TROUBLE IN ALBANY

Recently, Albany Law School has attracted some unwanted publicity, but many other schools should be paying close attention. On February 3, the school offered buyouts to as many as eight tenured professors. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s almost 20 percent of the school’s full-time faculty.

Reversal of Fortune

Notwithstanding its relatively low position in the law school universe (U.S. News rank: #132), Albany Law School enjoyed a nice run from 2005 to 2011 — as did most of its peers. During that period, the school enrolled around 240 first-year students annually. Tuition rose steadily from $30,000 in 2005 to its current $42,000. During the period, student-faculty ratios dropped from 16:1 to 13:1.

But the last few years have been a different story. Even as it accepts almost 70 percent of all applicants, enrollment for the class of 2016 has plummeted to 182 — a 25 percent drop from 2005. The school placed a little more than half of its 2012 graduates in full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. (As with many schools, the decline in first-year enrollment accelerated after detailed ABA-mandated employment outcomes first appeared in 2012 for the class of 2011.)

Tough Choices

Albany’s new dean, Penelope Andrews, began her tenure on July 1, 2012. Even a thorough understanding of the school’s problematic trend lines could not have prepared her for the challenges she soon confronted.

On December 16, 2013, Daniel Nolan, chair of the Albany board of trustees, circulated an email stating that “relevant financial circumstances facing the School require a headcount reduction, including faculty.”

A week later, at the request of a newly formed (in November 2013) Albany Law School chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Gregory F. Schultz, associate secretary and director of the national AAUP, wrote a lengthy letter to Dean Andrews. Schultz expressed concern that the law school’s claims about economic circumstances didn’t rise to the level of “financial exigency” required to justify terminating tenured faculty. Instead, he wrote, Albany’s threatened action appeared to be a pretext for steps that “would eviscerate tenure at the Albany Law School and, with it, the protections for academic freedom.”

He said, She said

According to JDJournal, “one of the professors at the school said that there is a ‘small but vocal minority’ of faculty at the school who want standards lowered in an effort to increase enrollment. This would then prevent layoffs…. It’s a very selfish, selfish endeavor. They are really trying to save their jobs, but they’ve ginned this up to make it look like we are denying academic rights.”

The New York Law Journal reported that “several angry Albany Law School professors deny the faculty ever suggested the school should lower standards to boost enrollment and avert layoffs.” On February 3, 2014, the board of trustees reportedly quashed the idea anyway:

“A review of our declining bar passage statistics (we are now the second lowest law school in New York State for bar passage), combined with the extremely difficult employment market for our graduates, compels us to believe that we must focus on quality of applicants, not quantity. To admit students in order to increase revenues due to projected operating deficits would be both unethical and in violation of ABA standards.”

A Way Out?

Presumably, offering voluntary buyouts to tenured professors could solve the problem for now. If a sufficient number of faculty members accept, layoffs won’t happen. That would defer for another day the fight over whether the school truly faces “financial exigency” justifying involuntary terminations of tenured faculty.

Others can debate whether Albany is operating at a loss and/or should draw down it’s endowment to cover shortfalls. More interesting questions relate to any law school’s possible responses to the larger phenomenon of declining applicant pools.

Some Albany Law School professors reacted with indignant outrage at the suggestion that a colleague might have urged the school to counter declining applications with lower admission standards. But the fact is that many schools have responded in exactly that way. Overall acceptance rates have risen from 50 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in 2012. It’s a cynical strategy, but it keeps seats filled with tuition-paying student dollars from federally-backed loans.

Other schools are cutting costs and economizing where possible. Those efforts are laudable, but they are short-term fixes. Any long run solution requires the involvement of tenured faculty who now have a choice: be part of the solution or become a growing part of the problem. Tenure is an important and valuable aspect of higher education. But it won’t be worth much to those whose institutions disappear.

In the end, the question is whose interests matter most. Dean Andrews deserves praise for confirming what sometimes gets lost in the noise as various stakeholders scramble to preserve their positions in the legal academy:

“Cutbacks are very, very hard. But what is motivating everything about what I’m doing is my student-centric approach,” Dean Andrews said. “Albany Law School and law schools exist to train students and it’s all about the students.”

Indeed it is.

HOW THE LAWYER BUBBLE GROWS

In June, the legal services sector lost more than 3,000 jobs. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the sector has gained only 1,000 net jobs since June 2012. In the last two months, 6,000 positions disappeared.

No market solutions here

In a properly functioning market, reduced demand would prompt suppliers to cut output in search of equilibrium. But the legal profession consists of several distinct and dysfunctional markets.

