As reported in “ Deans dislike ranking proposals” [NLJ, July 7], many law school deans are upset about the recent announcement by U.S. News & World Report that it is seriously considering revising its law school rankings methodology to treat part-time students’ entering credentials (LSAT score and undergraduate grade-point average) no differently than full-time students’. To date, U.S. News has excluded part-timers’ credentials from its rankings calculus.

On the law deans’ American Bar Association listserv, some deans quickly responded to the U.S. News announcement by objecting strongly to the proposed change, maintaining that it is unfair, illogical, and potentially lethal to the continued existence of many part-time programs. Others objected less strenuously, suggesting that with some fine-tuning (e.g., only counting part-timers who ultimately transfer into the full-time program) the proposal would be tolerable. Still others maintained that if U.S. News is serious about addressing shortcomings in its methodology, the place to start is not with counting part-timers’ entering credentials but instead with counting those of transfer students.

There is much room for reasonable debate among law deans as to how problematic the U.S. News proposal is, whether any deficiencies in it are curable with fine-tuning, and whether U.S. News should instead be thinking seriously about its treatment of transfer students. However, it seems beyond debate that it is truly depressing that law deans, who have so many important educational issues to address, feel the pressure they undeniably feel to make important decisions about their schools in response to a popular magazine’s educationally unsophisticated decisions about ranking methodology.

As professors Brian Leiter, Joanna Grossman and others have shown, and as almost all, if not all, deans now take for granted, the U.S. News methodology is seriously susceptible to manipulation and remarkably poor as a measure of a school’s quality of education and contribution through scholarship and other activities to the healthy development of the law. See, e.g., www.leiterrankings.com/usnews/guide.shtml and http://writ.news.findlaw.com/grossman/20040406.html. Yet deans ignore the annual product of that methodology at their peril: Employers will be guided, some very strongly, by the rankings in deciding which students to interview and hire; applicants to law schools will be swayed to greater and lesser extents by the rankings in deciding where to apply; and even faculty, who ought to know better, will allow the rankings to influence their decisions whether to teach at one or another school and their opinion as to whether the dean is doing a good job.

Rankings govern decisions

Deans feel obliged to become experts in the ways of winning in the rankings; and in seeking higher rankings, the faculty and administration all too often make structural decisions about the law school with the rankings foremost in mind. In an effort to boost entering students’ credentials they cut, often quite dramatically, the number of students in the first-year class. Then, to make up for the lost income to their heavily tuition-dependent school, they increase, often quite dramatically, the number of transfer students or LL.M. students and they develop a part-time program or expand an existing one. They economize by not filling faculty lines vacated by retirements and departures and by downsizing the staff. They diminish or even eliminate need-based financial aid in favor of using scholarship money to target incoming students who will boost the median LSAT and GPA.

Some structural changes made for the reason of elevating a school’s ranking may be worthwhile for entirely unrelated reasons. Developing a part-time program, for example, may be independently desirable in terms of allowing access to legal education to individuals who, due to economic, family and other constraints, could not otherwise enjoy it. But there is no denying that it is a great challenge to limit the choice of structural changes that would elevate ranking to only such changes as will affect positively — or at least not negatively — the caliber of the educational experience, scholarship and other ingredients of a school’s true quality. At my school, I have insisted that structural changes to elevate ranking must meet this criterion, but that is not an easy or necessarily popular position to take.

What, then, do I propose now in response to the U.S. News announcement of a possible change in its ranking formula? I propose that law school faculties and administrations treat the announcement as a wake-up call and recognize how much they have allowed themselves to be at the mercy of editors whose primary interest is selling magazines, rather than providing a means of ranking schools that actually might promote the things that make for genuine greatness in a law school. This announcement, and the wrench that it threatens to throw into structural changes that have been made to avoid being disadvantaged by a deeply flawed methodology, should cause law school faculties and administrations everywhere to finally say “enough” and that they are done participating in a ranking system that has done substantial harm and little, if any, good to legal education in the United States. Even the faculty and administration at the most highly ranked schools — those schools that today appear to be winning in the rankings game — should recognize that they have a major stake in abandoning a system that, at some magazine editors’ whim, could be suddenly revamped in ways that could send those schools plummeting from their lofty perch.

Gary J. Simson is the dean and the Joseph C. Hostetler-Baker & Hostetler Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.