Goodbye U.S. News, We No Longer Need You

BY THE BOARD

We know that this may fall into the “easy for us to say” category, and heaven knows we can see the value in systems that, however flawed, continually work to our personal benefit despite any effort on our part. But let’s be serious here: the U.S. News rankings must be stopped.

They must be stopped because they are based on a methodology that is designed to do nothing but reinforce the status quo. For instance, the faculty reputation score is based on a survey of four – completely unbiased, I’m sure – faculty members from each school. Faculty members who, statistics say, probably attended a top ten law school, and who are now in a position to rank those same law school as top 10.

The U.S. News methodology doesn’t rank how good teaching at a particular school is, or what the administration has done to improve quality of life. It’s a system designed to tell us what we already believed, and then to reinforce those beliefs with “unbiased” numerical information. How could they do anything but reinforce our preconceived notions? Who would credit a magazine whose rankings placed a “no name” school above Harvard or Yale?

They must be stopped because they force law schools to shape policy around the rankings rather than what’s truly best for their school. Tales abound of schools rejecting applicants that are too solid because it will hurt their “yield,” for instance, and there is ever an incentive for law schools to focus mainly on GPA and LSAT scores -after all what else matters in the rankings? The wisdom of those selection criteria are debatable, we suppose, but shouldn’t we actually be able to have that debate instead of having it dictated to us by a for-profit magazine trying to sell as many issues as it can?

They must be stopped because they induce utterly silly behavior from panicked deans trying to respond to a decline in the rankings that they had little or no control over. The fluctuations in the rankings are probably due to small changes in the methodology. Law schools are relatively static entities, but nobody is going to buy the magazine if the rankings are the same every year. Iowa’s dean sent out an e-mail offering to sign students up for discussion groups after the school dropped a mere three places in the rankings, and assured the campus community that “Indeed, we have been studying the US News rankings at a very high level over the past year. Hundreds of hours of sophisticated thought by alumni, faculty and staff have gone into this project, informally dubbed the Apollo Project.”

“Apollo Project” is an interesting choice of title, because it invites inevitable comparisons with the actual Apollo Project. If we stopped putting “hundreds of hours of sophisticated thought” by accomplished people into doing things like gaming magazine rankings that are ultimately a bad idea anyway, would we finally have that moon base by now? Or perhaps flying cars? It’s 2008, and we’re still worried about US?News rankings?

We understand that potential law students need a way to evaluate their law school choices. And at least some of the information that the U.S. News rankings contain is useful – employment rates at graduation, for instance, though that particular statistic is reportedly one of the most gamed by law schools. But what students don’t need is U.S. News to arbitrarily assign weights to these pieces of information and then collate them into similarly arbitrary rankings. It’s not helpful to anyone.

As for Harvard’s own rise in the rankings, we hope that it is not the result of hundreds of hours spent planning by the administration. We are comfortable with our spot near the top, and realize that short of drastically cutting the class size and making Harvard the “Jersey City of Law Schools” we will never make it to the very top. Although there are legitimate reasons to prefer Yale Law over Harvard, or to put Stanford on the same level with us, the fact that HLS’s larger class size leads to economies of scale that push down expenditures per student has been a major factor keeping us out of the #1 spot. We may not deserve to be #1, but that’s a silly basis for saying so.

Yet one of the nice things about being Harvard is that it comes with a certain amount of leverage. HLS’s reputation isn’t going to drop if it stops providing information to U.S. News and plummets – or is removed – from the rankings. All it would do is hurt the credibility of the rankings themselves. If Harvard formed a coalition with other top schools to do the same thing, the rankings might quickly become obsolete. Reed College in Portland, Oregon has long done the same thing at the undergraduate level, but it doesn’t have the power to make a serious dent. Harvard does, and should use it.

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