For example, there’s plenty of unmet demand for lawyers from people who can’t afford them. Reduced federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation has exacerbated that problem. So has the rising cost of law school tuition and resulting student debt. Over the past 25 years, tuition increases for law school have far outpaced the rest of higher education.

In another segment of the legal market, demand for corporate legal work has been flat for years. But law schools business models generally have focused on filling classrooms, regardless of whether students will ever be able to repay their six-figure educational loans. Because most tuition revenue comes from federally guaranteed loans that survive bankruptcy, schools have no financial incentive to restrict enrollments — that is, until they run out of applicants.

When might that happen? Not soon enough, although recent headlines imply otherwise.

High-profile reductions in class size

Some schools have reduced the size of their entering classes. For example, the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law announced that it is reducing enrollment from the current 1,000 to about 600 — an impressive 40 percent drop.

But as Dan Filler observed at the Faculty Lounge, the reality may be less impressive. Although McGeorge graduated 300 new lawyers annually from 2010 through 2012, its first-year enrollment hasn’t kept pace with those numbers. In 2012, the school had 248 (day and evening) first-year students. In 2011, it had 215. A normalized class enrollment of 200 would be a 20 percent reduction from recent levels. That’s positive, but as explained below, not nearly enough.

About those declining applications

recent Wall Street Journal article about the “plunge” in law school enrollments noted that “applications for the entering class of 2013 were down 36 percent compared with the same point in 2010…” But a more relevant statistic should be more jarring: “Law school first-year enrollments fell 8.5 percent nationwide.”

Here’s another way to look at it: For the fall of 2004 entering class, law schools admitted 55,900 of 98,700 applicants — or about 57 percent. For the fall of 2012 class, law schools admitted 50,600 of 68,000 applicants — almost 75 percent.

About those jobs

The increase in the percentage of admitted applicants is one reason that the lawyer bubble is still growing. Another is the stagnant job market. In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 98,500 net additional attorney positions for the entire decade ending in 2018. In 2010, it revised that estimate downward to project 73,600 net additional positions by the end of 2020.

Even allowing for attrition by retirement, death and otherwise, the BLS now estimates that there will be 235,000 openings for lawyers, judges, and related workers through 2020 — 23,500 a year. Last year alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys.

If law schools as a group reduced enrollments by 20 percent from last year’s graduating class, they would still produce almost 37,000 new lawyers annually — 370,000 for a decade requiring only 235,000 — not to mention the current backlog that began accumulating even before the Great Recession began.

One more thing

Which takes us back to the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. According to its ABA submission, only 42 percent of its class of 2012 graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. Even if the school caps entering classes at 200, its resulting placement rate would rise to only 64 percent.

U.S. News rankings considerations loom large in all of this. Law schools fear that reducing LSAT/GPA admission standards would hurt their rankings. In that respect, McGeorge’s class size announcement overshadowed a more unpleasant disclosure that new ABA rules now require: scholarship retention rates.

Many law schools try to enhance their U.S. News rankings by offering entering students with high LSATs so-called merit scholarships. But those scholarships sometimes disappear for years two and three. According to Prof. Jerry Organ’s analysis, only 42 percent of students entering McGeorge in the fall of 2011 kept their first-year scholarships. Eleven schools (out of 140 that offered conditional scholarships) did worse.

The overall picture is ugly. Some schools are laying off faculty and staff to counter the financial impact of reduced enrollments. But they’re also keeping tuition high and spending money on LSAT-enhancing scholarships that disappear after the first year, presumably to be replaced with non-dischargeable loans. Meanwhile, almost all of today’s students are incurring staggering educational debt, but many of them won’t find jobs sufficient to repay it.

That’s not a march toward market equilibrium. It’s a growing bubble.

“GAMING THE REPORTING”?

In a recent interview with Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg News, U.S. News & World Report’s director of data research Robert Morse explained this year’s only revision to his law school rankings methodology. Morse gave different weights to various employment outcomes for class of 2011 graduates. But he didn’t disclose precisely what those different weights were.

Morse said that such transparency worried him. Full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree got 100 percent credit. But he didn’t reveal the weight he gave other employment categories (part-time, short-term, non-J.D.-required) because he didn’t want deans “gaming the reporting of their results.” It was an interesting choice of words.

