The U.S. News Rankings: More Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

US News World Report small cover 2009 law school rankings ratings Above the Law blog.jpgTo be perfectly honest, we’re getting tired of writing about the new U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. But judging from the number of comments on our earlier posts — 1,153 and 575, as of this posting — you’re not tired of reading and talking about them. So, onward.
In our last post, we wrote about law schools freaking out over their falling rankings. The schools we specifically mentioned, whose administrators sent out defensive messages to the student body on the subject, were the University of Buffalo (down from 77 to 100), the University of North Carolina (from 36 to 38), the University of Iowa (from 24 to 27), and the University of Minnesota (from 20 to 22).
To this list of law school lamentation, please add Case Western, which went from 53 to 63 (memo posted in the comments, but independently verified by us) [FN1]; and the University of Miami, which fell from 70 to 82. One UM student had harsh criticism of Dean Lynch’s message (PDF):

Here’s Dean Dennis Lynch’s blast to University of Miami students, attempting (complete with a cornucopia of grammatical errors — maybe this is indicative of the problem?) to explain away a nearly 25% drop in the rankings over the last three years (resulting in an institution now perilously teetering on the edge between Tier II purgatory and Tier III oblivion).

I’d direct your attention to his trumpeting of UM’s “ranking” on the oh-so-often cited ‘Law Dragon’ survey. With someone like this in charge — to say nothing of UM’s past glory, like professors getting arrested for soliciting prostitutes — the real wonder is how UM is even ABA accredited, let alone ranked on U.S. News.

Self-hatred much? We love our UM tipsters, but maybe they need to find themselves some good therapists.
Not every administrator at a law school that slipped in the rankings viewed sending out a school-wide email as such a hot idea. From a future law student, who won’t graduate law school until 2011, but who’s already an ATL tipster (call us Socrates — we like to corrupt the youth):

I was at the U of Illinois College of Law admitted students weekend. In the 2009 USN&WR ratings, Illinois Law “fell” from #25 to #27. So, the dean of admissions spent the first 15 minutes of a 30 minute break-out session ostensibly about “Campus Housing Options” talking about the rating decline.

He said that “at some schools, like Minnesota and Iowa, the students are so freaked out about this that the administration sends out emails immediately to calm them down, but we’re not going to do that here, because you know it will be on AboveTheLaw.com in 30 seconds after I hit ‘send.’

Well, we’re not that fast. But thanks for the compliment and shout-out.
More discussion and links, after the jump.

In any ranking system, there are winners and losers. For every school that went down in the USNWR rankings for 2009, some school went up. Professor Paul Caron collects press releases from triumphant law schools in this post. Some of them are pretty cringe-worthy, but that’s to be expected. [FN2]
Of course, should one of these winning schools see a tumble in rank in 2010, expect the dean to issue sharp criticism of the deeply flawed U.S. News methodology. As Professor Brian Leiter writes, commenting on the “Hall of Shame” (i.e., “Schools Publicizing Their Meaningless US News Ranking”):

Someone else will no doubt figure out how many of these Deans, or their predecessors, signed the letter urging students to ignore the U.S. News rankings. While I have some slight sympathy with lesser-known schools trying to publicize an unusually good result on the U.S. News “roulette” wheel (even though it is quite likely to come back to haunt them in another year), it’s a bit harder to understand what schools like Vanderbilt think they are doing.

Professor Leiter has condemned the overall rankings as “meaningless” and “garbage,” but he puts more stock in the underlying data — e.g., the reputational scores. To see the 184 law schools ranked by academic peer reputation, check out TaxProf Blog (which reveals some interesting divergences between overall rank and reputation rank).
It should be noted, however, that even the underlying data can be questioned. For example, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Professor Jim Lindgren identifies anomalies in the job placement data for Berkeley and Columbia.
One ATL reader questions the employment data for Pepperdine, pointing out this comment on the blog of Bob Morse, U.S. News and World Report’s director of data research, and noting:

If you add up the numbers that the commenter claims he received from Pepperdine, it appears that they included 23 students that “were studying for the bar full time” in their employment numbers. This would raise their employment figure by 9.4% (from 85.7% to 95.1%). This is exactly the practice that the change in the U.S. News formula was designed to eliminate. See http://agoraphilia.blogspot.com/2007/07/usn-to-change-employment-measure.html. It appears that Pepperdine may have got around the formula change by simply sending U.S. News false numbers.

