Law school deans say that a recent call to boycott a popular ranking survey is nice in theory but likely would do little to keep their institutions’ names off the list.

In response to a proposal by Dean Gary J. Simson of Case Western Reserve University School of Law to “ say enough” to the rankings in U.S. News & World Report, several deans said they wish it were that easy to make the list go away.

The boycott suggested by Simson was published online on July 23 by The National Law Journal, and appears in print in this issue. [See Page 22].

Even if the deans were able to act in concert in refusing to provide information for what the vast majority of them say is a flawed instrument, many say that the situation would be the same — or worse. The notion of getting rid of the rankings “is whistling in the wind,” said Lawrence Ponoroff, dean of Tulane University Law School. Tulane was No. 44 in U.S. News‘ 2008 rankings of the 184 fully accredited law schools in the nation.

“I have serious problems about ranking law schools and the methodology, but it’s a fact of life,” he said.

The numbers side

A boycott of the survey could mean that U.S. News would rely more heavily on the numbers side of the survey, based on information that schools provide to the American Bar Association, which is available to the public. Such information, which the publication already uses, includes enrollment numbers, bar-passage rates, library amenities, the number of faculty and more. The ABA is the accrediting body for the nation’s law schools.

Absent from the survey, in theory, would be the peer reviews, which are based on the opinion that a dean and three faculty members from one school provides about the reputation of another. U.S. News also uses the opinions of attorneys and judges as part of reputation scores.

The change would mean that the publication would have to rely almost exclusively on the ABA data, which would intensify the gaming among schools that already occurs, said David Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law. The school ranked No. 82 in the U.S. News 2008 ranking.

“Not participating not only wouldn’t accomplish getting rid of the rankings, it could be worse than it is now,” he said.

Part of the challenge for those deans who favor eliminating the rankings is that the ABA requires them to provide the data. “As long as they tell us that we need to do that, we don’t have a hell of a lot of choice,” said Andrew M. Coats, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The school ranked No. 68 in 2008.

But Simson of Case Western asserts that without the deans’ participation, the rankings would crumble. A boycott by the deans would prompt other faculty members to pull their participation, which, in turn, would influence attorneys and judges to stop participating, he said.

“I think it has a real effect if the deans don’t participate,” Simson said.

Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, disagrees. A lack of dean participation would not end the reputation portion of the survey, which would continue to come from lawyers and judges, he said. “We’re going to conduct it anyway,” he said. In his response to Simson’s call to arms, which was posted on July 23 on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, Morse said that the rankings do not have a negative impact on legal education and law school admissions.

The dean of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law is all for consumer information, but only when it is accurate and reliable. “I have repeatedly asked judges and lawyers in New York and Los Angeles if they have ever had their view solicited [by U.S. News],” said Dean Michael Schill in an e-mail. “I have yet to meet one person who received a ranking form.” Schill, whose school ranked No. 16, supports a boycott.

Simson’s opinion essay stemmed from an announcement by U.S. News that it was considering revising its methodology to include the credentials of part-time students. Many law deans oppose the proposed change.

Some deans, however, say the rankings are necessary. “Rankings are for consumer information,” said David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, which ranked No. 9 in 2008. “None of them are perfect, but we need to treat our potential students with respect. I just don’t think we should be trying to hide information from consumers.”