Platt, 1968). Similar reflections and further considerations on the connection between the university “system”, on the one hand, and “performance” and “achievement”, on the other, can be found in numerous other authors, which often directly drew on the writings of Parsons and colleagues.
The idea of universities as always oriented towards improvement pushed forward an understanding of excellence as attainable through performance. Although the idea that universities could perform into or achieve excellence by performing well in specific domains was not in itself new during the 1950s, it was during this period that it became explicitly recognized and promoted in national discourse. John W. Gardner, the president of the CFAT, discussed the notion of excellence in his widely acclaimed book Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961). Referring to higher education institutions, he wrote:
We do not want all institutions to be alike. We want institutions to develop their individualities and to keep those individualities. None must be ashamed of its distinctive features so long as it is doing something that contributes importantly to the total pattern, and so long as it is striving for excellence in performance. (Gardner, 1961, p. 83, emphasis added).
Gardner’s emphasis on “excellence in performance” resonated with the argument Robert K. Merton’s made at the time, that turning “potential excellence” into “actuality” was something to be pursued (Merton, 1973, p. 425 ).Footnote 4 And while achievement had been long recognized as worth of encouraging in individuals, the “system thinking” allowed for its extension to include also other units of the system, such as organizations, as well as the system as a whole.
This notion of achievement was particularly popularized by the proponents of then emerging modernization theory (Gilman, 2003; Knöbl, 2003). In their effort to explain macro-phenomena such as “modernity” and “progress”, prominent intellectual figures, such as Walt Whitman Rostow, Marion Levy and David C. McClelland, put forward the distinction between “traditional” or “pre-modern” and “industrial” “modern” or in McClelland’s case “achieving societies”. In this view, and put in Parsonian terms, traditional societies would judge actors for their ascribed qualities, while modern societies would base their judgements on performances or achievements. Achievement was thus something that could be defined as “success in competition with some standard of excellence” (McClelland et al., 1953, p. 110) as well as something that could be planned and organized through instrumental reason.
What did it mean for higher education institutions to achieve “excellence in performance”? For some, this meant embracing an entrepreneurial vision and a strategic approach to the acquisition of federal funding and industrial patronage (Lowen, 1997). For others, it meant offering doctoral education (Berelson, 1960). Bernard Berelson, a behavioural scientist and a programme officer at the Ford Foundation, found the ambition of graduate departments and universities across the country to “get ahead” and “climb” as natural and something to be encouraged:
Just as the way for the academic man to get ahead was to earn the doctorate, the way for an institution to get ahead was to offer it. “There is no man who does not need to climb.” Neither, apparently, are there many institutions—and in our educational system, climbing means getting into the big league of graduate, and especially doctoral, study. (Berelson, 1960, p. 135)Footnote 5
This imperative to “rise” stood in contrast with thinking about status differences between universities as relatively stable over longer periods and from judging their performances on the basis of time-honoured standards, which had shaped the higher education discourse in earlier periods. And although many of the universities in Berelson’s “big league” had been among Slosson’s “great American universities”, Berelson found it important to stress that any university, if it performed well enough, could “get ahead” and “get into” the big league of research universities.
There were two important implications of explicitly encouraging higher education institutions to strategically strive for excellence in performance. First, it suggested that performances could be observed over time, allowing for the present-moment actions to be plausibly tied to both past and future achievements. Second, it invited a new kind of understanding of the higher education institutions’ own role and place in the “national system”, which simultaneously opened up the possibility for the actors with an interest in the overall system performance, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), to gain in prominence.
The ACE rankings of graduate departments
The increase in science funding in the post-Sputnik period brought the federal science bodies, such as the NSF, to the forefront of the national higher education scene. Faced with the expansion of graduate departments across the country and a pressure to allocate a growing amount of research money to a maximum effect, the NSF was on the look for a new way of deciding on graduate programme funding. “NSF’s basic selection mechanism”, reported Allan M. Cartter a decade later, “had been the peer-group judgment of proposals, but they wanted to make it more efficient, sophisticated, and presumably more extensive” (Dolan, 1976, p. 26).
