Schools of Thought, Schools of Fish

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U.S. News and World Report recently released their annual rankings of the top universities in the United States and I was pleased that my alma mater, Columbia University, was tied for number three. I suppose that in theory Columbia’s improved ranking boosts the value of my Columbia degrees (a bachelor’s from the undergraduate college and a J.D. from the law school), but it doesn’t really make a difference in my everyday life. Some of the factors that go into making the list, like faculty resources, student retention rates, and alumni giving don’t really change the way I think about my college choice now that it’s over 23 years since I last set foot in a classroom.

The things about my college choice that continue to pay dividends are the skills I developed, the professors who taught me and the students who surrounded me. I studied Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum and a variety of other topics under the tutelage of professors who were not only dedicated and talented teachers, but also famous statesmen, poets and business leaders, as well as Rhodes Scholars, MacArthur Grant “geniuses” and Nobel Prize winners.

The students who surrounded me were even more valuable to my education. They were intellectual, well-rounded, and engaged. They were hungry to learn and to debate and to experience the world and they were a remarkably heterogenous group. Some of them ended up famous, like Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. Others may not be quite as well-known across the board, but are every bit as impressive, like Li Lu, who was a leader in the Tiananmen Square student protests before moving to New York and learning English and earning BA, JD and MBA degrees in a span of merely six years. Later, Sting’s wife produced a documentary about him and he was the presumed frontrunner to be Warren Buffett’s hand-picked successor. For every Garcetti or Lu, though, dozens of my classmates have contributed to the world in other significant but less-noticed ways.

I had roommates from Pakistan, Georgia, rural Kansas and ultra-urban New Jersey, and my best and most lasting friends came from very different backgrounds than my own. I learned as much from spending time with them and comparing our different perspectives on timely and timeless issues as I did in the classroom.

That’s what made it a good place for ME.

It might not have been a good place for many students who – on paper at least – were my academic equals. Perhaps they would have benefited from being closer to home, or in a more rural environment, or at a school with a larger Greek system or big-time athletics. Maybe Columbia didn’t offer the major or the coursework that they would have needed to pursue their dream career. Indeed, in the latest U.S. News rankings, Columbia was tied with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for third place, and given my ineptitude in most STEM fields the latter likely would’ve been a horrible choice for me, presuming that I even could have been accepted in the first place.

To its credit, U.S. News recognizes that their rankings don’t really reflect any one student’s needs, nothing that “the best school for each student…is one that will most completely meet his or her needs, which go beyond academics….Chances are, there’s a ranking or list that's relevant to you.”

Over the past several weeks, the bass fishing world has been turned upside down by the fact that there will be not two, but three major tours in 2019. Not quite the same as the number of colleges and universities, but a 50 percent increase is kind of a big deal. There has been much gnashing of teeth about which tour is “the best,” and each may prove to have certain universal advantages over the others.

Let’s not forget, though, that while those of us on the sidelines and at the pseudo ranking services may someday reach a near-consensus on which tour is the “best” or the most prestigious or “number one,” the angler, like a potential university student, is making a choice. If they have a choice of which tour to fish, I encourage them to put the rankings aside and try to figure out which tour will best suit their short-term and long-term needs and goals.

·        If you’re a great sight fisherman, but mediocre at just about everything else, does a tour that starts in the south in June work for you?

·        If you gobble up checks, but recognize that you don’t have a face or a personality made for TV, what media platform or platforms will benefit your career?

·        If you win an event just about every year, usually in an innovative manner, but otherwise you’re a bottom-dweller in the standings, what’s your best bet?

·        If you have great non-endemic sponsorship, not tied to any tour, what gives them the most coverage?

Some day we may see a “super tour,” where 30 or 40 of the best anglers to ever make a cast and those coming off major titles – the VanDams, Bryan Thrifts, Andy Morgans and Justin Lucases – compete in a winner-take-all format for big bucks and “worldwide” media fame. Maybe it’s no-entry fee or maybe you buy your way in with a cool hundred grand. Once you’re there, it’s the lead-in show to the Super Bowl. Maybe it has guest appearances by Academy Award winning actresses, Grammy winners and leading intellectuals of the day, drawing from all sorts of constituencies and thereby “growing the sport” exponentially. If you’re a bottom of the barrel guy, given an invite for some inexplicable reason, do you buy that lottery ticket and make the switch with the realization that you’re likely to get fewer checks than you do now, and generally just serve as cannon fodder for the hammers?

 I don’t envy the anglers who have choices to make right now. In some respects, it’s easier to be locked into one tour (the functional equivalent of being admitted only to your top choice college) than it is to have a wealth of options. As a general matter, I think that today’s uncertainty should turn into long-term stability for the sport, including the anglers as a whole, but no single angler is promised a path to tomorrow’s prosperity. Don’t choose your future based solely on a ranking.