US News and the Costs of Ethical Behavior

Our US News score is lousy. The methodology is very bad — and any large private school without a very big endowment is going to suffer under it — but even so I think fails to reflect some of our real strengths when I look at who is doing relatively well out of the system.

Brian Leiter says, and who am I to gainsay him?, that many, many schools “massage” the data they report to US News,

Schools hire unemployed graduates as research assistants, hand out fee waivers to hopeless applicants to improve their acceptance rates, inflate their expenditures data through creative accounting or simply fabrication, cut their first-year enrollment (to boost their medians) while increasing the number of transfers (to make up the lost revenue), and so on. Because more than half the total score in U.S. News depends on manipulable data, schools intent on securing the public relations benefits of a higher rank simply “cook the books” or manipulate the numbers to secure a more favorable U.S. News outcome.

I'm 99.9% sure that this law school does exactly none of those things. I think our administration is honestly reporting its stats — honest to a fault, some might say.

Indeed, I know of a case where we have a person (not the Librarian) who doesn't have tenure, who has a joint faculty and library job, carries two titles, but has been spending increasing amounts of his/her time teaching students, coaching moot court teams, doing all the things great faculty members do. Why not count this person towards our faculty for student/faculty ratio purposes, I asked? Wouldn't be right given how the rules treat library staff, came back the answer.

There are two related issues here: The first is to what extent one can ethically lawyer the numbers to one's advantage. Not being involved in those decisions, I have no idea where the line is, nor what the tradeoffs are on pushing it. There's no question some schools went a lot too far, and paid for it in embarrassment when they got caught.

The second issue is what, if Leiter's claim is correct, it means for law schools that don't engage in any of the shenanigans he describes. On the one hand, I'm quite proud to be able to say that we are not cheating. On the other hand there's always Leo Durocher's warning to contend with, that “Nice guys finish last.”

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4 Responses to US News and the Costs of Ethical Behavior

  1. 07 Grad says:

    I’d take your thousand to 1 odds (the 99.9% sure part).

    The average salary UM reported for grads who go into private practice was in the low 80s last time I saw them (maybe someone has the newest numbers). That number is about as real as reality television. I don’t disagree that it might represent some average based on a few dozen students (including the top 10 of course) but do you really think that most of the students making 40-60k are excited and rush in to tell the career planning center about it?

    And because I know someone will inevitably say it, I think that a person should go to law school because they want to be a lawyer, not to get rich, but I also think schools should not be spreading information they should realize is false.

  2. student says:

    Interesting post.

    Jonathan Simon brought up this point when he spoke with the students. But he had a slightly different take. He wanted to ensure that all information was taken accurately; his concern, which may be accurate, was that the school, for whatever reason, may not have traditionally captured all of the positive points or have reported accurately employment data and so forth. This concerns less “massaging” facts and more ensuring that they’re correct. I think he’s right.

    Yet as 07 Grad points out, accurate reporting can cut both ways. Graduates who tend to report their employment data most likely are those that are employed.

    Just to piggy back on the dean practitioner post. The faculty absolutely does the right thing in pushing scholarship. No top law school differs, and I agree wholeheartedly with you that an overhaul of traditional, scholarship-driven faculty members in exchange for a practitioner-based faculty wouldn’t be the best idea. And I agree with you that our rankings would tank even more if we did so. (There’s a middle ground, of course. Are we there?)

    I’d also like to point out that our faculty is traditionally ranked highly in the Leiter rankings.

    But we do need to close the gap between where our faculty is ranked in the Leiter rankings (in the 30s or 40s?), and where our law school is ranked nationally (82). And let’s stop being naive about the U.S. News rankings. They’re pretty clear cut. LSAT means a lot — 12 to 15%. GPA means a lot — same. And reputation means a lot — 40%. (And the higher the rankings, the higher the reputation, I’m assuming.)

    The way to close that gap is not to massage data or to report accurately (although that may help). We need to make some big changes. Aside from a new building (we need that), we have to trim the class sizes. We simply won’t be ranked in the 50s without doing so.

  3. wcw says:

    Now, I like your work here and for all I know your law school is fine, but the one (1) independent datum I have about UM is negative. And not just a little negative, but attend-or-teach-over-my-supine-corpse negative. The details are unimportant (to you, to me, to all but the principals), but if something that bad happens in one corner of your school, it reflects on the whole.

  4. My 1 cent: Just be honest. It’s rather silly that a school thinks it has to inflate their numbers. Best case scenario: they gain a few students. Worst case: they are publicly humiliated for attmpting to deceive the public. Why take that chance? Silly to me.

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