Way back in 2008, I noted with skepticism the University of Michigan’s “Wolverine Scholars” Program. I wasn’t the only one. The initiative allowed Michigan undergraduates with very high GPAs to get into Michigan Law without having to take the LSAT.

The program seemed like a pretty obvious attempt to game the U.S. News rankings. It’s so obvious that the now disgraced former Dean of Admissions for Illinois Law, Paul Pless, who had a similar program at his school, had this to say about it:

I started a new program for U of I undergrads to apply in their junior year and we don’t require the LSAT. We have additional essays and an interview instead. That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA’s that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious.

Pless was talking about Illinois’s iLeap program, which was substantially similar to the Wolverine Scholars program at Michigan.

The Pless quote came out earlier this month, as the admissions director was being ushered under the bus by Illinois Law as the “lone gunman” for its embarrassing admissions scandal.

With the spotlight on a Big Ten school that manipulated admissions statistics for years, Michigan very quietly canceled its Wolverine Scholar Program.

There’s been much less fanfare about the end of the program than there was about its start. In fact, we obtained FOIA documents that contain various emails from Michigan Law Dean Evan Caminker and Dean of Admissions Sarah Zearfoss.

They talk about the program, and the how “the blogs” are covering it….

First of all, let’s establish the fact that the death of the Wolverine Scholar program should come as a shock to anybody who took the time to listen to Zearfoss and believed her claims that the program was not all about keeping the school looking good to U.S. News. In an article she wrote just this past June, Zearfoss claimed the program was going well:

Overall, we’ve been very happy with our Wolverine Scholar “experiment.” I am very optimistic that at the end of our five-year trial run, we will choose to make it a permanent fixture in our admissions toolkit.

To be clear, this wasn’t an admissions dean carrying the water and toeing the company line on a controversial program. Zearfoss wrote this article herself, long after the furor over the program had died down.

What changed between June and now? Well, in September, Illinois admitted it had been out-and-out lying about its admissions information.

It certainly looks like Michigan got spooked by the Illinois scandal. Literally, we only know that the program was canceled because Zearfoss said so in a Daily Illini article about Paul Pless:

“We believed that there are very talented Michigan undergrads who don’t apply to the Law School out of a mistaken conviction that our high median LSAT (169) would foreclose admission,” said Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning for the Michigan law school. “The LSAT, though, is only one of many factors we consider, and we wanted to attract these very talented, high-achieving students.”

Zearfoss said the program was not producing the results the school had originally hoped for and, thus, was discontinued.

In June, the program was going so well that you expected that after you continue doing it for two additional years it will become a permanent fixture. In November, the program was discontinued because it wasn’t working. Sorry, that just doesn’t add up.

But I’m sure that the Michigan Law administration will come up with some reason for the cancellation that strains credulity but they defend rigorously. That’s how the administration has behaved since the start of the Wolverine Scholars initiative.

Give Michigan credit for this: when you look at the emails obtained through FOIA, there is no “smoking gun,” boneheaded statement like the one people found from Paul Pless. Michigan had a story about the program and they stuck to it. In fact, after the the initial backlash to the program, Dean Evan Caminker sent an email the the ABA’s special all law school deans list. In a couple of emails, Caminker explains why Michigan doesn’t need to make students take the LSAT. He also blames the media for some of the reaction to his program:

From another email to the same list:

Hold on Michigan admins, before you whip off emails claiming that the “blog” reports that quote you are taking you out of context, everybody can see the full version of these emails by clicking on the links below.

To be clear, the issue “the blogs” picked up on was not whether Michigan was allowed to admit students who had not taken the LSAT, but whether doing so was a U.S. News trick. Caminker addressed that question directly when asked by a Michigan alum (I’ve blacked out non-responsive bits):

That argument is something that you see consistently throughout the documents. Michigan wants to get students from Michigan into Michigan Law, and that was a big motivating factor for the program. As I mentioned in my initial post in 2008, it makes sense that some people with high GPAs and high LSAT scores at Michigan undergrad might leave the state to go to schools that are ranked higher than Michigan.

But that only tells one side of the story. Michigan students who can score really well on the LSAT will still take the LSAT, score highly, and leave. Michigan will be left with the students who do less than stellar on the LSAT. They could, of course, just admit those students, but that would have a marginal effect on their median LSAT score. INSTEAD… Wolverine Scholars allows them to encourage students who might not do well to avoid taking the LSAT and admit those students without taking the LSAT hit!

In defense of Michigan, its best argument that it wasn’t trying to game the system is the fact that the program was so small. It’s not like a few Michigan undergrads would really push the numbers either way. Zearfoss makes this argument over email in response to some questions from Anna Ivey of Anna Ivey Consulting. Here was the pertinent question from Ivey:

And here’s the response from Zearfoss. As I said, there’s no smoking gun in these documents, but the conspiracy theorists out there will love this one:

Yes, it would be incredibly stupid to publicly announce that you were gaming the U.S. News ranking system. If I were going to the game the system, I’d probably start with a program that has a basically legitimate purpose, stick to my talking points, and then slowly grow that program over a period of, say, five years.

In any event, hopefully Michigan will say something about this as the emails make it pretty clear that they care about how they are perceived by the blogs, even though they privately deride blog reports. This one note from Zearfoss to Ivey almost made me feel bad for Michigan administrators:

I say I almost felt bad.

But then I remember that I wasn’t blogging or saying “mean” things about Sarah Zearfoss. I criticized a program. I criticized justifications for that program. I criticized a media strategy that seemed to involve pissing in everybody’s ear and telling them it was raining. Because whether or not Michigan was using the program to game the rankings, the Illinois admissions dean with the exact same program admitted that the whole point of these kinds of programs was a way of playing with the numbers. Every question that Zearfoss or Caminker got about this program in 2008 was legitimate, whether it was coming from the blogosphere or people who promised not to write anything mean.

And now that the program has died a nearly silent death, it’s fair to assume that all those questions have finally been answered.

If you’re interested, you can check out some of the Wolverine Scholars emails on the subsequent pages.


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