US News & World Report rankings both discipline and punish law schools

February 2, 2009

Educational rankings such as those produced by U.S. News & World Report have an inescapable impact on law schools, according to research published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

"Rankings have become deeply embedded in law schools, commanding attention, resources and interventions," said Michael Sauder, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa and the lead author of the study. "By virtue of the widespread publicity and dissemination of rankings, they both seduce and coerce law schools into compliance."

Sauder and co-author sociologist Wendy Espeland, associate professor at Northwestern University, illustrate the disciplinary power exerted by rankings using concepts from the classic 1975 text, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault.

Much like the prison system described by Foucault, rankings generate meticulous scrutiny, distrust and pressure to conform, and they encourage attempts by law schools to "game" the system.

Sauder and Espeland found that the vast majority of law schools have implemented policies to manage rankings. In the face of intense competition with other schools—what some administrators have deemed an "arms race"—many schools devote extensive resources to manipulating rankings, spending heavily to maintain their rank.

Although initially ignored by law school administrators when they debuted as an annual feature in 1990, the U.S. News & World Report rankings soon garnered widespread recognition and use by prospective students and others, forcing many administrators to react either with public statements of opposition or attempts to renegotiate the standards measured. Once the staying power of rankings became evident, some law schools resorted to manipulating statistics while others began to set or redefine their goals in terms of the rankings.

"Rankings create a benchmark for excellence in legal education from which to evaluate how each school measures up," Sauder said. "This arbitrary yardstick imposes a metric of comparison that obscures the different purposes law schools serve and generates enormous pressure to improve ranking statistics."

The study describes how law schools with missions promoting public service or those serving disadvantaged students are forced to either compromise their missions or be excluded from the category of "good law school," since schools that stray from the benchmark ideal are stigmatized and punished.

Sauder and Espeland argue that examining educational rankings in the context of disciplinary power provides an explanation for the transformative effect that the U.S. News & World Report rankings have on law schools. The result, they assert, is a situation perfectly suited for generating anxiety, uncertainty, meticulous monitoring and discipline.

To obtain data for this study, Sauder and Espeland conducted interviews with law school administrators and faculty from 75 accredited law schools and with nearly 100 prospective law students. They visited seven schools, observed and participated in professional meetings and conferences and analyzed 15 years' worth of admissions statistics.

Source: American Sociological Association

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