Statement of Chancellor & Dean David Faigman:
The new rankings methodology announced earlier this week by U.S. News & World Report (“US News”) in a recent email to law school deans fails to address many of the most fundamental flaws with its ranking system and, in many ways, compounds them. As a result, UC Law SF (formerly UC Hastings Law) will no longer provide institutional data to US News for use in its law school rankings, at least until such time as US News truly addresses the concerns that we and other law schools have long shared with them.
The new methodology US News sketched will not reflect the true excellence of a school like UC Law SF. That is because US News apparently plans to continue to apply a single cookie-cutter formula to the nation’s wide variety of law schools, without actually measuring the degree to which law schools achieve their core mission elements and without properly standardizing to account for variations in student populations, geographic regions, or law schools’ success in placement in specific law job markets. Also, by continuing to emphasize entering metrics, the method US News announced doubles down on the rankings penalty imposed on schools that prioritize diversity and access. Finally, by continuing to assign precise numeric rankings, US News continues to suggest, incorrectly in our view, that meaningful distinctions can be made between schools that earn a few more or less points based on the limited factors US News now includes in its formula. Simply reducing the number of data points the rankings consider and varying how they are weighted does nothing to address these fundamental problems.
I briefly touch on each of these criticisms below.
Failure to Track Mission Elements. The old and new US News ranking elements fail to track what most law schools identify as their core mission elements, teaching, research, and public service. There is no direct measure of teaching quality, such as the degree to which a law school equips students with the practical skills needed to be successful lawyers, something bar exams do not (yet) measure. There is no direct measure of scholarly productivity or impact. And there is no measure of public service contributions.
Failure to Properly Standardize. The US News ranking system continues to fail to properly account for the degree to which law schools are differently situated, not just because of varying state bar exam cut scores but also because the law schools serve distinct student populations (e.g., providing an educational program aimed at helping disadvantaged students succeed in law school or place graduates in particularly competitive local employment markets, all things that UC Law SF does well. The rankings presume a comparison of apples to apples when they compare apples to oranges to peaches, and so on. Consider just some of the factors that differentiate law schools in the United States: urban/rural, private/public, Northeast/Midwest/South/West, stand-alone/part of a large university. Law schools vary on all of these factors and many more, and any formula should account for these differences.
Diversity Penalty. By allocating too much weight to standardized test scores (LSAT), the new ranking methodology reinforces structural inequalities. Because entering metrics correlate with first-time bar pass rates, the rankings method doubly penalizes law schools committed to creating a bridge to practice for traditionally disenfranchised populations. It does not account for the important work of schools that admit students with lower scores and teach them the skills needed to overcome that disadvantage and achieve success as attorneys. This is the work required by law schools to add to the diversity that the practicing bar desperately needs to better reflect the clients they serve. The US News methodology penalizes schools like UC Law SF that recruit and admit high-potential students with lower test scores to increase equity and opportunity in the legal profession.
False Precision. The US News ranking project is premised on the spurious notion that there are meaningful distinctions between schools that can be gleaned based on whether they are a few ranks higher or lower than peer schools. Is Yale better than Harvard? It’s truly a silly question. Should a student who wants to practice in California pick a law school in Ohio merely because the Ohio school has a modestly higher US News ranking than does the California school? That’s an even sillier question. But US News, by assigning a number – a rank – to each school, feeds into the misleading suggestion that its ranking should guide prospective law student choice and somehow provides a public service.
Arbitrary Swings. The suggestion that the ranking system makes meaningful distinction is belied by the year-over-year volatility in rankings outside the top 20 or 25 law schools. That law schools routinely, even under the old method, experienced swings of 10+ ranks from one year to the next – without any true corresponding change in the fundamentals of their programs of legal education – has always been a serious red flag. The recently announced US News methodology changes will result in huge ranking swings for many law schools. Any system that causes a law school’s rank to wildly swing from year to year is clearly unhinged from the actual quality of the school’s program.
We realize that our decision to decline to submit institutional data to the US News ranking industry is, at this point, mostly a symbolic gesture because US News has vowed to continue ranking law schools using a limited data set – ABA reporting – even if schools like UC Law SF (and the other University of California law schools that have opted out) refuse to otherwise submit data. But, at least until more significant changes are made to the formula, we plan to opt out of what we consider to be a misleading measure of law school quality.
David L. Faigman
Chancellor and Dean
William B. Lockhart Professor of Law and
John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor of Law
University of California College of the Law, San Francisco