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February 17, 2007

Are the U.S. News rankings a force for or against innovation?


Back in November, Doug asked essentially this question, and didn't get much response. Perhaps we should have offered "free coffie." However, as April approaches, law deans and profs around the country no doubt are feeling somewhat more anxious about rankings, even without a big cuppa coffie. There is probably nothing more important to the image of many schools than their ranking in the U.S. News survey each year, which will be released about five or six weeks from now.

Doug's observation was that the rankings probably spur innovation in lower-ranked schools (as they try to improve) and discourage them in higher-ranked ones (as they stay with a formula that got them there). Since he made that observation, however, at least two institutions (Harvard and Stanford) have announced curriculum changes that were described as major shifts in emphasis.

In the end, though, my own suspicion is that the rankings very generally suppress innovation at both high and low-ranked schools. Over time, the two proven methods of boosting (or maintaining) ranking seem to be (1) using scholarships to attract more-qualified students and (2) increasing production of scholarship by the faculty. Notably, for the most part the type of scholarship that is rewarded is the most traditional kind (long law review articles), and there isn't much innovative about enticing students with cash. So long as resources are focused on these two things, innovative teaching and scholarship (which is inherently riskier) probably are not going to be valued as highly.

This is not to say that innovation doesn't have some positive effect on rankings. For example, if a well-qualified prospective student sees innovative teaching, she may be drawn to that school. Similarly, some of the most successful scholarship is also innovative in its approach, and at times is successful in large part because it is innovative. However, this is just a fraction of the innovation people are bringing to their teaching and scholarship. Shouldn't it count for more?

-- Mark Osler

February 17, 2007 in Rankings | Permalink


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I've weighed in on the problems with the USNWR rankings from time to time, and so far, I've only seen one result that I like--and it's at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas (my new-home-to-be). The career services folks there have tracked down 100% of the graduating students to find out their placement status. (That's a REAL tracking down, not the apocryphal "three calls unreturned and they must be working too hard to call back" type of tracking down.) Best of all, the attitude is that Boyd folks want to know the placement status for the right reason (how the students are faring) and not primarily for the rankings reason. It's rather a lovely twist on the usual "playing to the rankings" behavior.

Posted by: Nancy Rapoport | Feb 18, 2007 8:26:16 AM

Nancy-- That sounds like the way things should be done. I hope that attitude spreads.

Posted by: Mark Osler | Feb 19, 2007 10:07:53 AM

Well, the USNWR rankings certainly promote innovation in gaming the rankings! Other than that, though, I think they tend to lock law schools into focusing on what the USNWR deems important, instead of thinking outside the box, particularly for third and fourth-tier schools. The risk of "losing" for us (i.e., dropping in the rankings) is so much higher than the potential gain of "winning" that it's just not worth it. A pity, that.

Posted by: Laura Appleman | Feb 20, 2007 2:57:48 PM

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