Teapot tempests

In some ways, all of the attention to the changes in this year’s rankings methodology is remarkable. Certainly, a school’s employment success for graduates is important. But the nine-month data point for which the ABA now requires more detailed information accounts for only 14 percent of a school’s total U.S. News ranking score. To put that in context, consider some of the more consequential rankings criteria.

Fifteen percent of every school’s U.S. News score is based on a non-scientific survey of practicing lawyers and judges. The survey response rate this year was only nine percent.

Likewise, the “peer assessment” survey that goes to four faculty members at every accredited law school — dean, dean of academic affairs, chair of faculty appointments, and most recently tenured faculty member — accounts for 25 percent of a school’s ranking score. It asks those four individuals to rate all ABA-accredited law schools from 1-to-5, without requiring that any respondent know anything about the schools he or she assesses.

Taken together, the two so-called “quality assessment” surveys comprising 40 percent of every school’s ranking are a self-reinforcing contest for brand recognition. As measures of substantive educational value, well, you decide.

Game of moans

But if, as Morse suggests, his concern is “gaming the reporting,” he must be worried that some deans would either: 1) self-report inaccurate data; or 2) otherwise change their behavior in an effort to raise their school’s ranking. He’s a bit late to both parties.

Scandals engulfed prominent law schools that submitted false LSAT and GPA statistics for their entering classes. But how many others haven’t been caught cheating? No one knows. As for permissible behavior that accomplishes similar objectives, examples abound.

For years, deans seeking to enhance the 12.5 percent of the rankings component relating to median LSAT scores for J.D. entrants have been “buying” higher LSATs through “merit” scholarships. Need-based financial aid has suffered. Ironically, those merit scholarships often disappear after the first year of law school.

Likewise, the faculty resources component is 15 percent of every school’s ranking. But it encourages expenditures — and skyrocketing tuition — without regard to whether they benefit a student’s educational experience.

Whom to blame

Morse establishes the criteria and methodology that incentivize behavior producing these and many other perverse outcomes. But he doesn’t think that any of the current problems confronting the profession are his fault.

“U.S. News isn’t the ABA,” he told Pacchia. “U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements…[W]e’re not responsible for the cost of law school, the state of legal employment, the impact that recession has had on hiring, or the fact that 10 or 20 new law schools have opened over the last couple decades. We’re not responsible for the imbalance of jobs to graduates. No, I think we’re not responsible. I think we’ve helped prospective students understand what they are getting into than they were previously.”

Of course, the problem isn’t just the flawed rankings methodology itself. Also culpable are the decision-makers who regard a single overall ranking as meaningful — students, deans, university administrators, and trustees. Without their blind deference to a superficially appealing metric, the U.S. News rankings would disappear — just as the U.S. News & World Report print news magazine did years ago.

Cultural obsession

Pervasive throughout society, rankings may be a permanent feature of the legal profession. But it’s worth remembering that they’re relatively new. Before the first U.S. News list of only the top 20 law schools in 1987, prospective students and law schools somehow found each other.

Today, rankings facilitate laziness. The illusory comfort of an unambiguous numerical solution is easier than engaging in critical thought and exercising independent judgment. Forgotten along the way is the computer science maxim “garbage in, garbage out.”

LAW SCHOOL DYSFUNCTION, ARIZONA STYLE

Anyone holding out hope that the market for new lawyers might self-correct will be disappointed. Two recent developments continue to make that clear.

More lawyers needed?

The first comes from Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which is considering a move from Tempe to downtown Phoenix. It’s seeking approval from the ASU Board of Regents for a three-year capital improvement plan that includes $129 million toward construction of a new law school complex.

The proposed site is now a parking lot. Compared to the current 165,000 square feet, the new facility would be 294,000 square feet. Documents reportedly sent to the regents include a business plan that would increase the school’s current enrollment and degrees by 50 percent.

A failing grade

Why would ASU entertain such an idea? Presumably because school officials think they can fill classrooms by using statements like those currently appearing on ASU’s website:

“96% of [2011] graduates seeking employment were employed or continuing their education…82% of those employed secured full-time, long-term employment.”

Those numbers look respectable, but take a closer look at the school’s most recent ABA employment data.

In 2011, ASU awarded 201 law degrees. Nine months later, only 137 of those graduates — 68 percent — had long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage. (Ten of them became solo practitioners — a tough beginning for any new graduate.) Another eight had jobs where a J.D. supposedly provided an advantage; another eight held other non-legal professional positions. That’s 153.

The 82 percent “full-time, long-term employment” statistic on the ASU website results from excluding 15 more students: seven unemployed and seeking work, three pursuing graduate degrees, three  with unknown employment status, and two unemployed but not seeking work.

