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How Law School Rankings Change Legal Education

By Donna Young

Engines Of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, And Accountability by Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2016.

Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability
by Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder
Trade Paperback

Not long ago my husband and I went through the soul-destroying process of helping our son apply to college. Even as professors, we were woefully unprepared for the task. It was not that we were unfamiliar with higher education admissions in the United States. I, for example, had served on my law school’s admissions committee for more than twenty years and had been chair of the committee for the last ten. Never could I have imagined, however, the crisis awaiting my family in trying to choose “the right fit” for our son, whose interests were those of a typical seventeen-year-old boy overly invested in video games and soccer.

Applying to college in the United States is crushing (and expensive). Had I not been so overwhelmed by the process, I’m sure I would not have suggested with so little critical reflection that my son consult various online rankings and consider applying to “the best.” Of course, I knew that such rankings are deeply flawed, yet for all their weaknesses, it was hard to resist school rankings with their promises to quantify quality.

I would imagine that most readers of Academe would agree with Frank Bruni, who wrote in his New York Times column on September 18, 2016, that college “rankings are a joke” because they nourish “the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education; don’t adequately recognize public institutions that prioritize access and affordability; and do insufficient justice to the particular virtues of individual campuses.” In addition, “diversity, socioeconomic or otherwise, doesn’t factor much into U.S. News rankings, though a broadening of perspectives lies at the heart of the best education.”

And I would guess that most of us are troubled by the influence that ranking systems have had on the administration of higher education. But until now, no major studies have measured the effect of rankings on an institution’s core mission and on the people tasked with realizing this mission. In Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, sociology professors Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder focus on the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, gathering information from several sources to paint a fairly grim picture of the ranking process and the measures taken by law schools to cater to those rankings. The authors conclude that rankings do not neutrally measure a school’s worth as claimed but rather change, often negatively, the very institutions that they purport to measure. “In other words,” the authors write, “measures change what they are designed to reflect and in doing so transform how actors see themselves and make decisions.”

Choosing to focus on law schools makes some sense. The authors explain that, almost uniquely, law schools are ranked by only one entity, U.S. News & World Report, which holds a “monopoly on public perception,” uses the same metrics across schools, and simplifies the task of examining variations in responses to its scores. The authors conclude that the rankings have had a profound (mostly negative) impact on the criteria by which applicants are admitted, the effort expended to place graduates in law-related fields, the ability of faculty to place articles at higher-ranking law reviews, the choices made in faculty hiring, the job security of admissions and career-services personnel, the incentives to “game” the system, and the overall educational mission. The study also revealed something less tangible but nonetheless measurable—how rankings affect the self-worth of law school students, faculty, deans, and alumni.

The information gathered through interviews and other sources felt familiar to me. The authors found that U.S. News & World Report rankings affect marketing strategies, admissions criteria, curriculum, faculty and staff hiring, job placement, fundraising, student satisfaction, and alumni giving. And the influence of U.S. News & World Report has only grown over the decades since it first introduced its annual rankings of law schools in 1990. Like law professors elsewhere, my colleagues and I experience a combination of feelings immediately after the rankings for our law school are published—collective sighs of relief, pride, confusion, anger, despair, embarrassment, and anxiety. Rarely have I heard anything but antipathy expressed about the validity, rigor, or usefulness of the rankings. Espeland and Sauder do a good job of detailing the impressions of more than two hundred law school actors (applicants, students, admissions professionals, deans, faculty, career-services professionals, and employers) and casting doubt on the value of rankings on the educational mission of any particular school. One of the deans who was interviewed expressed his disdain for ranking, saying, “The effects are horrendous. . . . What is the purpose of it? Every point in the measurement system has its arbitrariness, and if you add ten arbitrary variables and get a ranking from it, it still doesn’t tell you anything that is valuable.”

What is more, the authors note, the rankings ignore “quality of teaching, the accessibility of teachers, racial and gender diversity within the faculty and student body, the size of first year classes, the strength of alumni networks, and tuition”—all factors that students identified as “‘among the most important in influencing their choices of law school.’” And yet for all the complaints, the rankings continue to drive significant choices, practices, and policies at law schools that aim to improve scores but sometimes do so at the expense of other important values.

One cogent example makes this point. As a law professor and decades-long member of my school’s admissions committee, I found that Espeland and Sauder’s insights into the admissions process and the interviews with admissions professionals rang true. But I also approached this book from the perspective of someone knowledgeable about labor and employment law and critical of at-will employment. One sentence in the book simply took my breath away. It comes in a quotation from the director of career services at a first-tier law school. Shortly after meeting with the researchers, she was asked how rankings had affected her job. She said, “Well, I was fired last week. . . . The dean decided that I was responsible for the decline in the rankings from thirty-six to thirty-eight. So, how has U.S. News affected my life? Pretty badly.”

The plight of this career-services director brings to light a particularly troubling aspect of U.S. News & World Report rankings: they can destroy the security that comes from having a job. That the rankings are widely (almost universally) seen as an arbitrary, inadequate, and unfair measure of the quality of legal education makes it all the more intolerable that someone’s employment could be put in such jeopardy over rather minor fluctuations in score. Of the many interviews in the book, this one left the greatest impression on me. But as the authors are careful to explain in the rest of the book, the effects of rankings are systematically more devastating than the sum of the parts.

There is some irony in the fact that as I was reading the book, my law school mailbox was filling up with advertisements, brochures, and other missives from law schools around the country. These mailings were part of an effort, repeated every year, to influence law professors, practitioners, and judges—the central actors responsible for filling out U.S. News & World Report questionnaires. One such mailing, addressed to “friends and colleagues,” begins with a statement about one of the institutes within the law school that “shot up six spots in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of [such] programs.” Law teachers are accustomed to this annual advertising deluge, which schools undertake in good faith in the quest for higher ratings. Engines of Anxiety provides context for assessing how damaging the ranking system is and is seen to be. Despite the costs of rankings to legal education and to the administering of legal education, the authors found no one predicting the demise of U.S. News & World Report rankings. The question, then, is how to live with them while remaining faithful to the educational mission.

Donna Young is a professor at the Albany Law School and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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