US News "Faculty Hotness" Controversy Generating More Heat Than Light

By Mike Dorf

The announcement that US News would include a new category of "faculty hotness" in its 2011 law school rankings continued to generate controversy yesterday, as law school deans scrambled to position themselves as above the fray while secretly ensuring that their own schools were not shortchanged in the hotness category. NYU Law School Dean Richard Revesz denied that the 62-page glossy "Faculty in Paradise" magazine--featuring pictures of NYU Law faculty frolicking on the beach clad only in skimpy swimsuits--was a bid to secure a high US News hotness rating, but several other deans with whom I spoke were skeptical. Said University of Pennsylvania Law School Dean Mike Fitts, "Oh c'mon. Are you telling me that Sam Issacharoff is hotter than Steve Burbank? No way. There are at least a dozen hotter faculties than NYU. We just don't feel the need to be so ostentatious about it."

Meanwhile, US News found itself defending the move against charges of sexism. "Hotness is gender-neutral," wrote Bob Morse on his US News-based blog. "Whether a particular faculty member is 'hot' does not depend on whether that person is male or female but simply on whether he or she is perceived as hot. Besides, the hotness index is calculated for an entire faculty, not individual faculty members."

Still, many observers wonder whether the addition of "faculty hotness" isn't simply a publicity stunt gone bad. Or worse. There are rumors afoot that, the website that pioneered the hotness category in faculty ratings, is contemplating litigation to protect against what a spokesperson for the site called its "property in hotness."  IP experts were dubious. "No one can legitimately have a monopoly on the use of a concept like hotness," said Columbia Law Professor and noted anarchist Eben Moglen. "It's like trying to get Lanham Act protection for 'justice' or 'beauty.' Hotness wants to be free."

Some of the powers-that-be apparently wish they could nonetheless banish hotness, at least judging by their attacks on the new criterion.  Association of American Law Schools ("AALS") Executive Director Susan Westerberg Prager issued a press release questioning the utility of the US News ranking.  She wrote that "no single number can truly capture all the diverse dimensions of faculty hotness.  The AALS urges law school applicants to evaluate each law school program according to his or her own unique hotness needs."

Law deans seem especially nervous.  The Wall Street Journal quoted my own dean, Stewart Schwab, fretting about the implications for schools in the northeast.  "Cornell applications were up by over 50% this year, and that was before the basketball team made the Sweet 16." Schwab said.  "Given the Ithaca winters, I think this shows that students prefer coldness to hotness."

Yale Law School Dean Robert Post went further.  In a guest entry on Balkinization, he observed that "hotness is not even a word. The noun form is 'heat.'" Maybe so, but one suspects that Post is simply blowing smoke. After all, Yale has consistently ranked first in overall quality on the US News rankings, but that was before the addition of the hotness category. According to tax law and rankings expert Paul Caron, who claims to have seen the US News algorithm and applied it to the current rankings, "the inclusion of hotness into the 2010 rankings would have dropped Yale from Number 1 to Number 18." Caron did not say who the other winners and losers would be from the inclusion of hotness, coyly adding only that "hotness will do to law school rankings what on-base-percentage did to baseball, what double-declining-balance depreciation did for tax shelters.  Hotness is a complete game changer."

Whether hotness has staying power remains to be seen. Longtime US News critic Brian Leiter, who had been taking a break from blogging, interrupted that break to post on his blog that "the problem is not so much with rating hotness per se. The problem is the US News methodology." Leiter explained that when he conducted a "more rigorous survey" of faculty hotness in 2004, the University of Texas Law School came out the hottest. However, he noted that when the 2010 data are used, "the University of Chicago Law School faculty turns out to be more than three degrees hotter than their closest competitors." As one reader identified only as "Martha-M-in-Cambridge-MA" noted in the comments, however, Leiter did not say whether that was several degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius.

In other news, UC-Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky downplayed reports that he had encountered a financial stumbling block in his effort to hire Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to run his school's new family law clinic.  "On the contrary," Chemerinsky confidently told DoL.  "If anything, negotiations are heating up."