As for the rest? The school itself funded full-time, short-term positions for 18 new graduates. Add in the others holding short-term or part-time jobs and — voila! — you reach the stunning “96 percent employed or continuing their education” number.

Curiously, the same article reporting the school’s plans to increase enrollments and degrees by 50 percent also quoted Dean Douglas Sylvester’s comment that the school has “no current plans to grow our J.D. (Juris Doctor) class beyond its historical size and beyond the capacity of the college to continue to find productive employment for all of our graduates.”

If the dean’s remark — “the capacity of the college to find productive employment for all graduates” — defines a passing grade, his school is already failing.

Predictable response to unfortunate stimuli

In March 2012, Dean Sylvester promised “to reduce the cost of attending law school to make it more available to students of different income levels.” So far, there’s no evidence that he is succeeding in that mission, either.

In-state resident tuition at ASU has increased from $19,225 in 2009-2010 to $26,267 for 2011-2012. For non-residents, tuition has risen from $32,619 to $40,815. The stated goal of these dramatic tuition hikes is financial self-sufficiency for the school.

Meanwhile, spending lots of money on new facilities enhances the average-cost-per-student component of any school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. But if ASU is pandering to that metric, it’s doing so at a steep price to students.

As ASU and other state schools try to eliminate their need for public funds, student loan debt is filling the gap. The average debt for ASU’s law school graduates is $103,436. Together with the school’s employment statistics, such growing indebtedness suggests that techniques aimed at self-sufficiency for the school are having the opposite impact on many of its graduates.

Bouncing back?

Finally, the ongoing glut in the market for lawyers illuminates the second aspect of law school dysfunction. A recent Am Law Daily article heralded the legal sector’s “bounce-back” month in September, adding about 1,000 jobs. “Bounce-back” to what is an interesting question.

From September 2011 to September 2012, the net growth in legal jobs was 5,900. During the same period, law schools graduated more than 44,000 new attorneys. Anyone who thinks that retirements and other natural attrition will close that gap is dreaming. One state-by-state analysis estimates that net lawyer surpluses will exceed 25,000 annually through 2015. Overall, the legal sector is still 50,000 positions below its pre-economic crisis 2008 employment level (1.17 million in 2008 vs. 1.12 million currently).

That takes us back to the contest for the best use of space in downtown Phoenix. If the choice is what’s there now — a parking lot — and a proposed big new ASU law school complex, root for the parking lot.

LAW SCHOOLS AS PROFIT CENTERS

Recently, I wrote about law schools using merit scholarships to fill seats in their entering first-year classes. Economists would say that such price-cutting makes sense in a declining market for new students. Today’s topic considers what may seem at first to be a contradictory trend: Average law school tuition continues to rise at more than double the rate of inflation.

An article in The National Law Journal mused that perhaps rising tuition in the face of reduced demand meant that the fundamental laws of economics might not apply to law schools. In fact, rising tuition along with the proliferation of non-need-based scholarships are parts of the same failing model that regards law school as a business for which U.S. News & World Report rankings provide the definitive metric.

Is relevant demand sufficiently low?

There were 68,000 applicants for the fall 2012 entering class. But in 2011, law schools admitted 55,800, of whom 48,700 enrolled. Two points about these numbers are key.

First, admissions and enrollments may be down, but not nearly enough to create equilibrium with the far fewer available legal jobs for new graduates. In fact, the recent drop in enrollments has simply returned them to 2006 levels. (Law schools were producing too many lawyers in those days, too.)

Second, the laws of economics are performing as expected. Student demand (68,000 applicants in 2012) still outstrips supply (48,700 enrollments in 2011). That sends a signal to deans that they can raise the list price that they charge for tuition, provided that the quality of the applicants doesn’t matter to them.

But quality — as measured by U.S. News rankings methodology — does matter to them. That’s where discounts enter the equation. Published tuition is the list price, but many schools are offering individual scholarships (discounts from list price) in an effort to bolster the U.S. News ranking credentials of their entering first-year classes.

As part of a total profit-maximzing strategy, increasing the list price accomplishes two objectives. First, it generates additional revenues from students willing to pay (or borrow to pay) the full amount. That’s easy money for the school.

Second, it enhances pricing flexibility to recruit so-called desirable candidates (that is, those who will enhance the school’s U.S. News ranking). A higher starting price creates more room to maneuver — through selective and even bigger discounts (scholarships) that seal the deal.

What’s ahead?

