Is The Forward’s College Guide Misguided?
Any effort to rank universities is fraught with land mines. Just ask US News and World Report, whose college rankings provoke arguments each year among faculty, students, administrators, alumni and other stakeholders.
Now The Forward has taken on the unenviable task of trying to identify the “best colleges and universities for Jewish students” — and the paper can count on similar criticism.
Hillel publishes a guide to give students and parents some idea about Jewish life on the nation’s campuses, but it does not rank schools. A few groups have put out lists of colleges that they claim to be the worst; these are typically based on counting incidents that they define as antisemitic or anti-Israel. I’ve analyzed some of these lists, and found them — at best — misleading, and — at worst — totally inaccurate.
The Forward takes a more sophisticated approach by grading schools based on 50 different factors in four categories: Jewish life, academics, Israel activity and cost. These are all useful categories to assess a college; however, the people assigning grades seem to do so arbitrarily using subjective rationales.
Let’s start with the overall distribution of 100 points. The editors have decided that “Jewish life” is worth 40%, Israel activity 20%, academics 30% and cost 10%. Why these percentages? Other than noting that a guide for Jewish students should have Jewish life as the biggest category, the distribution is arbitrary. Still, if I’m a parent of a student and want to know if a school is a good place for a Jew, it may be helpful to see 60% of a school’s score be based on Jewish life and Israel.
How do you determine how many points out of 60 to assign each school in those categories?
The Jewish life score, we are told, includes all sorts of things, such as the proximity of synagogues, attendance at Shabbat services and availability of kosher food. Does a school lose points if it lacks one of these, such as an eruv? Some of the criterion may indeed give an indication of “Jewish life,” but do they matter to students who are not Orthodox? Looking at the size of the Jewish student population already gives a pretty good indication of Jewish life on campus, so this scorecard does not add much.
Where the editors really skew the results is in relying on the AMCHA Initiative data on antisemitism. As I’ve documented, this data is very problematic and leads to distorted assessments of the campus situation. The Forward does not explain how this information affects their scoring. If, for example, they use AMCHA’s swastika counting methodology, they are likely to unfairly deduct points from campuses where a single swastika might have been found on campus — and had no impact on “Jewish life.”
The editors specifically do not count “harsh criticism of Israel or the promotion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as antisemitism.” This is highly problematic, since BDS is antisemitic — and because it is precisely the harsh criticism of Israel and BDS activities that have created the perception that campuses are inhospitable to Jewish students.
The Israel score is based on considerations such as Israel activity on campus and whether Israel clubs reflect a broad political spectrum. For instance, the editors look at Birthright Israel trip size, which is biased toward schools that have large Jewish student populations. Though the editors say that BDS does not count in their evaluations of Jewish life, they do list whether there has been a BDS resolution and suggest it is a factor in the Israel score. The editors do not explain how they total the score for these variables. Does a BDS resolution count the same as whether there is a J Street chapter? What is the threshold for deciding how many points to assign a Birthright trip?
Cost is the only straightforward measure, which they determine based on which schools are the least and most expensive. The scores on academics, however, are more complicated. They rated schools on acceptance rates and student-to-faculty ratios. These are useful measures, but don’t fully reflect the quality of an institution. State schools, in particular, would score relatively poorly because they are required to be less selective (they must give priority to residents), and their classes are often larger than “elite” schools. Yet some of the best schools in the country are state schools. Furthermore, if a student is interested in a particular field, certain schools will be better than others.
I have argued that faculty members have the most significant impact on attitudes toward Israel. Admittedly, their impact is difficult to measure, but failing to take faculty into account is a flaw in the methodology.
The authors do list whether each school has an Israel Studies major. Clearly, they didn’t do their homework on this issue. No university offers a major in the field, and only a handful offer minors. A better measure would be to look at the number of Israel Studies courses. This, too, is an imperfect standard, but it offers a much better indication of how Israel is treated academically.
Examining specific rankings exposes how these methodological problems create confusion. Emory is a very good school, but I’m not sure it deserves the top spot. A bigger question is whether there are really 18 other schools better for Jews than Yeshiva University.
One example where the ranking probably does better reflect reality than perception is Columbia. I’m sure those who have railed against the university will be crazed by its #9 rank, but the truth is that it is a philosemitic university that happens to have one very bad department and several awful professors.
Readers may be more misled by some of the lower ranked schools. By putting them at the bottom, the impression is created that they are the worst places for Jews, but that is not the case for most of them. Take the University of South Carolina, which is way down at #161 out of 171 schools. It has no anti-Israel problems, but does have a Students Supporting Israel chapter, Hillel, Chabad and a decent-sized Birthright Israel trip. The Chabad rabbi said, “USC has been very welcoming of its Jewish students and the general campus climate is mostly one of support for Judaism and Israel.”
So, why is USC rated only 11/20 on Israel? Only 400 of USC’s students are Jewish, so maybe it isn’t as good a place for Jewish life as UCLA (ranked #15) where there are 2,500 Jewish students and a huge surrounding community, but should it be ranked near the bottom?
USC is rated even lower than the University of California at Irvine, which has become notorious over the years for anti-Israel activity. Still, UCI’s #150 rating is a problem. Bizarrely, rather than quote someone from Hillel or Chabad, as they do for many other schools, the only comment the editors make is to note that there is a functioning nuclear reactor on campus. The school is ranked #39 in the country by US News, but gets only 10 out of 30 points for academics from the Forward. Despite its negative reputation, the paper lists only one antisemitic incident in 2016. They say a BDS resolution passed, but that’s misleading, because it was adopted in 2013-14. They list several pro-Israel student groups and a large number of Birthright participants, but give Irvine only 5.33 out of 20 points on Israel and 12.67 out of 40 for Jewish life.
There is no other qualitative analysis to give any sense of how their score for UCI was derived, and it seems totally out of whack with the little information that they do provide. It is also disturbing that the rabidly anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace is lumped in the Israel-related clubs category (presumably meant to indicate support for Israel on campus), along with ZotPac- Anteaters Israel Public Affairs Committee, Students Supporting Israel, and IAC Mishelanu.
Overall, the research is lacking critical inputs. The editors apparently did not talk to students, faculty or off-campus organizations that work closely with students. This makes the analysis even more dubious.
The Forward rankings will encourage debate, but provide little help to Jewish parents. My advice: take the information with a grain of salt, and ignore the rankings. If you really are concerned about whether a campus is good for your Jewish child, go for a visit and talk to students, faculty and campus professionals. The picture on the ground often looks much different than from afar.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.