Monday, October 23, 2017

The Tyranny of US News: Any Hope?

Let me recommend Richard Abel’s book review of Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability by Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder 66 Journal of Legal Education 961 (2017—here).

Professor Abel places US News rankings and their influence in historical and contemporary contexts:

The cozy world of pre- 1970s American legal education, populated by a relatively small number of white men who tended to know one another and acted unselfconsciously (indeed, unconsciously) according to particularistic criteria, has been replaced by a complex system of institutions claiming legitimacy by reference to universalistic, allegedly meritocratic, criteria and populated by a far larger and more diverse membership. Because of these changes, impersonal selection criteria have replaced personal contacts.

Rankings, that is, impersonal selection criteria, he argues, offer a convenient—if unfortunate—criteria for evaluating schools and individuals. Is there any hope for change? His prognosis is bleak. He ends his review in these words:

Jennifer Mnookin, my dean, captured the essential dilemma in an e-mail to the UCLA Law School community in March 2017, taking satisfaction in the improvements of our rankings, both overall and for specific programs, while emphasizing that they “should be taken with several very large grains of salt.” The “U.S. News methodology is, bluntly put, a deeply imperfect measure . . . . Nevertheless, these rankings are closely-watched and influential.” Rankings may indeed be the latest manifestation of Weber’s iron cage—a roach motel where you can check in but can never check out.


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