In this scenario, U.S. News wields stunning power to determine the characteristics of the next generation of lawyers. But the magazine can’t solve the problems that arrive at graduation time. At the current rate of attorney production, only about half of new graduates will find jobs requiring a legal degree. Since the Great Recession began, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already revised downward its projection of new legal jobs over the next decade. But even that revision results in an estimate that is probably overly optimistic.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, yet another law school dean departed recently in a dispute over her university’s efforts to funnel law school revenues back to the mother ship. That implicates another U.S. News rankings item as it relates to rising tuition: The ranking methodology incentivizes deans to spend more, regardless whether it adds value to a student’s education or employment prospects.

The victims

Put it all together: Declining admissions aren’t declining enough, rising tuition is rising too much; discounts go to students with desirable LSATs and GPAs at the expense of other students who really need financial aid; law schools return a portion of profits to their universities; and every year the system is still producing far too many attorneys. Added to this is the exploding educational debt that is financing this mess.

The current hype that borders on hysteria suggests that declining student interest in law school heralds a major self-correction of the market that will remedy all of these problems. But the sad truth is that the problems are still growing and the end is nowhere in sight.

BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIAL: LAW SCHOOL TUITION!

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlights the efforts of some law schools to generate applicants (and enroll students) in the declining legal market. The print version of the paper included a large photograph of University of Illinois College of Law Dean Bruce P. Smith. It’s an odd time for that school to seek publicity. Not long ago, the ABA fined the school $250,000 for intentionally submitting false LSAT and GPA data.

The new initiatives include scholarships, although for many schools those aren’t really new. For years, some law schools have used non-need-based financial aid to lure students with high LSATs. Lurking behind the current initiatives — and the counterproductive behavior of far too many law school deans — are the ubiquitous U.S. News rankings. Obsession over those rankings created a climate that produced the University of Illinois College of Law’s sanctionable conduct.

There’s just one problem…

The difficulty for many “merit” scholarship recipients is two-fold. First, the money often disappears after year one. For years two and three, the law school business model reasserts its power and, for most students, loans for tuition keep school revenues and profits flowing. The New York Times wrote about that phenomenon last year.

I don’t know what the University of Illinois College of Law’s approach will be, but tuition there is $44,520 for non-residents and $37,100 for residents. Dean Smith said that grants went to every member of the class of 2014 (including those admitted from the wait list) at a total cost of $3.6 million. Maintaining that average of $18,000 per student (assuming enrollment of 200) for all three years would be a daunting task. After all, it’s a state school and Illinois is in terrible financial shape.

Make that two problems…

The more abiding challenge for many students surfaces a bit later: limited job opportunities. For example, the University of Illinois College of Law awarded 190 J.D. degrees in 2011. According to its July 2012 ABA employment report, nine months after graduation, only 96 had full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Other schools mentioned in the WSJ article include:

USC (Gould School of Law): 207 graduates in 2011; nine months after graduation, 134 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

UCLA: 344 graduates in 2011; 211 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

George Washington University: 518 graduates in 2011; 421 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Brooklyn Law School: 455 graduates in 2011; 215 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

The overall full-time long term employment rate for all 2011 law school graduates with jobs requiring bar passage was 55 percent.

An old trick

The premise of these scholarship programs is simple. Rather than reduce tuition for everyone, keep the list price high (hotel managers would call it a room’s “rack rate”) for those who can afford it and offer differential discounts to those who are price sensitive at the margin. The secrecy of individual grants creates a perfect environment for implementing what economists might call pricing along the demand curve. Extract as much as possible from each buyer while maximizing total sales (enrollments).

For anyone with a long-run perspective that extends beyond filling up next year’s law school classrooms, the approach might seem a bit perplexing. If there are twice as many law jobs as there are graduating students with J.D.s, might it make more sense to adopt a strategy that reduced total enrollment?

To their credit, some schools, including George Washington University, are doing that. But for the most part, each law school is striving to maintain enrollments and the credentials of entering classes. Insofar as they are now throwing scholarship money at prospective students who are uncertain about whether to attend law school at all, they’re making things even worse.

U.S. News strikes again

Professor William Henderson correctly closes the article with this observation: “It’s the fear of a U.S. News downward spiral. It’s hard to come up in the rankings when your applications are going down.”

Thank goodness the U.S. News rankings’ guru Robert Morse clarified his magazine’s position on all of this: “[T]he rankings should not be a management tool that law school administrators use as the basis for proving that their school is improving or declining.”

Unfortunately, they do.

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…”