The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yale Law School pulled out of the U.S. News rankings. Here’s why.

Law school deans have compared the rankings to a roach infestation and wished that al-Qaeda would target the company

The Sterling Memorial Library on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

On Wednesday, Yale Law School announced that it is “leaving” the U.S. News & World Report rankings system. This is a big deal for lawyers. For decades, these rankings have shaped legal education and the legal profession. As explained in the book “Engines of Anxiety,” these rankings haven’t just determined which schools are seen as prestigious and which aren’t. They have reshaped legal education, as law schools adapted their admission decisions and internal workings to increase their scores in the ranking system.

As “Engines of Anxiety” explains, law school deans detest the rankings so much that one compared them to a cockroach infestation and another rhetorically hoped al-Qaeda might target U.S. News. To find out the backstory, I conducted an email interview with the two sociologists who wrote the book, Michael Sauder, a professor at the University of Iowa, and Wendy Nelson Espeland, a professor at Northwestern University.

Q: Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken has announced that her institution is pulling out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which she describes as “profoundly flawed.” You and your co-author describe how many other law school deans share her opinion. Why are they all so unhappy?

A: Because USN rankings are so visible to prospective students, law schools (just like colleges and universities) worry that these evaluations, though “profoundly flawed,” have an outsized influence on determining the schools that students apply to and choose to attend. Law schools then feel pressure to make decisions — about admissions, about scholarships, about their identity — based on improving their numbers instead of what is, in their judgment, best for the school and its students. This is frustrating and demoralizing for many.

Q: Why, despite their unhappiness with rankings that are “engines of anxiety,” have they mostly been unwilling to pull out up to now?

A: In the past, failing to cooperate with U.S. News has almost invariably led to a marked decline in the school’s rank — which, in turn, has created big headaches for deans and other administrators: unhappy students and alumni; fear of declining enrollment and revenue; and possibly losing one’s job. These are big risks for schools, especially those who are in tight competition with their peers for pools of prospective students.

Soon after the rankings were introduced, some schools did opt out of the rankings. These schools experienced significant drops in rank, and this served as a cautionary tale for schools who considered similar strategies in the future. It became quickly apparent that failing to cooperate with U.S. News could have serious costs in terms of the school’s national reputation.

Q: Gerken says that the rankings discourage schools that want to train lawyers who are interested in public service. Is that true, and are there other ways in which the rankings reshape law schools’ priorities?

A: Yes, it is true that rankings create incentives that can make it harder to train lawyers interested in public service. Schools whose missions stray from the formula that U.S. News rewards — for example, schools dedicated to public service or providing opportunities to underserved populations — are, in effect, punished for their mission as they are forced to make a choice between staying true to their guiding principles or doing better in the rankings.

Likewise, the rankings incentivize schools to focus their admissions decisions on selectivity criteria that emphasize standardized test scores, which also disfavors nontraditional students. In addition, the rankings pressure schools to give scholarships based on merit rather than need as they try to “buy” the students who help them to optimize the selectivity score that is central to determining their rank. These are just a few examples of the many ways in which rankings have reshaped the priorities of schools, a transformation that many within the field of legal education see as harmful.

Q: For a long time, Yale has been the top-ranked law school. Might its decision to pull out destabilize the rankings system, or alternatively, will it keep going strong?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, this could really draw attention to the problems that the rankings generate and encourage other schools to follow suit. As we write this, Harvard and Berkeley have already announced that they, too, are opting out of the rankings, and these decisions have created a lot of attention in the media.

On the other hand, it will be much more difficult for schools outside of the elite to risk the consequences that could ensue from dropping out. These schools are more likely to rely on the rankings to affirm their standing among prospective students, and they are more likely to suffer if their closest rivals choose to participate (and then shoot up in the rankings) as they fall.

As we know, more schools than ever actively embrace the rankings as a means to improve their standing in a crowded market. With that said, these recent actions might encourage more widespread questions about the legitimacy of the rankings themselves. If this were to happen, we could imagine a domino effect whereby more and more schools choose to opt out.

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