College rankings are often considered to be one of the most vital sources of maintaining an institution’s attractiveness to prospective students, so much so that certain colleges have occaisonally come under fire for allegedly cooking the books in order to improve their rankings, such as reporting false numbers for average GPAs. While most would view these occurences as fraudulent but otherwise harmless, former Rice University student Olivia Hansen’s recent editorial for the Rice Thresher shows just how far certain colleges are willing to go in order to protect the coveted status that college rankings provide.

Rice University, a private research university in Houston, Texas, reportedly has one of the most contented campuses in the country, so much so that the Princeton Review put Rice at the top of the lists for both “Best Quality of Life” and “Happiest Students” in the 2012 edition of the publication. But according to Hansen, this achievement may be entirely hollow, as her experience with the Rice University suggests less of an inclination to keep spirits high, but rather a systematic barring of unhappy students from attendance in order to maintain their ranking.

Originally attending Rice between August 2010 and September 2011, Hansen says that her initial tenure at the college was marked by a particularly unhealthy and abusive relationship with a fellow student, who Hansen says “physically, verbally and sexually” abused her in increasing amounts.

“In September 2011, my abuse got out of hand. Traumatized, I finally began to talk to the resident associates,” wrote Rice. “With their encouragement (and a little bit of force), I reported him to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs. Eventually, he was suspended from Rice University for the remainder of the academic year.

“He called me a liar, and I had been so isolated for the past year that people did not know me at Rice except as his girlfriend. I was lonely and broken, constantly wondering whether I had made the right choice. I felt like I had betrayed my best friend. Nothing felt fair.”

As a result of his suspension, Hansen’s ex-boyfriend was removed from one of the school’s athletic teams, which resulted in a backlash from the other members of the team and certain members of the student body towards Hansen. Citing that her time at Rice had become “the worst time of [her] life” as a result of her abuse and subsequent treatment by other students, Assistant Dean of Student Judicial Programs Donald Ostdiek then suggested that Hansen take a medical leave.

Spending the fall of 2011 in recovery, Hansen then felt emotionally stable enough to return to Rice for Spring Quarter in order to resume her degree. After filing a protection order against her ex, Hansen then began seeing a psychologist and working a steady job. By January 2012, Hansen had successfully petitioned for readmission due to what was officially labelled a “successful recovery.” But upon returning to the college, Hansen says that she was almost immediately harassed by her ex-boyfriend’s teammates and friends, who sent her numerous emails. Despite presenting the emails to the Rice University Police Department, Hansen was told that there was nothing she could do to stop it. From there, the provocations from her ex and his friends only escalated.

“On March 15, my ex parked his truck directly across the street from Duncan College [a residency college at Rice],” wrote Hansen. “When I confirmed it was his truck, I called RUPD, sobbing and in shock. Two officers met me back at Duncan. They had the truck towed but told me there was nothing more they could do.”

RUPD officers informed Hansen that since her ex-boyfriend had not hurt her “yet,” he was not technically in violation of the protection order she had placed against him. Additionally, the RUPD told her that she should not have been across the street because she was only under the purview of the protection order when she was on campus.

“It made me think — could I no longer leave campus?” wrote Hansen. “Was I not able to go out to dinner with friends or go shopping at the mall? And even though he had hurt me for a year, would they not do anything if he came near me unless he hurt me again first?”

From that point forward, Rice officials began exhibiting a starkly different reaction to Hansen’s situation. In March 2012, Hansen was ordered to see a campus psychologist with whom she had never previously received treatment from. The psychologist informed Hansen that she seemed unfit for attendance, and she was then stripped down and checked for any self-inflicted injuries.

“Every bruise was scrutinized,” wrote Hansen. “I told them I am just a clumsy person, but they did not seem to believe me.”

That afternoon, Hansen was then sent to the office of the Dean of Undergraduates, John Hutchinson. Hutchinson then informed her that Rice University had deemed Hansen to be too unstable and mentally unwell to remain at the university any longer.

“My academics were not in question; my grades were all excellent,” wrote Hansen. “The dean simply said it was Rice’s observation that I was not healthy enough to remain on campus. There was no room for discussion. When I asked for examples, arguing that my depression was under control until the ‘truck incident,’ he told me he could not discuss specifics.

“My roommate was shocked; she saw me every day and did not think I was unstable. Nobody had asked her whether I should be withdrawn from school. The rest of my friends had the same shocked reaction.”

Hansen was then given only two hours to collect her belongings from Duncan College and leave campus. Her tuition was not refunded. Although Hansen was awarded the Duncan Edelweiss Award for “outstanding service to the community,” and her former RA had requested that she attempt a return to the university in the fall, Hansen’s perception of the college was irrevocably sullied by her experience. But moreover, when she discovered just how highly Rice University had been ranked in terms of general happiness and quality of life, Hansen then began to seek out other students who had gone through similar difficulties, and soon found that the university’s treatment of her was far from a one-off occurrence.

“I talked to some other people at Rice about what had happened to me,” wrote Hansen. “One man told me he was forced to withdraw for one year for depression. Other women told me about their experiences with assault on campus. The perpetrators were rarely punished. Victim-blaming seemed to be a common theme.”

In addition to recounting how unhelpful and dismissive the on campus counseling services were for her, Hansen reports that the case number for her assaults don’t even appear on the university’s crime logs. As a result, Hansen believes that this muted response to the domestic issues that Rice students face is part of an effort to keep their rankings high and remain competitive at the expense of those in attendance.

“Rice University is ranked nationally for having the “happiest students” and “best quality of life,” but is this actually true?” wrote Hansen. “Or does Rice have those titles only because the administration asks any unhappy students to leave?”

Dean Hutchinson responded to Hansen’s claims in an op-ed on the Rice Thresher as well in defense of the school’s counseling services, but did not offer a repudiation of her suggestion that Rice had ejected her in order to keep their rankings high.

Regardless of the pain of her own experiences, Hansen hopes that her ordeal will at least shed light on the unsavory practices committed by Rice’s staff in order to maintain their high rankings, and hopefully lead to more honest and effective ways of aiding those who suffer from trauma and mental illness rather than be treated as a burden.

“As an abuse survivor, I have also realized that Rice does not have enough resources for victims of assault, abuse and stalking,” wrote Hansen. “I would like to see this changed. Rice is a truly wonderful university, but without the proper support for students with mental health issues, it has not yet earned its title for best quality of life.”

UPDATE: December 12th, 2012
Rice University President David Leebron has further responded by issuing a statement:

“I do want to take issue with the headline of the op-ed: “Rice maintains ’happiest students’ status by ousting unhappy students.” The article suggests we deliberately ask “unhappy” students to leave to bolster rankings or reputation. There is no basis for such an outlandish assertion, especially in light of [four forced withdrawals for psychological reasons in the last academic year]. The Princeton Review rankings are based on student surveys over which we have no control. It is simply false that any students are being asked to leave to affect such surveys. In fact, if we were driven by the incentive of rankings, we would be inclined to keep every student enrolled, as retention plays a significant role in US News and World Report rankings. Every decision made by our counselors and others is driven by the welfare of our students, and whenever possible, we seek to accommodate their needs. That some of these decisions are hard and painful should not lead us to cast aspersions on the motives or integrity of those charged with these important responsibilities.”