One of the interesting statements that Twain makes is the expectation that things will be developing rapidly very soon. He writes to Whitman: “Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still growing, visibly growing while you look.” Twain was correct — thirty years from the letter would see technology like the world never knew. Unfortunately, that technology was that of war.
So, despite the urging to not talk about the U.S. News rankings, I just can’t resist. Its like not talking about the elephant that just took a huge shit appeared in your living room. It seems that the U.S. News rankings only really matter to four people:
Students and other financially vested constituants of a law school (after-all, everyone wants to know whether their investment is sound, and in the absence of market exchanges, rankings serve a pyschological purpose of affirming that we did make a good decision);
Unhappy faculty who can use U.S. News as a platform to discuss other problems as symptomatic of the ranking (“I am sure that my top 50 article would have been a top 15 article had the law school purchased that iPad for me (p.s. my law school purchased my iPad a month ago — I digress));
Law school deans as responsive to the first two groups and trying like hell to not be sucked into the vortex of U.S. News collateral damage; and
Brian Leiter (yes Brian, even despising the rankings so much that you request a boycott means that they matter to you).
For all practical purposes, it seems that anyone that cares about U.S. News simply cares about other things of which U.S. News becomes a vetting mechanism. For example, Students are rarely pissed disturbed only because the rankings have fallen. They are usually more upset about other things, like the failing job market, the high costs of tuition, or the lack of convenient parking near the law school (frankly I would be upset about the latter too with all of the heavy books we assign were it not for my posh private parking less than one hundred feet from my office. Again, I digress). So U.S. News becomes a mechanism for students to vent their feelings about other things which are usually outside of the universe of faculty and law schools to respond to (like I said — I have great parking, my school purchased me an iPad, I have a job, and I paid my tuition dollars long before the ridiculous onslaught of high priced education (well not too long before)).
Alumni present the more persnickety problem in that they are giving money with very little upside other than wanting to see their money spent well. Names on buildings and rooms are nice, but you don’t want to just give those away. After-all,there are only so many brick entrances that a law school can have, and no one wants to see the Bob Wilson, Janet McConnell, Turd Ferguson, John Bailey, Dennis Oppenheimer Memorial Janitorial closet. Rankings are important to these people in that they have some banner to say my money mattered. (I have not done this research, though I am sure someone has — I wonder what the average percentage increase/ decrease in alumni small value giving is in a year in which there is movement of a school in U.S. News).
For Deans the question is how to manage the limited resources one already has when he knows whatever he invests in will likely NOT show up in the latest market analysis U.S. News Ranking. For example I know of one institution that has taken some dramatic hits in the U.S. News data despite a very productive faculty, student numbers that are great, and the attempt to be responsive to perceived short comings. At the end of the day, this Dean finds himself with his hands tied against the greater tide of the rankings, for which he seems to not be able to do anything to sway the rankings in a positive direction (to be clear, I don’t think he should). Deans it seems have the unpleasant task of making three groups not unhappy. For the most part, I think when people accept the role of the deanship, they begin by thinking about all of the possibilities the place offers. But slowly over time, Deans simply devolve into not pissing anyone off and praying that the U.S. News Report does not leave a huge turd in their office pull them into a sphere of disharmony — where students, alumni, and faculty are saying “what have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, we have seen U.S. New’s gravitational pull on certain deans.
Which brings me to why U.S. News Matters, even to Brian Leiter. U.S. News is a market survey – no more, no less. The fact that schools game the rankings tells us it matters. The fact that we talk about the rankings (even negatively) tells us that they matter. The fact is, that in the legal blogosphere we well may be living in Brian Leiter’s world, but that world, is tucked away nicely, at least for one month of the year, in Bob Morse’s Universe. And that Universe, when not used to hose a Dean, or give a law school an unhealthy sense of itself, can be a useful tool to move a place in conversation. What we should not do, is make the limited Universe of U.S. News the end of that conversation!
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.