Monday, July 07, 2008

Tail wags dog so furiously that dog falls off, leaving only tail

I was reading today's TaxProf Blog, as I do every morning, when I came across this post (here), in which Paul Caron pointed to a NLJ article (Deans dislike rankings proposals, here) about the proposed changes in the USNWR rankings.  Paul highlighted the following very, very scary quote:
The proposal is strongly opposed by deans at schools with part-time programs designed for students who are years past college graduation and often well into careers outside the law.  They warn that a school's place on the U.S. News list is so important that some schools would drop the part-time programs rather than list lower in the national rankings.
(Hat-tip to Paul for focusing us on this quote.)  But there's more.  In the very next paragraph of the article, Bill Treanor, the dean of Fordham Law School, clarifies how this change to the USNWR rankings would affect schools with part-time programs:
"If U.S. News starts combining the [LSAT and UGPA] scores of full-time and part-time students, the pressure to end evening schools will become overwhelming . . . ."
HOLY COW.  Has it come to this?  Have we really ceded educational policy to a weekly news magazine?  I completely understand Bill Treanor's point (oh, how I know!), because every single school with an evening program will face additional pressure to close that program unless its full-time students' median LSATs and UGPAs and its part-time students' median LSATs and UGPAs are identical.  (And the fact that they're often not identical is exactly why USNWR wants to factor the part-time scores in--schools have been gaming the rankings this way for years.)  Alumni, students, faculty members, and university administrators will be pressuring deans of schools with part-time programs to find work-arounds for the potential drop in the rankings.  

There are plenty of good reasons to have a part-time program, even though part-time programs are incredibly expensive to support.  Several urban schools have them as a way to help those people who can't afford to quit their jobs still pursue their dreams of becoming lawyers.  There are also good reasons for discontinuing part-time programs--declining enrollment, the disproportionate expense, a demographic shift.  Each faculty that's contemplating starting or stopping a part-time program must wrestle with these valid issues.  

But geez--the one reason that's not pedagogically valid is whether a news magazine is going to bump some school up five places or down five places due to the inclusion of the part-time students' median LSATs and UGPAs.  Are we so desperate for some sort of numerical validation of our place in this world that we are willing to cede our own sense of what type of educational program is appropriate for our mix of students?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again (see, e.g., here, esp. at p.361):  unless a school is in the tippety-top of the USNWR rankings (or in the very bottom, with a pass rate on the bar that is abysmal), there is precious little difference in even twenty or thirty places in the rankings.  The differences aren't significant.  The rankings just artificially spread out some insignificant differences among groups of tightly packed schools.  

If schools didn't take the USNWR rankings so damnably seriously, I could just point you to one of my two favorite scenes in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) (the other scene is the Stonehenge scene):
Nigel Tufnel:  The numbers all go to eleven.  Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven, and . . . .
Marty DiBergi:  Oh, I see.  And most amps go up to ten?
Nigel Tufnel:  Exactly.
Marty DiBergi:  Does that mean it's louder?  Is it any louder?
Nigel Tufnel:  Well, it's one louder, isn't it?  It's not ten.  You see, most blokes will be playing at ten.  You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar.  Where can you go from there?  Where?
Marty DiBergi:  I don't know.
Nigel Tufnel:  Nowhere.  Exactly.  What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi:  Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel:  Eleven.  Exactly.  One louder.
Marty DiBergi:  Why don't you make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel:  [pause]  These go to eleven.
(Thanks to for that quote.)  

My point is that we've fallen for the same trick:  USNWR has made us think that it's legitimate to let a news magazine dictate to us how we admit our students (by placing such a high premium on the inputs of LSATs and UGPAs) and how much we spend on publicizing our various accomplishments (because of those reputation surveys).  Even if the rankings "go to eleven," they don't make the quality of any single school any louder than it was before.  

Time to stop letting the tail wag the dog.


Jim Chen said...

Good morning, Nancy. I've written an entire post in response to this very nice item of yours. Be sure to check out the multimedia bonus at the end of the post — I included it especially for you!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jim, both for your post over at MoneyLaw, and for including my favorite Spinal Tap clip!

Jim Chen said...