As “Engines of Anxiety” explains, law school deans loathe the rankings so much that one compared them to a cockroach infestation and another rhetorically hoped al-Qaeda would target US News. To find out the backstory, I conducted an email interview with the two sociologists who wrote the book, Michael Sauder, a professor at the University of Iowa, and Wendy Nelson Espeland, a professor at Northwestern University.
Q: Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, has announced that her institution is withdrawing from the US News & World Report rankings, which she describes as “profoundly flawed.” You and your co-author describe how many other law school deans share her views. Why are they all so unhappy?
A: Because USN rankings are so visible to prospective students, law schools (as are colleges and universities) are concerned that these evaluations, while “profoundly flawed,” have a major impact on determining which schools students apply to and ensuring choose to go. Law schools then feel the pressure to make decisions — about admissions, about scholarships, about their identity — based on improving their numbers rather than what, in their opinion, is best for the school and its students. This is frustrating and demoralizing for many.
Question: Despite their displeasure with rankings being “fear engines”, why have they mostly been unwilling to back down until now?
A: In the past, failure to cooperate with US News has almost always led to a marked drop in school rankings – which in turn has caused major headaches for deans and other administrators: unhappy students and alumni; fear of declining enrollments and revenues; and possibly lose his job. These are major risks for schools, especially those that are in fierce competition with their peers for pools of prospective students.
Soon after the rankings were introduced, some schools withdrew from the rankings. These schools experienced significant drops in rank, and this served as a cautionary tale for schools considering similar strategies in the future. It soon became clear that failure to cooperate with US News could have serious consequences for the school’s national reputation.
Q: Gerken says the rankings discourage schools that want to train lawyers interested in public service. Is that true, and are there other ways the rankings are reshaping law school priorities?
A: Yes, it is true that rankings create incentives that can make it more difficult to train attorneys interested in public service. Schools whose missions deviate from the formula that US News rewards – for example, those that are committed to public service or provide opportunities to underserved populations – are effectively penalized for their mission because they are forced to choose between staying true to their guiding principles or do better in the rankings.
Similarly, the rankings encourage schools to focus their admissions decisions on selectivity criteria that emphasize standardized test scores, which is also unfavorable to non-traditional students. In addition, the rankings pressure schools to give scholarships based on merit rather than need, while trying to “buy” the students that help them optimize the selectivity score that is central to determining their rank. These are just a few examples of the many ways rankings have reshaped school priorities, a transformation that many within the legal education sector see as damaging.
Q: Yale has long been the top-ranked law school. Could his decision to pull out destabilize the rankings system, or alternatively will it stay strong?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, this could really draw attention to the problems the rankings are generating and encourage other schools to follow suit. At the time of writing, Harvard and Berkeley have already announced their exit from the rankings, and these decisions have generated significant media attention.
On the other hand, it will be much more difficult for schools outside the elite to risk the consequences of dropping out. These schools are more likely to rely on the rankings to confirm their standing among prospective students, and they are more likely to suffer if their closest rivals choose to participate (and then skyrocket in the rankings) if they fall.
As we know, more schools than ever are actively embracing rankings as a means to improve their standing in a crowded marketplace. That said, these recent actions could lead to more general questions about the legitimacy of the rankings themselves. If this were to happen, we can imagine a domino effect with more and more schools choosing to opt out.