What Deans Say About The Rankings

BauklötzeRemember report cards? Most students dread them–even the handful who are happy with their grades: The ‘A’ students wonder why weaker peers also earned the highest marks. B and C students find themselves pushed to the next level by ambitious parents and teachers. And anything lower usually means remediation (or being grounded).

In academia, deans receive report cards too. They’re called the U.S. News rankings. Like students, few deans are satisfied with their marks. This year, some law deans played it cool. The top schools pretended the rankings didn’t exist, as if they were too busy for such a thing. The Stanfords and Columbias couldn’t even be bothered to issue a press release. Make no mistake: Most deans were glued to their laptops when U.S. News’ results were posted after midnight.

And then you have the strivers, those schools that moved up 8 or 10 spots. A few acted like attention-craving teenagers, swinging their arms and screeching, “Look at me! Look at me!” But for the most part, the response was subdued here too. As the marketing teams toyed with new messaging, the deans hedged their bets, begrudgingly accepting the good news while taking digs at the rankings themselves. They understood how tenuous a 2-point swing in the index can be.

What about the schools that lost ground? They did what all good lawyers do: They argued, changed the conversation, or posited alternatives. They accepted responsibility, carefully noting that they anticipated these results and had already implemented remedies for these already out-of-date rankings. In short, they grabbed the high ground and the last word, implying that an “I-told-you-so” moment was just around the corner. It was great PR strategy. But it couldn’t hide the “uh-oh” behind the “I-told-you-so” bluster.

So what is behind what many deans are saying? Here are some highlights:

Dean Stewart J. Schwab, Cornell Law

Dean Stewart J. Schwab, Cornell Law

Dean Stewart J. Schwab, Cornell Law (No Change)

“We believe that a vital, diverse student body enhances the education of every law student and better prepares them to serve in a multi-ethnic, multicultural society.”

Our Take: When you don’t have anything to say, just placate your most vocal students by touting diversity. Who can argue with that?

Stephen Parr, Senior Associate Dean, University of Virginia Law (Dropped from 7 to 8)

“We do not focus on year-to-year fluctuations in rankings, but instead on constantly improving the quality of teaching, research, and service in the Law School.”

Our Take: What else can he say? Then again, Parr’s school jumped from #10 to #7 from 2011-2013. Let’s see if he really thinks rankings don’t matter if his school makes a similar jump next year.

Dean Don Weidner, Florida State (Jumped 6 spots … and now ranked higher than the University of Florida)

“We are thrilled that U.S. News has rated us the #1 law school in Florida.”

Our Take: Brilliant! Talk about a guy who understands his school’s regional appeal. You can almost read between the lines: “We may be #45 overall, but we’re still better than that other school in Gainesville.” Expect to see the claws coming out between these programs.