Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

WaPo: Behind The Scenes Of The U.S. News Law School Rankings Boycott

Washington Post, Law Schools Love to Hate U.S. News Rankings. But Some Can’t Let Go.:

US News (2023)The decision late last year by Yale Law School to stop cooperating with U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings drew giddy applause from some deans, who cheered the prospect of a larger uprising. After years of misgivings about the rankings’ influence, school leaders hoped that a public stand by Yale – the publication’s perennial No. 1 law program – might finally loosen U.S. News’s grip.

“The revolution has begun!!” Richard Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln law school, wrote in an email shortly after the announcement to his then-counterpart at the University of Minnesota. “I have been wanting to do this for years but my guess is that people will follow Yale more than they would have followed Nebraska …” (At the time, Nebraska was No. 78.)

Law school deans have long complained that the U.S. News metrics value students with high test scores at the expense of those with other worthy attributes. On the other hand, many deans say that even small bumps in the rankings can help them raise money and recruit stronger students and faculty.

Interviews with administrators and internal communications obtained by The Washington Post through public records requests provide new detail about how Yale’s announcement on Nov. 16, 2022 – and, on the same day, Harvard’s – reverberated across higher education. Behind the scenes, administrators debated whether taking a moral stand against U.S. News was worth the risk of either plummeting in the rankings or, as some initially believed might happen, not being ranked at all. Across the country, the moment created a pressing quandary for legal educators, who weighed their concerns about the rankings against the reality of U.S. News’s importance in shaping a school’s national reputation. ...

A year later, the full effect of the revolt remains tricky to parse. U.S. News defended its rankings but made changes in the wake of the boycott. The publication placed greater emphasis on student outcomes, including bar-passage rates, rather than applicants’ grades and test scores. It now relies mostly on public data, lessening its dependence on law schools to provide information.

But a thorny relationship between U.S. News and the schools it ranks persists, fueling a broader debate about who gets to define quality in education. ...

As schools weighed their decisions, some questioned the purity of the boycotters’ motives. One theory: Some schools, correctly anticipating that the Supreme Court would soon strike down race-based affirmative action, could be planning admissions changes that would hurt them in the rankings but preserve diversity. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board surmised as much, saying, “The Yale and Harvard announcements look like attempts to adapt in advance.”

When the University of Michigan’s law dean heard this theory from an alumnus, he dismissed it, saying in an email shortly after Yale’s announcement that his school’s decision to withdraw was “100% not connected to any Supreme Court ruling.”

“There is no subterfuge here,” wrote Mark West, dean at Michigan, which ranked 10th at the time. ...

In 2019, a group of concerned law deans met with Morse and other U.S. News officials in Washington to discuss various concerns about the metrics, several deans said. Those discussions led to the formation of an advisory board, which held periodic private meetings with the publication, according to members. Harvard noted the existence of the board in its statement about withdrawing, but details about the group have not been previously reported.

The board pushed back against two proposed rankings metrics that U.S. News ultimately decided not to include, members said. One was a scholarly impact measure derived from citation counts, which some law professors said undervalued scholarship in less topical research areas. The board, along with many other deans, also resisted a diversity metric that would not have tracked multiracial students.

The board met several times a year on Zoom, sometimes for three or four hours. Several members told The Post that they found the meetings frustrating, because U.S. News largely ignored their feedback.

“They would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, — that makes a lot of sense’ and then do whatever they wanted to,” said Kimberly Mutcherson, former co-dean at the Rutgers University law school in Camden.

Sean Scott, president and dean of California Western School of Law, said she quit the board in late 2022. She opposes ranking schools altogether, she said, which put her at an impasse with U.S. News. “Given that they are wedded to that model and not interested in the harm of that model, it was not worth spending my time,” Scott said. ...

[M]any law deans see the changes that U.S. News has made to its methodology as a sign that the pressure campaign worked. Applicants’ LSAT scores matter less, and bar-passage rates matter more. Spending per student, a much-criticized metric that required data from schools, was dropped as a measure.

That said, money moves the rankings. In 2020, it helped the University of Florida’s law school meet its goal of becoming a top-10 public law school. During Laura Rosenbury’s eight-year tenure as dean, UF law rose in the rankings from a low point of No. 48 to a high of No. 21 among public and private programs. When progress stalled in 2018, UF made an initial investment of $5 million, Rosenbury said, and continued to pay in subsequent years for improvements including upgrades to facilities and classroom technology. (Tuition at the law school had been frozen earlier in the decade by the state.)

“The money was not provided just to manipulate the rankings,” said Rosenbury, now president of Barnard College. “We needed the money to better support our students. And we were able to do so.”

When the boycott happened, Rosenbury said, UF’s provost joked she likely wouldn’t be dean anymore if she took part in it. After all UF had done to climb in the rankings, it “would be jarring” to suggest they didn’t matter, she said. (In the most recent rankings, UF dropped one spot, to No. 22).

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