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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

US News Ballots are Out--Please Stop Sending Me Brochures

In my part of the postal coverage area, at least, US News law ranking ballots have arrived (as Howard noted this morning).  This means that all of the law school Deans kindly sending me massive quantities of now-recycled material can throttle back. Of course, I read every word, since I didn't want there to be even a single law school on which I could not form a defensible position.

Holding a ballot in your hands, for the first time in my case, is a funny feeling.  One is struck by how many law schools there are to rank.  As one of three faculty members tenured last spring, I wasn't actually sure I was going to get one.  One of the other "newly tenured" has also become the school's Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and we suspected she might also get the "newly tenured" ballot to facilitate super-power double-fisted reputation-ranking.

Comments on two aspects of the voting instructions.  First, the magazine urges me to vote under what is essentially a "totality of the circumstances" basis (suggesting, without limitation, that curriculum, scholarship, faculty and graduate quality be considered).  Which means if I have a particular set of values about legal education, even if they seem inconsistent with dominant voting patterns under US News or are not specifically mentioned, I can use those to construct my ranking.  If I value, say, affordability, I might favor more highly a school that produces high bar passage at a relatively lower price.  Or if I think law schools do a disservice to students if they don't have an "in-the-building" culture, I can disfavor schools I know to have "Tuesday/Thursday" and "Monday/Wednesday" faculty contingents.

Second, the rankings task voters to assign numbers.  Each number comes with a word, like "outstanding" (5) or "good" (3) or "adequate" (2) or "marginal" (1).  This last word is unusual and odd. These are all ABA accredited law schools.  How is it that any significant number could really be deemed "marginal"?  Maybe "needs improvement" would be better?   There are any number of truly marginal law schools under freeway overpasses in a certain western state, but those schools aren't on the ABA's list.

Some other thoughts, in no particular order.  I wish that instead of asking us to assign each school a 1-5 score on a paper ballot, US News employed a software platform or web survey to force assignment of 20% of schools into each of the five numerical categories.  If the point of "reputation" ranking is to divide schools up, the current system may do a poor job.  Some ballots by voters under the view there are too many law schools might identify 50% of the schools as "marginal."  Another, by some social butterfly with friends on faculties across the country, might have 80% of the schools identified as "outstanding."  In any event, since the words used for each numerical category are so subjective, some effort to smooth or curve the scores of individual voters would be a plus.

And how about concerns over "gaming"?  I seem to recall reading that the magazine's response is to discard the single "highest" and "lowest" votes.  So if the Yale dean is the only person to give Harvard a "1" (or vice versa), that gets tossed out.  But if lots of voters "game" by assigning high or low scores, I gather that most of those would get counted.  So why even let me vote on my own school?  (After all, don't I have a fiduciary duty to sing my employer's praises?).

And why not exclude me from voting on other schools in my state or region viewed as competition? Or even other schools in the same 20-30 spot range in the overall rankings?  Let the deans at "Tier 4" decide whether NYU or Columbia is better, and make the deans at Harvard and Yale decide who belongs in the unranked "Tier 3" and who belongs at the bottom of the top 100.

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on October 27, 2010 at 01:53 PM | Permalink

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