Law School Rankings and the Assault on Higher Education (or, Why Is Florida Doing so Well?)

by Neil H. Buchanan

The cynical game of ranking universities, colleges, and their sub-units has been destroying higher education for decades.  Although it is understandable that people would hope to find an objective method by which to compare different institutions ("Should I pay to send the twins, Missy and Trip, to College A or University B?"), no such method exists -- nor could it exist.  The entire enterprise has too many moving parts, and the people who rely on rankings have too many different goals and motivations, to make rankings meaningful.
And although it was once defensible to say that the perfect -- the Platonic ideal of comparatively measuring institutions' relative quality -- should not be the enemy of the good -- having at least a workaday, rough estimate of comparative quality, so that we could confidently claim that say, UCLA is superior to Florida State but that UCLA and Michigan cannot meaningfully be ranked relative to each other -- we quickly discovered that people want granular rankings and will treat one-slot differences as hugely meaningful.

Even worse, once it became clear that this entire inquiry could be turned into a profit center, one of the major news magazines in this country essentially became a rankings factory with a side gig in journalism.  And USNews soon learned that it could further increase profits by making sure that there is movement within the rankings from year to year, to generate interest and legitimacy.  Even so, they cannot allow the rankings to change too much, because that would make people think that the rankings are volatile and unreliable.  Again, it is all very, very cynical.

Not that this is new to anyone, but there is a twist.  Here, I want to comment on the recent release of the new law school rankings, focusing in particular on what happened -- or, more accurately, what did not happen -- to the ranking of my employer, the University of Florida Levin College of Law.  I do so not out of parochial interest but to make a counterintuitive point about how the toxic political enviroment in my state is running up against the incentives created by the USNews juggernaut.  Short version: USNews might (inadvertently but thankfully) be shielding state universities from politically motivated attacks by angry culture-war conservatives.

As some readers might recall, the University of Florida found itself in a very unflattering national spotlight last Fall, when the top administrators here in Gainesville deviated from longstanding precedent -- and from good practice -- by trying to prevent some of my colleagues from testifying in lawsuits that had been brought against the State of Florida.  Last year, when the Republican-dominated (and gerrymandered) legislature passed its own version of Georgia's and Texas's attacks on voting rights, and the Republican governor made a big show of signing that into law, lawsuits inevitably followed.  And in due course, professors with relevant expertise planned to work as paid expert witnesses for those challenging the Republicans' handiwork.

Again, this is the way things work in higher education.  Yes, professors like me are employed by "the State of Florida," but that does not mean that we are supposed to do what the governor tells us to do, as if he were our boss in a typical workplace.  The governor is not our boss, and our job is to use our expertise for the public good -- even, or especially, when our assessment of the public good tells us that the governor and the legislature have done things that will harm current and future Floridians.

I wrote about this controversy twice in November (here and here) and, after a federal judge ruled against the state in a follow-on lawsuit in January, I wrote two more columns (here and here).  Although I was focused almost exclusively in those columns on academic freedom and political interference, I predicted along the way that this controversy would inevitably harm the university's -- and my law school's -- USNews ranking.  The judge who ruled against the state in January similarly predicted that the rankings would suffer.

Well, the new law rankings would seem to have proved me (and the judge) wrong.  We were ranked 21st last year, and we were tied for 21st this year -- arguably a decline, but nothing like I was expecting.  What is happening?

As an initial matter, this might simply be a situation in which there is a lag between the damaging events of Fall 2021 and the manifestation of the damage.  Although I expected that the high salience of the negative stories about UF would immediately reduce our reputation rankings (a big part of the overall rankings), it might simply be the case that things do not work as quickly as that.
Moreover, even if the people who send in the ballots are not directly changing UF's ranking based on the state's Republicans having attacked their own university, those who do the rankings will start to notice that we are definitely having a harder time attracting top talent.  We actually have had a pretty good year in recruiting faculty and have landed some stars, but we have also been told quite bluntly by some faculty candidates that they lost interest in us because of what Florida's politicians have been doing.  That will show up in the rankings in future years.

I believe, however, that this surprisingly positive result is the result of the effective leadership of our dean, Laura Rosenbury.  In an environment in which deans and other campus administrators are hired and fired on the basis of USNews results, it is tempting for faculty and other stakeholders to say that any dean is "obsessed with rankings."  But the measure of excellence in a dean shows up in how she mitigates the harmful side-effects of pursuing rankings glory.

Put bluntly, any dean who says, "I think rankings are a cancer on higher education, and I will not alter what I do to maximize rankings," will be applauded by many and then summarily dismissed by the administration -- to be replaced by someone who toes the line on rankings.  That is, we are not choosing between deans who are rankings-obsessed and those who are pure of heart.  As I said above, what we want is a dean who can succeed in positioning the school to maximize rankings while minimizing the inevitable collateral effects.  Being genuinely pure of heart means understanding the many negative impacts of rankings obsession and knowing how to make things better where possible, not in taking a supposedly principled stand that will not in fact make things better for anyone.

Dean Rosenbury has done all of that in ways that I am prohibited from describing publicly, because of privacy matters related to specific individuals and for other reasons.  She has navigated these treacherous waters extremely well.  That UF did not fall out of 21st place after what has happened in the last year is truly amazing, and that outcome attests to the dean's success.  If the state's politicians had not gone rogue, we could have been ranked even higher.  I wrote above that perhaps the negative impact has a lag, but it is also at least possible -- and I think it highly likely to the point of near certainty -- that we actually did take a hit this year, relative to the alternative universe in which the politicians stayed in their lane.

But even excellence in stewardship can only mitigate damage up to a certain point.  If politicians in the Sunshine State or anywhere else in the country want to destroy the academic quality, reputation, and rankings of their citizens' system of higher education, they can do it.  Why have they not gone all in (yet)?

I noted in a recent Verdict column that Florida's culture warriors have forced the university system to distribute an "Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Survey."  When it arrived in my inbox, it was even more ridiculous than I had expected, basically inviting people to say that they feel censored on campus.  And it is entirely predictable that the politicians will make a big deal of the survey results, no matter what they are: "Fully xx percent of UF faculty and students who identify as conservative say that they feel uncomfortable stating their views in class!!"  It simply will not matter whether xx is 23, 41, 60, or 78.

Even this, however, is relatively innocuous, mattering only if it is a harbinger of worsening political meddling in the near future.  And this is where I come back to the point that I made at the beginning of this column, which is that the USNews rankings could end up providing something of a buffer against the damage that the politicians might otherwise try to inflict.  The Florida political class continues to chafe at the idea that the third-largest state in the country has a university system that is not mentioned in the same breath as Virginia's, Michigan's, or California's, which is why they are so excited about focusing on UF's rankings, not only overall but especially compared to other public universities.  The law school, for example, is ranked 6th among public law schools -- a fact that I know only because Florida's politicians and boosters want everyone to know it.

And as noted above, the scandal last Fall was truly damaging, mitigated though the damage was.  If the most extreme elements in the state decide to use the new survey to do substantive damage to the university -- one of the worst ideas being to require the university to hire conservatives simply because they are conservatives -- that will be the beginning of the end.  No dean or administrator, no matter how skilled, will be able to hold back the floodwaters at that point.
And as bad as USNews is for the world, its ranking metrics will definitely measure how severely the University of Florida would be damaged by this kind of political intervention.  The larger point, then, is that USNews is screwy, but not in a sense that is generally politically salient.  And what it does measure is (perhaps by accident) almost perfectly calibrated to punish the universities that start to take an explicitly partisan approach to higher education.  At this point, we should be happy for any help that we can find.