Promoting the virtues of the Grand Rapids with a “lip dub”

This commentator raises some good questions about the validity of “Best Cities” lists. But he then goes on to cite an example of why Grand Rapids is not a “dying city“:

A fantastic example of a community taking the negative by the horns and turning it into a community development opportunity comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Number 10 on the Newsweek list, Grand Rapids responded in creative kind with the world’s largest “lip dub” in May of 2011 (a lip dub is a continuously shot video of people lip synching to a song). The Grand Rapids lip dub involved over 5,000 people, and necessitated the closing of downtown for an entire day as the amazing video was shot. The project was produced by event guru Rob Bliss, the man behind a world-record-breaking zombie walk in Grand Rapids, as well as a 500-foot waterslide and 100,000 paper airplanes in downtown Grand Rapids over the past couple of years. Bliss brilliantly taps into the creativity and fun within his community to produce events that create immensely lovable moments that bind people to their place.

“We disagreed strongly (with Newsweek), and wanted to create a video that encompasses the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city. We felt Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song about death, was in the end, triumphant and filled to the brim with life and hope” said Rob Bliss, Director & Executive Producer of the event.

The lesson for cities everywhere is to expand their definitions of growth, progress, and of what success looks like to them. Using someone else’s yardstick usually leaves you coming up short and feeling like you failed. Creating your own success metrics is not cheating especially when you then challenge yourselves to meet and exceed those measures. Communities that look deeper will likely find surprising vitality and opportunities in unexpected places and perhaps change what the world believes about them and more importantly, what they believe about themselves.

I’m not sure that a “lip dub” is great evidence that a city is not dying. It does suggest some kind of “community spirit” and it is impressive to pull all of these people together and coordinate their efforts.

But I’ve always thought “community spirit” is kind of a vague term and often applies to a relatively small segment of the population. How can it be measured and included in an index? What exactly is community “passion” and “energy”? For example, Naperville claims to have a lot of community spirit and they have some projects to prove it: the Centennial Beach was a citizen’s project and opened in 1933 for the city’s centennial and the Riverwalk started as a citizen’s project for the city’s sesquicentennial. This may be remarkable compared to a lot of communities but how many people are truly regularly involved in community groups and civic efforts? Many communities claim to have such a spirit and I wonder whether this simply reflects the booster efforts of a select few. And how does “community spirit” correlate with factors like employment, crime, and amenities?

Seeing this list again of “dying cities” reminded me that this list could be the inverse of the “most affordable” lists that are occasionally printed. Affordability could be a major factor for people to move (though they often need a job) – but who wants to live in a “dying city?” I can see the pitch now: “We may be dying but we’re affordable!” (Or” You’ve been told we’re dying but we have lip-dub and we’re affordable!”)

Gladwell on US News college rankings

In his latest New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell takes aim at the US News & World Report college rankings (the full story requires a subscription). This is a familiar target and I have some thoughts about Gladwell’s analysis.

Even though I like Gladwell, I found this article underwhelming. It doesn’t give us much new information though it is an easy yet thought-provoking read about indexes (and could easily be used for a class discussion about research methods and rankings). And if his main conclusion is the ranking depends on who is doing the ranking…we already knew that.

Some things that would be beneficial to know (and some of these ideas are prompted by recently reading Mitchell Stevens’ Creating a Class where he spent 1.5 years working in an admissions department of a New England, DIII, liberal arts schools):

1. Gladwell seems to suggest that US News is just making arbitrary decisions. Not quite: they think they have a rationale for these decisions. As the head guy said, they have talked to a lot of experts and this is how they think it works. They could be wrong in their measures but they have reasons. Other publications use other factors (see a summary of those different factors here) but their lists are also not arbitrary – they have reasons for weighting factors differently or introducing new factors.

2. Stevens argues that the rankings work because they denote status. The reputational rankings are just that. And while they may be silly measures of “educational quality,” human beings are influenced by status and want to know relative rankings. Gladwell seems to suggest that the US News rankings have a huge impact – making it a circular status system dependent on their rankings – but there are other status systems that both agree and disagree with US News rankings.

2a. Additionally, it is not as if these sorts of rankings created a status system of colleges. Before US News, people already had ideas about this: US News simply codified it and opened it up to a lot more schools. There perhaps even could be an argument that their rankings opened up the college status system to more participants who wouldn’t have been part of the discussion before.

3. Stevens also suggests that parents and potential students often have to have a good “emotional fit” with a school before making the final decision. Much of the decision-making is made on status – Stevens says that most times when students have two schools (or more) to choose from, they will likely choose the one with a higher status. But the campus visits and interactions are important, even if they just confirm the existing status structure.

Ultimately, this discussion of US News rankings can get tiresome. Lots of academics (and others) don’t like the rankings. Schools claim not to like the rankings. Then why doesn’t somebody do something about it? Stevens suggests it is because if a school drops out of this game, their relative status will drop (and he makes the same argument for athletics: schools have to have some athletics to keep up, not necessarily to win). However, there are a lot of colleges that don’t need the extra applicants that a good US News ranking system would bring. Plus, there are alternative guides and rankings available – there are a number of others that examine different factors and develop different rankings.