Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thank you, Dean Gary Simson of Case Western!

According to this morning's WSJ Law Blog (here), Dean Gary J. Simson of Case Western's law school has suggested that deans say "dayenu" to the USNWR rankings.  Recognizing the insanity of tailoring an educational program to the whims of a news magazine, Dean Simson believes that law schools instead should use their own good judgment about how to allocate resources.  (After all, the race to the top of the rankings isn't a race that most law schools will win.)

Seems to me that any school with decent self-esteem doesn't need to be told where it ranks.  Take a look, for example, at Case Western itself (here).  Bravo, Dean Simson!


Anonymous said...

So, the next question becomes "how do we get there from here?" A question I've posed to a few other bloggers, along with my recommendation below which I'd like your thoughts on.

It seems that waiting for the schools at the "top" of the US News system to opt-out won't work; they have a vested interest in the rankings. Moreover, it also seems that making noise about the rankings, signing letters of displeasure to LSAC and others, also won't have much of an impact, at least not nearly as much of an impact as a collective opt-out would. Such a move would send a message to prospective students about the rankings, and would allow Deans to say "they may have ranked us, but we did not provide them information, so that is not an accurate reflection of the quality of our school."

I think we all get this, but the problem is that one school or even a handful of schools can't accomplish much on their own. If they decide to opt-out they'll be ranked on the publicly available data (to their detriment). Thus for Deans to say "dayenu" they need the safety of numbers. I'm reminded of a movie scene where one passenger, held hostage by terrorists, screams to the others: "they can't kill all of us." Of course if he rushes the terrorist on his own, while the others stand and watch, he's toast. However, if the group rushes, perhaps they all will live.

In any case, I think that starting at the top of the US News rankings in search of schools who will opt-out, is an unrealistic approach. Sure, it's the one many are hoping for...praying for that day that Dean Koh says "forget it, we're not playing this game." That day doesn't seem near. So, why not work from the bottom of the rankings, to the top, locking in firm opt-out commitments from Deans?

I’m not sure how “high” in the rankings one could get before there was real resistance, but if the opt-outs could make it to the “Top 25” or “Top 50" it would lend great credence to the movement. It also would have a dramatic impact on the US News rankings and would send a strong message about the need for reform. I suppose that somewhere around Case Western's ranking is where the tipping point would be. Moreover, its right around that “Top 25” to “Top 50” range that the rank of a school begins to matter less and geography and other factors begin to matter more. (See Henderson and Morriss, April 14, 2008, Opt-outs by a large number of schools would also send more than just a strong message, it provides significant leverage for schools to push for ranking reforms, especially if schools are committed to not opting back in until some collectively agreed upon reforms are implemented.

This brings us back to my original question. How [procedurally] do we get there from here? It would need to start from the bottom up and would need to take place in "commitment phases." It also would require one Dean to kick the process off and secure commitments amongst his peers. I imagine Deans would work collectively by phone and email (perhaps even by their listserv) to secure opt-out commitments. A blog, (perhaps yours) could feature a list of committed schools, updated at pre-determined dates.

To allow for the critical negotiations and discussion amongst Deans, the commitment list could be published in phases (rather than in real-time) with pre-announced publication dates. I imagine those publication dates could be spaced 3 weeks apart over 4 months, allowing for negotiation and discussion. Importantly, the commitment would not be binding until a critical mass of schools is reached. This way a Dean can essentially say "Sure, I'll opt-out if you can convince the other 50 schools ranked above and below me to do the same." They'd be listed as "committed" at a phase deadline, but everyone knows (because it would be publicly stated) that commitment is contingent upon the effort securing a to-be-defined "critical mass" of opt-outs. The "critical mass" would likely need to include more than half of the currently ranked schools. Conducting this process in phases protects first movers from harm if not enough schools join the exodus and it allows for contingent commitments with relatively perfect information (at least at each phase.)

The agreement would also need to specify the “effective date” of the opt-out, which would probably need to be sometime before schools begin to look at their admissions statistics. Finally, Deans could enter the agreement for a fixed period. I’d imagine a 3 year hiatus from the rankings would be enough time to bring about needed reforms (think about the negotiations at AALS meetings as the legal academy tries to work out its own critical measures!) that 3 years may even allow for competing rankings to form. This would also be enough time for a school to toy with innovation without risking ranking damage, or for the more cynical to toy with their numbers as they prepare to jump back into the fray.

Of course, my theory is premised on the assumption that commitments from the majority of Deans would be forthcoming. Without early bottom-up successes in the US News Tier 4 and Tier 3, the wheels will come off the wagon rather early in the process. However, if at the Phase 1 deadline the majority of those schools have signed on, those Dean’s can begin to negotiate with the non-participating Deans to try and win their commitment. I’d imagine at this point the snowball effect might occur with AALS leadership and the blogosphere beginning to play a role.

The schools at the margins (e.g. those who think they’re on the cusp of breaking into Tier 3, and especially those who think they are on the cusp of breaking into the “Top 100") will likely hesitate to opt-out at first. But that just becomes a negotiation problem, which can likely be overcome by the fact that the schools sitting right around 100 may be sweating a potential “drop” into Tier 3. Other successful negotiation techniques for hold-outs could involve negotiated agreements amongst competing schools within a region (think of the NJ/Philly/NYC schools or the LA schools for example).

Just some thoughts, but it seems like this procedure may eliminate some of the uncertainties many Deans face as they ponder what to do about the US News rankings.

Unknown said...

It's a fascinating idea--I don't know about any antitrust issues involved, but Darren Bush at University of Houston might. I do like the idea of a grassroots movement, and the folks in the 3d and 4th tiers don't have much to lose by opting out. Did you pose the question over at PrawfsBlog?

Anonymous said...

They could opt out by liquidating the library and closing their doors. Just be sure to leave a sign up that says "Sorry, this JD Mill is closed for business. Please consider a MS in something that will actually benefir society." Until that day, schools that don't measure up deserve to be treated like students who don't measure up; a big ol' "4" stamper on their foreheads.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)