Sunday, March 15, 2020

Compensating the Victims of the Ratings Scramble

Most people know that negative externalities are costs of your activities that you impose on others. With the release of the new US News law school rankings it makes sense to think about whether there are negative externalities stemming from law schools competing with each other to rise in the rankings. And a related question, should those who suffer from these externalities be compensated by those causing them.

A complete analysis would focus on each factor US News reports considers and there is no denying that some of the pressures are beneficial. On the other hand, suppose a school tries to raise its perception by others. It publishes all kinds of crap in big glossy magazines that typically find their way into the trash without being read. Externalities? Of course. Probably at every stage from printing, delivery, and disposal.

What concerns me most are the externalities that fall on students. Take my school (I stress only as an example since this practice is evidently widespread) which shot up in the rankings in part due to the decision to lower the number of students from 300 to 180. Applicants now fall into three categories.  Some with high LSATs scores are given generous scholarships. I do not know this but I assume some are admitted but receive less generous or no scholarships and rely on loans. And some applicants who would have been admitted but for the rankings are rejected in the interest of upping the average LSAT.

On top of all this is important to note that LSAT scores are correlated with socioeconomic class meaning that the externalities land disproportionate on those less able to absorb them. Plus, in the case of UF, there is massive excess capacity both with respect to faculty and physical plant. In short the marginal cost of admitting those students is close to zero.

So what happens to those 120  students per year who would have been admitted but for the rankings? (Please note that I am not worried about those who were made offers and did not come. Instead, these are people who would have accepted their offers.)  They will attend another law school, delay admission and go later, or give up on the law schools idea. In all cases they are saddled with a less preferred outcome. In one way or another, the decision to reject them, even though they were acceptable imposes a cost on them. Sure, maybe they would have been admitted and not been subsidized like their privileged high LSAT classmates but Florida was still what they preferred.

The cost of the rankings is imposed on them as they must move to a less preferred choice.  Maybe the other law school is lower ranked, maybe it is more expensive (meaning more student debt), perhaps it is farther from home meaning more expense to travel home over the holidays, perhaps its placement statistics are inferior to Florida, and it is possible that the quality of the teaching is lower than Florida's. Remember, these externalities last beyond three years. If they are at  inferior schools, employment opportunities may be fewer and starting salaries lower.  The implications could last a life time.  And if they postpone law school or not go at all, the externalities are obvious.

Do any people gain? Sure, accepted students are better off because of efforts to raise bar passage rates and placement numbers and lower competition for jobs. Even with no extra effort one would expect these numbers to improve. Students with high LSATs are better off but they are not responsible for imposing the cost on the 120 who find the door shut. The ones responsible for closing the door and gain by doing so are administrators -- primarily, college Presidents, Provosts, and Deans. Their incomes, statuses, and job opportunities are dependent on having the power to bar qualified students from their favored law school in the interest of increased rankings. BTW, there is no known correlation between a law school's ranking and the quality of the education delivered.

I suggest that students that would have been admitted but for the ranking race receive compensation for the burdens that have been thrust upon them. I understand this cannot happen so a redistribution from qualified students applying to a school with excess capacity to barely higher LSAT students  and administrators (the educational version of the top 1%) will continue.

Ironically this denial of opportunity takes place in the context of a profession that undeniably has a liberal (but definitely not leftist) slant. It's important to keep in mind the words of Phil Ochs on liberals: "ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally."

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Killing the Messenger

When a dean lasts five years at my law school, he or she is evaluated by the faculty in order to determine whether there should be another five years. I note that this evidently has no impact on the actual decision to retain the dean and it's not even clear that such a review complies with University policy.

In this year's evaluation, there were statements with which you could agree or disagree or anything in between. These questions showed signs of having been drafted by people unaccustomed to writing surveys but I hasten add that his year's committee was pretty much stuck with what prior committees had used. There was also space for comments. The results were mixed.  The dean scored high on fund raising and elevating the reputation of the school. She did OK on issues like fairness in salaries and assignments. The comments were also mixed. Many faculty were quite happy with the dean, understood what she faced when coming here, and admired her energy and vision. Other comments were  negative and not something many faculty, except for one or two of my more candid colleagues,  would have the balls to say directly to anyone unless it was a secretary or grocery bagger.  It was all  public and some faculty quickly distributed the results to Above the Law and to the students. No doubt this was done to further disparage the dean. My estimate was there were 18 to 23 "haters" --  the title some of us attach to people who found fault with virtually everything. The dean scored weakest on style, transparency, and consulting faculty before making decisions.

 I chose "Killing the Messenger" as the title of this blog because over 5 years the dean delivered a message many faculty did not want to hear. That message was basically that the law school, teetering on the edge of the top 50,  was, after being run by the faculty for decades, not such hot shit. The title could have been "You Cannot Handle the Truth." And I could have gone with "Uncapturing the Law School." This was a particular apt title since until the not so new dean arrived, the School was clearly captured and run for the convenience and benefit of the faculty. Some examples are found in a article I wrote several years ago: "Faculty Ethics in Law School: Shirking, Capture, and 'The Matrix'", 83 U. Detroit Mercy L. Rev. 397. You know what I mean: foreign programs that made no sense other than someone wanted to do it; course offerings that were truly vanity courses; voting on tenure and promotion based on friendships or politics; reluctance to review clinical offerings, traveling to conferences on the school's dime when the real purpose was a vacation, starting centers that allowed students to concentrate in a area and receive an unofficial certificate without any proof that these opportunities accrued to the benefit of the students, publicly advertising jobs that did not exist.

Any of these titles would have worked. There was one comment that captured the sense of most negative comments:"Leave, please, please, please leave our College. Go on your way and leave us." Note the use of "our" and "us." The idea is that the law school is owned and operated for the benefit of faculty In reality the law school's stakeholders are students, taxpayers, and donors. Faculty are just hired hands and what makes them happy may have little to do with what makes the stakeholders better off. Generally trusting faculty to do right by stakeholders at a state school is foolhardy.

So, let's go back to style, transparency, and consulting. I personally do not understand the style issue but it seems to have something to do with saying fuck, maybe "pounding the table" (whatever that means), or being abrupt. I cannot address the style issue since I have not personally witnessed any of these activities. More interesting is the transparency matter. As far as I know, the dean has taken no major steps without informing the faculty. There were mutterings in the comments about not getting enough information about budgets. As best I can tell, no prior dean explained much about budget matters unless it was bad news with respect to raises or resources. I think the budget questions could be reduced to "you did not spend the money the way I would have" with the "would have" meaning on my pet project.

Congratulations if you made it this far because if you have followed the gist of this blog, which I assure you is boring me more than you. you may have noted that it comes down to "consulting the faculty." Here it gets tricky. Say the dean makes 4 decisions: a 10% raise for you, no more 7 AM classes, begin having a full range of classes on Friday afternoon, and exams must be anonymously graded.  You like the first 2 and hate the second two. The ones you agreed with will get no complaints about consultation. The one you disagree with will irk you because you were not consulted. So really "I was not consulted" often comes down to "I disagree."

And in this case nearly all the "I was not consulted" versions of saying "I disagree" amount to being unhappy about changing from a sleepy, faculty-run, pet project tolerating, law school effectively "owned' by the faculty to something that is better for actual stakeholders.