Saturday, January 13, 2007


At the AALS Workshop on the Ratings Game, I was glad to hear Erica Moeser's point about presenting the USNWR rankings in a clear graphical format, in order to highlight how little difference there is among most law schools. (If you want to see how I presented the rankings and the University of Houston's place among them one year, see it here. As best as I can tell, this version--edited because of length--is the final version that I presented, rather than an earlier draft.) The tighter the grouping band of schools, the less real difference there is among them. (I made this point at the Indiana Law Journal's symposium, The Next Generation of Law School Rankings, in my article, Eating Our Cake and Having It, Too: Why Real Change Is So Difficult in Law Schools.)

There are all sorts of ways to present information. Edward Tufte makes this point over and over in his work, which itself has led to some wonderfully funny work, such as the Gettysburg Address, done in PowerPoint and the single best customer service complaint ever done in PowerPoint, Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel.

For example, I now have a BEPRESS page and a blog and an SSRN page. I added the BEPRESS page because I liked the way it presents my scholarship. I also like the SSRN page, although it presents my same information in a different way. And I like the blog because, now that I'm no longer an administrator, I'm enjoying my revived freedom of speech. Same person, three different aspects. (Not to mention my current official page at the University of Houston Law Center--or the one I'm going to get at UNLV.) If a very small person can have so many ways of presenting her information, why can't we look at the USNWR rankings in a way that shows how they distort small (and not particularly important) differences among schools?

Do we give the USNWR rankings so much power because we don't understand statistics? Or are there other reasons? Is it a problem of social pressure, a la Solomon Asch's conformity experiments? Is it because we don't want to have to change what we're doing (either for the right reason, which is to make law schools better, or for the wrong reason, which is to chase the rankings)? Is it easier to blame others for the imagined slights of being, say, 10 on an amplifier's volume scale when the amplifier itself "goes to 11"?


Blogger Alfred L. Brophy said...

Nancy--the Gettysburg Address in powerpoint is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I love it

1/13/2007 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the difference in presenting USNWR ranking data that the consumers interested in the information (i.e., potrential students) are trying to make decisions based on a variety of factors and would like one more, even if it is a fairly minimal distinction. So, they know that Houston is in Houston and Texas Tech is in Lubbock and those are very different cities with different markets (a better comparison might be DePaul and Loyola in Chicago - same cities etc), they know they are both secondary state schools in terms of legislative power in TX compared to UT and A&M, and now they want somebody to tell them which is "better." They don't want someone to say they are in the same range or the difference is minimal (I don't know if that's the case with these two schools, by the way). They want an easy out. ABA won't tell you. LSAC won't tell you. USNWR fills that gap in the market and the prospective student is willing to pay for that service. In some ways, it makes sense as a heuristic (see Korobkin's work in this regard). To give them a graph makes more sense at the application stage than the decision stage, when they want some sort of tie-breaker.

1/13/2007 2:07 PM  
Blogger Anthony Ciolli said...

I have to agree with anonymous here. Much of US News's power is rooted in the fact that they were the first institution to provide information prospective students wanted. Law school is one of the biggest investments anyone will ever make in a lifetime, and you need to know whether it makes more sense to go to Houston or Texas Tech, or Virginia over Georgetown, or Michigan over BU w/ scholarship.

But like anon pointed out, the ABA won't tell you which school is better, and neither will LSAC. If you go ask the deans of both Virginia and Georgetown, they'll make claims that are either unverifiable ("We're more collegial") or that both schools will make ("Our students have no problem getting jobs").

So, in comes US News to fill the void. And believe me, many students know that US News is flawed... it's just that most students, when given the choice between an imperfect ranking and no ranking or information at all, will take the imperfect ranking.

If anything I think more needs to be done at this point to educate the non-rankings people who truly believe that rankings are completely meaningless and "Cooley is just as good as Harvard."

1/13/2007 3:13 PM  
Anonymous Michael Risch said...

This debate reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from "The American President":

Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.

1/14/2007 9:43 AM  

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