Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lipshaw & Henderson's post related to this morning's WSJ article on the USNWR rankings

Bill Henderson & Jeff Lipshaw have done a masterful job over at Legal Profession Blog (here) taking the implications of Amir Efrati's story (see my post here) to their logical conclusions.

Amir Efrati's WSJ article about the USNWR rankings--and a couple of points

Amir Efrati's article on how USNWR might redo the rankings to prevent some of the gaming that's been going on (see here; for the WSJ blog take on the article, see here) does a great job of pointing out how the gaming has occurred and the ramifications of the change. (For the TaxProf Blog take on Amir's article, see here; for Jeff Lipshaw's take at Legal Profession Blog, see here; and for the story behind my story, see here.)

Here are some take-aways that I can see from Amir's article: Phil Closius's approach (as described in the article)--there's nothing malum in se in gaming the rankings, because the rankings are a set of rules w/o moral content--is an attractive argument, not least because it allowed his schools to admit people into the part-time program who likely would have been forced out had his schools "counted" their quantitative stats in the numbers that they turned into USNWR. If you accept that USNWR drives admissions decisions (and it does), then gaming USNWR does minimal harm to the school's ranking while maintaining a valid educational program.

But that's a bit of a slippery slope, isn't it? It's the same argument that justifies hiring graduates in time to make the May 15 deadline for "graduates employed at graduation"--OK in my mind if they're doing real work, not so much OK if they're doing make-work or no work at all. And, of course, just a few more steps down that slope takes us to the urban legend of schools that call grads to find out if they're working, only to mark them as "employed" if they fail to return three calls in a row.

We scream bloody murder when companies fake their numbers to meet analysts' expectations, because the fake numbers give the market bad information for investors. But we've been winking when we game the system in terms of rankings.

In one sense, we shouldn't be too surprised. After all, we're teaching our students to parse the law very carefully so that they can come right up to the edge of the line while representing their clients. (Take a look at Larry Ribstein's post at Ideoblog (here) and John Steele's post at Legal Ethics Forum (here). But should we be doing the same thing, or should we be setting an example by rejecting the presumption that any rankings system should drive our admissions, or our placement, or our educational program?

Deans have enormous pressure to make the numbers. Alumni pressure them, university administrators pressure them, the faculty pressures them, and the students pressure them. I'm not saying that it's easy to resist the temptation to game the system--or that some gaming might not serve other purposes (such as preserving a hotly controversial part-time program). But let's not fool ourselves by using "gaming" to describe this behavior. This is serious business.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A short history lesson

Because I think that there will be yet another article this week on the rankings and my relationship to it, here's a brief recap of what happened at my last job during my final year as dean. In September of that academic year, one of the senior faculty members who was unhappy with me sent in a colleague of his to meet with me. He told her to tell me that, if I didn't resign, he'd find a way to embarrass me publicly and ruin my career (his words, through her). I told the provost and some key alumni, and we all agreed that I wasn't going to be bullied out of office.

Sure enough, when the rankings came out, in March of that same academic year, the school had slipped by a few points. It's my understanding that the same faculty member, along with a few others on the faculty, worked with some law students to use the rankings as a pressure point to get me to resign. The law students, who were certainly worried about the effect of the rankings on their employment options, allowed themselves to get worked into a dither by a few manipulative people, and I don't really blame them for getting involved in the fray (although I worry about their gullibility).

I resigned because I was tired of working at a place that was so dysfunctional that it would permit that kind of behavior from colleagues on the faculty. It's fair to say that the rankings were part of the reason that I resigned, because the rankings were used as a rallying cry; it's not, however, fair to say that I resigned because of the rankings.

Now let's talk about the good results that came from that resignation: I'm much less stressed and much happier, and I'm at a place that is one of the most collegial law schools in the country. The Boyd School of Law at UNLV proves that it's possible for people to be actively engaged in scholarship and to be good teachers--and to encourage each other on a regular basis. When I look down the hallway, I see people writing, talking to each other without jealousy, and mentoring students. It's pretty hard to beat this environment (although 115 degrees in the summer can get onerous).

And at my old post? People seem happy with the new dean, and I wish the school well. There are many talented, nice people at that school, and the school has many resources that UNLV doesn't yet have.

What was an awful time for me (and, I'm sure, not very pleasant for anyone back then) has turned into a blessing (although I miss living in the same city as my dad). I know that I'll get to rehash my relationship to the rankings for a while to come, and as long as people realize that the negative effects of the rankings can be disastrous for legal education, I guess that--on balance--I can live with that.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Newsflash from JetBlue: JFK Airport is filled with microclimates

Having stayed at this year's ABA annual meeting long enough to watch my friend Sarah Weddington win a special Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award today (BRAVA, SARAH!), I headed out to JFK to catch an early evening JetBlue flight home to Las Vegas.  

When I arrived, I discovered that JetBlue had canceled tonight's flight to Las Vegas due to inclement weather.  The next available flight into which JetBlue would have been able to slot me was tomorrow afternoon--not nearly good enough, since I have to be back in Las Vegas to practice for this week's Nevada Star Ball competition (among other things).  Apparently, though, the microclimate over at JFK Terminal 6 was far too wretched to contemplate flying westward.

Luckily for me, the microclimate over at Terminal 3--Delta Airline's terminal--was more hospitable, and I'm typing this post while waiting for a flight that will, technically, get me home tomorrow (as JetBlue had offered to do).  But Delta will get me home at 12:30 a.m., not 5:30 p.m., on August 11th.

Do I blame JetBlue for weather delays?  Not at all.  Do I want JetBlue to be prudent about flying in bad weather?  Of course I do.  But something's up when flights to Vegas are leaving out of the same airport, to the same destination, on the same day--just three hours later.  And I would have been a lot happier with JetBlue had the person answering the customer service line offered to get me closer to Las Vegas today, so that I could have had a chance to get home from another city--say, one to which JetBlue also flies, or one that links to Las Vegas on my favorite airline (Southwest).   A little creativity on the customer service agent's part would have gone a long way towards making me happier.

I know that New York is a big city.  And maybe, just maybe, JFK is a bigger airport than I think it is.  But two different microclimates--one in which it's safe to fly to Las Vegas and one in which it's not?  Hmmmmmmmmmm....

Friday, August 01, 2008

Please help me give credit where credit is due!

Can anyone help me with the attribution for this wonderful PowerPoint (here)? Thanks!

The most important paragraph in a very important post

From this morning's post in The Race to the Bottom's discussion on the change in USNWR's methodology regarding PT students' LSATs and UGPAs (here):

Whatever a law school does in the short term [about the change in methodology], it is clear that this change will result in continued homogenization of entering classes, with law schools having an incentive to ensure that the part time and full time divisions have comparable numbers. In other words, while some law schools may game the numbers, by throwing weaker students into the part time division, other law schools likely take a more untraditional student body in the part time division, perhaps those working (in other words those likely to be older) and, particularly with schools in urban areas, perhaps more diverse. Lumping the two programs together will make it harder for the untraditional student to find a spot in law school.

(Emphasis added.) Although I might quarrel with the use of the phrase "weaker student"--the use of LSAT and UGPA, after all, only captures part of a student's ability to perform in law school--I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.