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Movin' On Up: U.S. News' Rankings Wrangle Rankle

A sort of "inside baseball" mediastorm about manipulating the annual college and university rankings published by U.S. News and World Report has caused a collective gasp of shock as Clemson University admitted to taking steps to improve its status in this celebrated academic "beauty contest."

As president of a college that moved a few years back into the Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges in the magazine's survey, I'd be lying if I said that our ratings in U.S. News don't matter to us. They do.

If you're fortunate enough to get a student to visit the campus, the quality of the educational program should be apparent at the end of the day.

Among college presidents, the rankings issue is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue of academia -- everybody looks at it, but few admit to being swayed by the contents. In the absence of a more effective system -- and surely in this age of Google algorithms and World's Sexiest Man polls there must be a better way -- let me offer a few light-hearted modest proposals for success in getting your college better ratings.

Summer in the Hamptons: Nothing is more effective than personal contact. U.S. News publisher and real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman likes to vacation here. Perhaps a wealthy trustee can buy an estate your college can turn into a research center. Invite Mort over for tennis. Invite reality TV star "Housewife of New York City" Countess Luann de Lesseps over. Mingle. Discuss. Maybe something good happens.

Trump Your Campus: Get Donald Trump to put his name on something on campus. It shouldn't be hard to convince him. Although it's unclear whether he's a billionaire, a multimillionaire or a developer teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, what is clear is that he inexplicably causes ratings to rise and gets fawning press coverage for whatever he's involved with. Plus your architecture faculty can initiate a research project to determine how his hair remains in place.

Send Gifts: To be honest, sending merchandise to buy votes from colleagues in the U.S. News reputational survey probably won't work -- in large part because the president rarely gets to see the goodies sent because other administrators often snag them beforehand. So, to make an impression, think big. Send a car. It worked for Oprah. And this year is the perfect time. You can probably get a great deal on a fleet of American brands.

Double Your Faculty: One of the most important criteria in the survey is small class size. If your institution has classes with more than 20 students in them just hire twice the faculty. Of course, in this economy it will bankrupt your university, and when the crisis is over, thanks to tenure, you'll have hundreds of professors with very little to do. Go for it. You'll move up at least three slots.

Work Very Hard: At any college, university, or any business for that matter, be innovative, encourage risk-taking, insist on striving for improvement, constantly evaluate programs, empower every employee to influence policy, and have fun while you're doing it.

I realize that last one is not very tongue-in-cheek, but that's really the only way to ensure that families recognize the quality of an institution. If you're fortunate enough to get a student to visit the campus, the quality of the educational program should be apparent at the end of the day. If the student is still unmoved, then whatever college he's touring has some work to do--or that college is unsuited to that student (don't despair, it happens to all of us).

Do we really need a poll to tell use that Harvard and Yale are good educational bets? With their billion-dollar endowments and huge faculties, they'd better be. Don't bother gaming the U.S. News system, because good work is always rewarded. If you're doing things right, students and families will recognize that.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. His college is rated 98th in the U.S. News Top Liberal Arts Colleges. He'd like it to be higher, much higher, but it's not the focus of his life.