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

Feb 02, 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

Explore further: What I learned from debating science with trolls

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Texas company helps energy giants keep track of equipment

37 minutes ago

Keeping track of billions of dollars of equipment that's constantly on the move is one of the oil and gas industry's toughest challenges. Time is always money. But it's a fortune when it's downtime in the oilfield or offshore.

Move over, Turing Test. Winograd Schema Challenge in town

47 minutes ago

Isn't there something better than the Turing test to measure computer intelligence? Is the Turing Test the best we have to judge a machine's capability to produce behavior that requires human thought? Doubt ...

Hitchhiking robot travels across Canada

1 hour ago

Going my way? A talking robot that's been hitchhiking rides from strangers to travel from Canada's east to west coast is nearing the end of its journey.

Recommended for you

What I learned from debating science with trolls

4 hours ago

I often like to discuss science online and I'm also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics and (perhaps surprisingly) the big bang. This inevitably ...

Activists urge EU to scrap science advisor job

Aug 19, 2014

Nine major charities urged the European Commission on Tuesday to scrap a science advisor position it says puts too much power over sensitive policy into the hands of one person.

More to a skilled ear in music

Aug 15, 2014

The first pilot study in Australia to give musicians the skills and training to critically assess music by what they hear rather than what they see begins this month at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.The study aims to ...

User comments : 0