THE OTHER BIG 10 SCANDAL

Penn State dominates the headlines, but another Big 10 scandal symbolizes what ails legal education and much of the profession. The two situations aren’t morally equivalent, but it’s too bad there isn’t an attention-getting JoePa at the University of Illinois.

On August 26, the university’s ethics office received a tip about a problem with the U of I College of Law’s LSAT and GPA stats. The resulting ABA investigation continues, but the U of I’s November 7 report identifies a rogue villain.

I think it’s more complicated.

The rogue

Shortly after Paul Pless graduated in 2003, his alma mater hired him (at a salary of $38,500/year) as assistant director for admissions and financial aid. (For years, putting unemployed new grads on the temporary payroll for paltry wages has bolstered schools’ U.S. News rankings. Starting next year, they’ll have to disclose it.) Pless stayed on and, by December 2004, was earning $72,000/year as an assistant dean.

Metrics mania

One of the final report’s first section headings is key:

“Institutional Emphasis on USNWR [U.S. News & World Report] Ranking.”

Not until its 2005 annual report did the school — not Pless — explicitly adopt two new goals: increasing the incoming class’s median LSAT from 163 to 165 and its GPA from 3.42 to 3.5. When the median LSAT came in at 166, then-Dean Heidi Hurd sang Pless’s praises:

“Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings.”

Except the school hadn’t held “all else equal” to get its historic LSAT boost. The median GPA had plummeted to 3.32 and its overall ranking dropped to 27th. In May 2006, a new strategic plan noted that the admissions emphasis on LSATs had left it “with a GPA profile worse than any other top-50 school.” The new goal: raising the incoming class median LSAT/GPA to 168/3.7 by 2011.

In July, Hurd sought a big pay raise for Pless because, she said, he was “in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings.” His salary jumped to $98,000. Up to this point, investigators concluded, there had been relatively minor flaws in the data submitted to the ABA and U.S. News.

The heat is on

Two interim deans served from September 2007 through January 2009. But investigators found that a handful of 2008 discrepancies between actual and reported data for the incoming class of 2011 marked the beginning of a “sustained pattern…that increased in practice and scope through the class of 2014.”

In February 2009, Bruce Smith became dean and had to resolve an open question: should the incoming class of 2012’s median LSAT/GPA target be 165/3.8 or 166/3.7? There had been ongoing internal debate over which combination would maximize the school’s overall U.S. News ranking. Smith described his response to the board of visitors:

“I told Paul [Pless] to push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk, do things differently…Strive for a 166 [LSAT]/3.8 [GPA]….”

The report exonerates Smith from wrongdoing. But footnote 3 observes that his management style “is goal-oriented and intense, and occasionally intimidating, and that it is not inconceivable that certain employees subordinate to him would be uncomfortable bringing bad news to him.”

For the next two years, Pless didn’t.

“I haven’t let a Dean down yet, and I don’t plan on starting with you Boss,” he’d assured Smith in April 2009.

Median LSATs and GPAs showed continuing improvement; Pless’s salary jumped to $130,000 on the strength of Smith’s glowing review. Indeed, Pless’s exploding compensation at a public university in tough financial straits reveals the power of rankings and deans.

On August 22, 2011, Pless touted the class of 2014’s median LSAT (168) and GPA (3.81). By then, the actual numbers were 163 and 3.7.

Who is to blame? The U of I report says Pless and no one else because he made the data entries. I say read it carefully, draw your own conclusions, and ponder the larger picture. The power of U.S. News rankings and other equally misguided metrics comes from people who rely upon them as definitive measures of the things that matter.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

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