THE US NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!

[UPDATE: This post first appeared on April 16, 2010. On January 1, 2011, Northwestern’s former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Earlier this week, I spoke with one of my former Northwestern undergraduate students. Headed for a top law school this fall, he surprised me with this remark:

“A lot of my classmates are waiting to send in their law school deposits until the latest US News rankings come out this week.”

Seriously?

Virtually every law school dean has condemned US News’ annual effort to do for law schools what the Am Law 100 has been doing for big firms. Those of you reading my “PUZZLE PIECES” installments know that annual profits-per-partner rankings haven’t brought out the best in us. It’s all part of a larger contemporary phenomenon: the MBA mentality of misguided metrics.

Unfortunately, students aren’t listening to the unanimous chorus of skeptical law school deans. It’s easier to follow the simplistic approach of a lonely outlier, Northwestern’s David Van Zandt: however wrongheaded, metrics matter.

For a decade, he has refused to join colleagues criticizing US News’ fatally flawed methodology. (See, e.g., Brian Leiter’s analysis) A self-styled maverick, Van Zandt insists that ratings are relevant consumer information.

His position proves too much. Not all misinformation should be allowed to pollute decision-makers’ minds. That’s why fraud and misrepresentation causes of action exist. There’s another problem: pandering to the US News criteria distorts law school administrators’ decisions. Once misguided metrics become governing principles, thoughtful reflection disappears. Teaching to the test is easier than creating imaginative lesson plans.

Lately, metrics seem to be foresaking the maverick. In 2009, Northwestern dropped from 9 to 10 in the US News overall standings; this year, it fell to 11.

Rationalizing the decline, Van Zandt says that his innovative programs haven’t gained traction because of “resistance within a conservative profession.” He argues from aneccdotal evidence that the future will vindicate him. Apart from his inconsistency in crediting a positive rating that suits his purposes but discounting it when things breaks badly, some might accuse him of magical thinking.

Is it time for Van Zandt to back away from his isolated defense of the US News listings? Sure, but it won’t happen. In an April 13 Above the Law post, he urges even more rankings, however dubious their value.

In the end, he’s a misguided metrics kind of guy — at least until Northwestern drops again next year. [UPDATE: It did — to 12th, but by the time the news hit, Van Zandt had already left to become president of The New School in New York.]

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