The commenter claims to have copied an email he received from Pepperdine (complete with the Pepperdine Recruiting Coordinator’s contact information) into the post and offered to forward the email to Bob Morse. Bob’s response? “Pepperdine gave U.S. News different numbers.”

The numbers:

“indicated that they had a job” (79.2%) + “enrolled in full-time degree programs (6.5%) = 85.7% employed

85.7% + 23 students that “were studying for the bar exam full time” (9.4%) = 95.1%. This would reflect the 95% employment number that U.S. News reports.

Sounds like good fodder for the online chat that the ABA Journal, which just did a cover story on U.S. News “rankings czar” Bob Morse, will be holding on April 11th. From Edward Adams of the ABA Journal:

Morse will be taking questions from the public on ABAJournal.com on Friday, April 11, from 3 to 4 p.m. ET. We hope you and your readers will participate.

[FN1] Case Western’s dean, Gary Simson, went all out in responding to U.S. News. In addition to the message previously posted in the comments, he sent out a second message.
(Note that Dean Simson’s message may convey a misleading impression, to the extent it suggests that a school’s overall ranking is determined solely by the reputation scores generated from surveying academics, lawyers, and judges. The reputation scores are only part of the overall rank, which also reflects such factors as selectivity, job placement, resources, etc.)
As most of you probably know, the U.S. News rankings of law schools are
determined by four faculty per school (dean, associate dean for academic
affairs, appointments committee chair, and most recently tenured faculty
member) and by selected lawyers and judges. U.S. News does not provide
these individuals with any information about any of the schools. As a
result, a person’s knowledge about the particular schools that he or she is
ranking may range from substantial to virtually nonexistent.
By contrast, the U.S. News rankings of specific programs are determined by
faculty who teach in the particular area. Two of our programs fared very
well in these more informed rankings. Health law faculty voted our health
law program fourth in the country, and international law faculty voted our
international law program sixteenth in the country. Congratulations to the
faculty, staff, and students involved in our Law-Medicine and Cox
International Law Centers!
[FN2] In terms of messages celebrating upward movement in the rankings, we especially liked this one. In some quarters, “TTT” is an epithet; but in others, it’s an aspiration. It just goes to show that everything is relative — especially in the world of law school rankings.
I am pleased to report that we have had a good week. The House subcommittee dealing with the new building has approved it. That means that the appropriate Senate and House subcommittees have approved the new building. Thanks for all the help you have given this effort, particularly UB day in Annapolis and the emails last week. Also, we have moved up to the 3rd tier in the most recent US News rankings. Our goal is to create a better law school, not simply get to a certain point in the ranking system. But this is an important step in that effort and a confirmation that we are on the right path. Many of you have helped in this effort, particularly with admissions events. Thanks for your assistance – we become the school we want to be without your help.
Phillip J. Closius
Dean and Professor of Law
University of Baltimore School of Law
Law School Deans React to Decline in U.S. News Rankings [TaxProf Blog]
Hall of Shame: Schools Publicizing Their Meaningless US News Ranking [Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports]
An Open Letter to Other Law Bloggers Regarding the US News Rankings [Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports]
2009 U.S News Peer Reputation Rankings (v. Overall Rankings) [TaxProf Blog]
Anomalies in the purported new US News rankings of law schools [Volokh Conspiracy]
Earlier: The U.S. News Rankings: Law Schools Lose Their S**t React
Please Do Not Wet Yourself With Excitement: The 2009 U.S. News Law School Rankings

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