WEIRD TILTS AT THE RANKINGS WINDMILL

[UPDATE: On January 1, 2011, Northwestern’s former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Virtually all law school deans — with the notable exception of Northwestern’s David Van Zandt — have urged prospective law students to ignore U.S. News rankings because they’re methodologically flawed, susceptible to manipulation, and counterproductive to sound student decision-making. None of that seems to bother students, most of whom regard them as authoritative.

I introduced Van Zandt’s outlier position in an earlier post. (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/). More can be said about how his business school mentality hurts the school and its students, but not today. Right now, I’m more interested in two recent articles on U.S. News rankings.

First, Mercer University recently named its new dean. That’s not a particularly newsworthy item, especially for an undistinguished school. But the National Law Journal thought otherwise. Presumably, its May 27 headline explained why:

“‘U.S. News’ antagonist lands deanship at Mercer University.” http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202458884379&US_News_antagonist_lands_deanship_at_Mercer_University&hbxlogin=1

So that’s what made Gary Simson’s new job noteworthy? He was a U.S. News antagonist? But that describes every law school dean in the country — except Van Zandt.

Simson had been dean of the Case Western Reserve Law School for  18 months when, in summer 2008, he urged law schools to boycott the U.S. News rankings because deans pandered to them. (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202423187148)

Dean Van Zandt quickly proved the point. A few months after Simson’s call to arms, the ABA Journal exposed Northwestern’s aggressive recruitment of prospective second-year students whom that school had rejected a year earlier. (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/transfers_bolster_elite_schools/)  As transfers, their LSATs wouldn’t count in the U.S. News rankings, but their tuition dollars would go directly to the school’s bottom line.

Nobody asked students in the original 238-person class what they thought of that win-win solution for the business school mentality of misguided metrics. Their class grew by almost 20% in 2006-2007. Ironically, Northwestern’s U.S. News ranking has fallen for each of the last three years — from 9th to 11th.

Unfortunately, Dean Simson was already a wounded warrior when he took up the rankings crusade. He’d generated criticism from faculty, alumni, and donors for a variety of reasons, including Case’s low state bar passage rates (75% for Case first-time takers in February 2008 compared to 95% for Cleveland State’s). In October 2008 — just before another round of bar passage results was released — the university’s president announced that Simson  “had agreed to resign.”  (http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/case_western_reserve_law_schoo.html) So much for the boycott messenger and his message.

Yet now, two years later, Simson’s antagonism toward U.S. News rankings has become his claim to fame. Could skepticism about the rankings be attracting new followers and redeeming old ones?

That leads to the second article, also in the NLJ.  The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) has urged law schools to stop providing U.S. News with incoming students’ LSAT scores. SALT asserts that the pressure on admissions deans to get students with top scores compromises efforts to achieve campus diversity. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202458731270)

It’s a noble gesture, but little more. Starving U.S. News of LSAT scores means only that the magazine will have to get such information from the ABA and the Law School Admission Council, both of which report LSATs at individual schools.

Still, recent noise about the dangers of using flawed rankings criteria as decisive metrics is encouraging. The volume should increase in October when U.S. News releases its newest compilation: rankings of the best law firms.

On that one, U.S.  News may have awakened a slumbering giant. In February, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution to investigate the proposed law firm rankings and, while they’re at it, take a close look at law school ranking methods, too.

Perhaps someday wise leaders of our profession will grasp the destructive impact of the rankings game — from law schools to big firms (based on their average-equity-profits-per-partner metric) — and it will all end. But I doubt it.

After all, metrics make life’s decisions so much easier, don’t they? Indeed, they eliminate the need to think at all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s