Most academics loathe the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities. This annual exercise purports to take a look at nearly every undergraduate and graduate school progam in the country, and to rank them all, from the "best" to the "worst." In the lower echelons, the rankings are just large groups, listed alphabetically, but at the top, there's a precise-looking Top 40 countdown that would make Casey Kasem proud. The publications that include the rankings make U.S. News a ton of money every year.
The reasons why many in the higher education business detest this process (and I'm speaking here for myself and other academics individually, not for my employer or any other institution) are many and varied. Many academic leaders have spoken out against the practice. Occasionally a school is brave enough to refuse to submit information to U.S. News for use in its survey. For example, Colin Diver, the president of Reed College here in Portland, has aleady gotten a fair amount of play out of this new commentary in the Atlantic Monthly, blasting U.S. News and explaining why Reed won't send them the data they request from all the colleges. I'll let you read what Diver has to say, and if you're interested in reading other grounds for distrusting the U.S. News ranking "system," you can find a rich literature of criticism just by using some basic Google smarts.
Like it or hate it, though, U.S. News is the 6,000-pound gorilla of college and university recruiting. Schools may turn up their noses at the rankings, but you can bet that they are well aware of where they stand on the charts, and are ever happy to make moves that they think will jump them up. Unfortunately, a lot of game-playing comes out of this, and I doubt that it ever brings about much improvement in the participants' academic programs.
The most notable byproduct of the annual beauty contest is the flood of full-color glossy brochures that the schools send out to all those who are likely voters in the U.S. News surveys. During U.S. News polling season, I get one or two such publications in the mail from different law schools every day. I never look at them any more. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in production, printing, and snail-mail costs, and each brochure goes directly from my mailbox to the recycling bin in the split second it takes me to recognize it as the junk mail it is.
My personal involvement in the U.S. News process has proven to me that it is ludicrous. From time to time, they get my name on one of their lists, and they send me a survey form to rank all the law schools in America. Sometimes the assigned task has been to rank the schools' overall programs, but lately, since I'm a tax professor, they ask me to rate all the law schools based on the educational opportunities they provide in the tax area.
I get the form, and I stare at it in disbelief. There are nearly 200 law schools listed there. How many of them could I possibly know anything meaningful about? O.k., I teach at one of them. I attended another one, 30 years ago. I have friends who teach at maybe a dozen more. I have read recent books and articles by professors at maybe a dozen more beyond that. That totals up to around one eighth of the sample. How does that qualify me to say anything at all about who's the "best" and the "worst" in the much larger group?
And how many law schools have I actually set foot in in the past five years beyond my own? Five at most. How many have I visited recently to teach regular courses in? None. How many other schools' faculty meetings have I attended? None. What do I know about the true atmosphere for learning at other schools? Nothing.
Plus, am I going to say anything good about my school's competitors? Our admissions officers fight tooth and nail for good applicants sometimes, and for better or worse, U.S. News can be a deciding factor in the prospects' decisonmaking. Doesn't that make me just a little biased? It's like sending a survey out to the auto makers and asking them who makes the best car.
The same silliness applies to the other major constituencies that U.S. News polls about the law schools: practicing lawyers and judges. What do they know about the vast majority of the 191 listed schools? Indeed, what does anybody know about the current educational programs of more than a few schools?
This week, though, the U.S. News game reached a new depth in my eyes. In my mailbox was another annual peer survey package from them, and when I opened it, I found this:
Note what they're asking me to rank the schools about: trial advocacy. That's a subject I have never taught in my 20 years in academe, and about which I know precious little. I have coached a moot court team for a while, but that's appellate advocacy, not trial advocacy. And so to send me a trial advocacy survey is the height of incompetence.
Hmmm, what do I do with this form? I guess I'll throw it away. But if I marked it up and sent it in, it would count just as much as every other form being submitted by other academics, including those who had a clue.
My votes would be utterly meaningless. And theirs wouldn't be much better.