In search for a solution, in 1963, the NSF officials met with the ACE president and vice president, Logan Wilson and Allan M. Cartter. On this occasion, Richard Bolt, the NSF’s assistant director, informed Wilson and Cartter that the NSF had been considering to commission an evaluation and ranking of science departments to a private research group (Dolan, 1976). The reaction of the ACE’s officials to this idea is worth reporting in full as it encapsulates the position universities had held at the time about the prospect of being evaluated by “outsiders”. In Cartter’s own words:
Logan Wilson and I hit the ceiling and alerted him (Bolt) to the fact that there had been a long-standing position of the Association of Graduate Deans that nobody ought to play around with evaluating the graduate programs who was not themselves responsible to the institutions themselves; either the AAU or some other group. The deans had always said that anyone who is going to accredit us or rate us has to be responsible to the institutions. We don’t want any outside body doing this. (Dolan, 1976, p. 26)
A compromise was, however, found: the ACE offered to produce the ranking by surveying the graduate departments itself. Cartter, at the time also the director of a newly established ACE Commission on Plans and Objectives for Higher Education, would be the one responsible for the task. The study was financially supported by the NSF, the National Institute of Health and the Office of Education. The contribution of the Office of Education was about one-quarter of the total sum, and its inclusion was important in order to “show that it was not strictly a ‘scientific’ interest group”. At the same time, it was not supposed to be too big a contribution so as not “to alarm the institutions with what might be called a ‘federal’ ranking” (Dolan, 1976, p. 27). Even though by the early 1960s, leading university administrators viewed federal patronage as a necessity, and not any more as a threat (Lowen, 1997), the ACE’s approach suggests that federal involvement was a sensitive matter.
The rankings of graduate departments, which were the central part of what was later called The Cartter Report (1966), were based on a large-scale quantitative reputation survey. They were a compromise between the NSF’s desire for an “objective” and “scientifically sound” performance assessment and the ACE’s desire to insulate the performance comparisons from the “outsiders”. Notably, Cartter explicitly aimed for the rankings to build on the earlier works in the genre, namely, those produced by Hughes and Keniston. But he also found it important to expand, test and corroborate his survey data with a wealth of additional data and rigorous statistical methods, which he extensively discussed in the report. In this sense, unlike Keniston and Hughes, who were more interested in qualitative properties behind the numbers, Cartter seemed to have believed in the power of numbers to show things which were otherwise not visible.
The foreword to the Cartter Report, penned by Logan Wilson, opened with the following statement:
EXCELLENCE, by definition, is a state only the few rather than the many can attain. Striving for academic excellence, however, is a worthy ideal for colleges and universities, and it can be reasonably argued that every educational institution should meet minimum qualitative standards, and particularly if it offers graduate work. A present problem is the need for a better general understanding of what quality signifies. (Wilson, 1966, p. vii, capital letters in original)
The central concern of the report, according to Wilson, was “what quality signifies”. Yet irrespective of how one defines quality, he continued, “academic excellence” was considered a “worthy ideal” that all colleges and universities should strive for, which resonated with the earlier words by Berelson and Gardner. Minimum standards of quality were to be met by every institution, but “excellence” meant going beyond standards.
It is noteworthy that Cartter was acutely concerned with the uneven quality of universities across the country, in particular those located in the southern states: “In an age of national rather than regional competition—for faculty, students, foundation support and government contracts—Southern higher education must become quality conscious or be left behind” (Cartter, 1965, p. 69, emphasis added). The problem of the “lag in quality” of universities in the south in comparison with other parts of the country was considered in view of its potential consequences for the performance of “the economy” of those regions (Cartter, 1965).
As an economist specializing in, among other areas, “manpower planning”, Cartter was interested in predicting trends in education and the labour market, which was a likely reason why a future outlook, accompanied by a sense of urgency, permeated much of his writing. The closing paragraph of the ACE report is illustrative in this regard:
Evaluative information, such as that presented in this study, will be little more than a curiosity unless the stronger graduate schools and the associations representing university presidents and deans take the initiative both in setting standards and in helping the smaller and weaker institutions to live up to those standards. It is hoped that this and successive surveys to be undertaken at approximately five-year intervals will be of value to these groups in their attempts to strengthen graduate education and thereby to invigorate all of American higher education. (Cartter, 1966, p. 121)
We note here that Cartter did not see universities as isolated entities, each catering to its own destiny; rather, they were there to “help” each other on their common path of invigorating “all of American higher education”. This ambition to see the graduate education across the country as comprehensively as possible,Footnote 6 as well as in finding ways to identify which universities “hold the most promise of improving their relative positions in the years immediately ahead” (1966, p. 117 emphasis added), echoes the earlier described “system” approach in the understanding of university performances. This placed Cartter in contrast with Keniston and Hughes. Moreover, Cartter’s view of performance as something to be evidenced by undertaking “successive surveys” at regular intervals made this contrast even sharper.
The Cartter Report sold in 26,000 copies, which was a significant circulation for a publication of this kind and was largely met with critical acclaim (Webster, 1986). The success was, however, not repeated by the ACE follow-up rankings, published in the Roose-Andersen Report (1970), even though its release had been eagerly awaited by the administrators across the country (Dolan, 1976). Although Cartter had envisioned successive ACE rankings to be published at regular intervals, this eventually did not happen.Footnote 7 The NSF was probably less interested in serializing the rankings, while the ACE’s focus shifted away from identifying potential excellence in graduate departments. And in fact, already in the Roose-Andersen Report, the emphasis was not as much on identifying (potential) excellence, as much as it was “to protect the potential consumer of graduate education from inadequate programs” (Roose & Andersen, 1970, p. 2), thus stressing the importance of minimum “adequacy” standard. This focus on potential “consumers”, although not entirely a new idea in itself, reflected an already changing discourse and foreshadowed the ascendance of the commercial rankings in the 1980s. However, as we will show in the next section, the fact that no rankings on a par with the ACE ones were produced during the 1970s does not mean that the ACE rankings had no relevance for the further career of the practice, quite on the contrary.
The normalization of ranking as a social scientific method and practice
Particular to the 1960s and consistent with the expansion of higher education and science that marked the decade, there was a growing interest among scholars in measuring things like the “output”, “productivity” or “prestige” of departments and institutions. This interest led scholars not only to directly refer to the ACE rankings, but also to produce own rankings, often drawing inspiration from the ACE reports.Footnote 8 These rankings would be published in academic journals, mostly in social sciences, although scholars in natural sciences would occasionally do the same in their own disciplinary outlets. By and large, to these scholars, the ACE reports were works of scholarship, and ranking was seen as a legitimate social scientific method and practice.
These studies drew on the ACE reports in various ways. For some, the ACE reports were a source of data, for others, a methodological inspiration. Some would offer suggestions for improving the method of ranking (e.g. Drew & Karpf, 1975), others would produce rankings of disciplines not included in the ACE reports (e.g. Carpenter & Carpenter, 1970; Edwards & Barker, 1977) or simply offer an alternative ranking of departments in their disciplines (e.g. Knudsen & Vaughan, 1969). Rankings would occasionally also be recognized as a solution for various problems. For instance, Glenn and Villemez (1970) saw sociology departments suffering from a general lack of “rivalry”, and their ranking would, they hoped, “help promote rivalry among departments and aid prospective students in their choice of departments” and further “help promote the development of the discipline” (p. 244).
These developments made way for an emerging tradition in social sciences which revolved around discussing data, methodologies and general approaches to comparing and evaluating departments and universities across the country, also beyond graduate programmes. In general, among the social science disciplines, sociological journals stood out, although more specialized journals, monographs and edited volumes were not far behind. Higher education journals also showed an interest in publishing rankings of departments and universities (e.g. Elton & Rodgers, 1973; Magoun, 1966; Margulies & Blau, 1973). These studies were frequently accompanied by the discussions on quality and excellence of academic organizations and debates on how they could be measured. Criticism explicitly directed at rankings also became more common throughout the 1970s (Dolan, 1976), which attests to the increasing interest in the ranking approach to comparing academic organizations.
The practice of producing and debating rankings among academics themselves would practically become self-sustained during the 1970s, which contributed to the “domestication” of the rankings-specific understanding of organizational performance in scholarly discourse. This is, of course, not to say that rankings produced by the social scientists in the 1970s were as consequential as they became later on. Rather, we argue that they contributed to the normalization of the idea that the performances of higher education institutions could plausibly be quantified, compared and rank-ordered on a continuous basis. The normalization of this understanding of performance meant that rankings could, in potential at least, be used as a legitimate source of information on the relative quality of higher education institutions both by the “insider” and “outsider” audiences, including prospective students.
When the U.S. News & World Report published its first rankings in 1983, being ranked—be it for reputation, productivity or selectivity—was far from a new experience, not only for graduate departments, but also for entire institutions, including undergraduate programmes. Crucially, the USN capitalized on a now already established understanding of performance—as zero-sum. In this sense, despite being an “outsider” to the field,Footnote 9 the USN rankings spoke to the concerns administrators and academics themselves already had, and it did this in a “language” in which they had already been fluent—the one of performance and rankings. But perhaps more importantly, it spoke to the realities of the expanding student market and the concerns both prospective students and higher education administrators had about the prestige of individual institutions in the national context. At the same time, the USN did bring a number of important novelties into the practice of ranking itself. First, it introduced its already extensive expertise from consumer markets research into higher education (Espeland & Sauder, 2016). Second, by repeating the rankings, the USN eventually institutionalized the seriality—something that Cartter had hoped to do but did not live long enough to see. In doing so, USN effectively exported the rankings-specific idea of performance—which was now increasingly more seen as a proxy for quality and excellence in academic organizations—to a much wider audience.