Last week, for the first time in over two decades, Emory University fell out of the top 20 in the venerable U.S. News and World Report (USNAWR) rankings.  Although the drop from 20 to 21 is superficially trivial, it is of great symbolic significance given that many students, parents, academicians and college administrators rely on the “top 20” as a rough benchmark for university quality.  But does the drop in the rankings really matter?

In one respect, the answer is “Probably not.” Objectively, the fall-off from 20 to 21 is minor and is plausibly attributable to measurement error and slight shifts in the USNAWR criteria each year.  What’s more, Emory may well be back in the top 20 next year or soon thereafter.  Moreover, as scores of critics have pointed out, the USNAWR rankings are hardly infallible.

They reflect a debatable formula that itself reflects an arcane composite of dubious metrics.  Plus, what’s to complain about? After all, we at Emory are blessed with a lovely campus in a thriving city, a talented student body, many gifted researchers and teachers, bountiful resources and a distinctive mix of a liberal arts and research atmosphere.

Yet, in other ways, the rankings drop is indeed a big deal. Much as the Emory administration is loath to admit it, these rankings impart a sobering reality: Emory is a good university, but not a great one.  To be sure, many interesting and exciting things happen here. But compared with the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech or the University of Chicago, cutting-edge discoveries and breakthroughs at Emory tend to be few and far between.  Furthermore, like it or not, rankings create reality at least as much as they reflect it.  If our rankings continue to stagnate or drop, Emory will find it increasingly difficult to attract the same cadre of high-caliber students and faculty that it has become accustomed to attracting. Incidentally, the USNAWRrankings are hardly alone in raising a red flag concerning Emory’s reputation. Recently, while waiting for a flight at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, I watched a brief video welcoming visitors to Atlanta. As the narrator, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, boasted of Atlanta’s “world class universities,” footage of Georgia Tech and Morehouse flashed on the screen. Emory was nowhere to be seen.  Imagine a comparable video of the Boston area neglecting to feature Harvard or MIT, or of St. Louis neglecting to feature Washington University.  It would be inconceivable.

The administration is quick to point that the drop from 20 to 21 is of no great import.  As is its wont, Emory has valiantly attempted to put the best possible “spin” on the new while turning a blind eye to its implications.  As I write this column, the Emory website proudly displays a story trumping the headline, “U.S. News Ranks Emory among top national universities” while neglecting to inform visitors of our disappearance from the top 20.

Still, the crucial question is not why Emory fell one slot this year. Instead, the question is why Emory has gone essentially nowhere – except slightly down – in the rankings over the past 25 years while several of our peers, such as Duke and Vanderbilt, have increased in the rankings.  When I first joined the Emory faculty in 1994, our university was ranked 17th in USNAWR.  It was a time of enormous excitement and anticipation, and there was widespread talk of Emory being “poised for greatness.” Twenty years later, many Emory faculty members are pessimistic that the words “Emory” and “greatness” will ever appear in the same sentence. Why?

The answer is self-evident to all of those who have followed Emory closely over the past few decades: Emory has not invested sufficiently in academic excellence.  Despite the fact that Emory’s endowment has rebounded and its capital campaign has been strikingly successful, the hiring of new faculty members in the College has slowed to a virtual trickle. Partly as a consequence, the Emory faculty-to-student ratio has climbed from seven to one to eight to one. Fueling the problem, the university has invested much more heavily in Emory HealthCare than in the College, meaning that the hiring of outstanding college faculty has taken a back seat. In addition, for five years in a row, the average college faculty raise pool has been a measly one percent or less, affording department chairs scant leeway to differentially reward faculty members for hard work and scholarly excellence. Not surprisingly, many of our best and brightest faculty members have descended into a state of learned helplessness, apathy and resentment.

To be clear, the fault cannot be laid at the feet of Dean Robin Forman, who appreciates the problem but can only do so much given the limited financial hand he has been dealt.  Instead, as the saying goes, to get the bottom of the problem, we must get to the top of it.

The source of the problem lies squarely with the Emory higher administration, especially President James Wagner, who certainly has Emory’s best interests at heart, and the Board of Trustees. They have been good stewards of Emory’s finances, but it is less clear that they have been good stewards of Emory’s scholarly future.  In many ways, our steady decline in the USNAWR rankings can be viewed as a referendum on their policies. Specifically, the President and Board of Trustees have neglected to grasp the two greatest impediments to Emory’s excellence: complacency and risk aversion.

Emory’s complacency has been apparent in an absence of urgency on the part of the higher administration. Although Emory has an admirable strategic plan for faculty growth, it will be difficult to sustain without a tangible financial commitment. The same sense of self-satisfaction is evident among the Board of Trustees.  When current Chair of the Board of Trustees John Morgan took over last year as the new Chair of this board, he stated that “Emory doesn’t need to ‘change’ who we are to move into the future…Who we are is exactly who we should be.”

This attitude is short-sighted. To take merely one example, the Emory College faculty is remarkably top-heavy.  To some extent, this is a nation-wide problem, but it is especially acute here. In my own department of Psychology, out of 32 tenure-track faculty members, only two are assistant professors.  The substantial majority of our faculty members are in their 60s and 70s and will be retiring within the next decade. This trend, which is mirrored in numerous Emory college departments, is a recipe for disaster. The impending deluge of lost faculty slots, which will almost surely occur unless Emory invests massively in future faculty hires, will inevitably diminish its intellectual atmosphere, scholarly quality and reputation.

Emory’s second great enemy, risk-aversion, is the bedfellow of complacency. Over the past several decades, the Board of Trustees has been economically conservative, consistently declining to take courageous steps to boost the university’s scholarly excellence. Compare Emory ostrich-like approach to its impending retirements with that of Cornell University, which several years ago launched a massive multi-million dollar initiative to replace the faculty members anticipated to retire over the coming decade.

Of course, some Emory faculty members might see all of this as irrelevant. They may be content to teach at a high-quality and comfortable university that largely rests on its laurels and that does not expect more of them. Even so, the Emory student body should care. If Emory does not act decisively to reverse the continued stagnation and potential decline in its rankings, the value of an Emory degree may ultimately be downgraded, and along with it, the quality of our faculty and student body.

When faculty members have asked Emory administrators to explain its lack of investment in current and future faculty excellence, the latter have almost always replied with complicated – and at times convoluted – financial explanations that few of us can understand.  Enough of that.  Emory is an institution of higher learning, not a corporation. It is high time for the Emory administration and Board of Trustees to display bold leadership and to stop expecting its students and faculty to remain content with the status quo.  The Emory community deserves better.

– By Scott O. Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology