Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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.

No comments: