Recent decisions by leading law schools to withdraw from the U.S. News & World Report rankings have sparked important discussions about its accuracy and influence. My own view is that the rankings distort academic decision-making, fail to adequately capture institutional quality, and create perverse incentives that are not in the best interests of students or the legal profession.
However, withdrawal from the rankings process will not have the desired impact that many assume that it will have. For one, U.S. News has said that it will continue to rank all law schools regardless of their level of participation. In addition, all law schools are already required to report most of the relevant data used in the rankings to the American Bar Association, and this information is publicly available by ABA rule. This includes LSAT, GPA, acceptance rate, yield, number of courses, faculty head count, average financial aid package, bar passage rates, career outcomes, and more. (This transparency regime was part of a laudable ABA effort to provide applicants with the information necessary to make informed decisions about pursuing a legal education.) Even financial reports about expenditures are publicly available in summary budgets that some universities publish online. The reality is that U.S. News & World Report is a journalistic enterprise, and they don’t need anyone’s permission, including mine, to publish a ranking, and they have ready access to information from the ABA and other public sources to construct their rankings.
Whether Cornell Law School ultimately “withdraws” or not from the rankings, what we need is a deeper and more searching conversation about the role that rankings play in law school life, the legal profession, and higher education generally. This will be hard to achieve because it will require us to fight our natural tendency to want to win a competition, even if we didn’t create that competition or agree with its rules. We should move to a world where all of us—faculty, administrators, students, and applicants—focus on academic quality instead of numerical rankings that are, at best, a crude proxy for the reality on the ground, and at worst, a fundamental distraction from academic progress. I pledge myself to this effort.
Jens David Ohlin
Allan R. Tessler Dean
Cornell Law School