Yale sparked a U.S. News rankings revolt but some law schools can’t let go

Yale Law’s decision to stop cooperating with the publication landed like a thunderclap. Records show what other schools thought about the ‘revolution.’

(Illustration by Natalie Vineberg/The Washington Post; emails obtained by The Post; iStock)

The decision late last year by Yale Law School to stop cooperating with U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings drew giddy applause from some deans, who cheered the prospect of a larger uprising. After years of misgivings about the rankings’ influence, school leaders hoped that a public stand by Yale — the publication’s perennial No. 1 law program — might finally loosen U.S. News’s grip.

“The revolution has begun!!” Richard Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln law school, wrote in an email shortly after the announcement to his then-counterpart at the University of Minnesota. “I have been wanting to do this for years but my guess is that people will follow Yale more than they would have followed Nebraska …” (At the time, Nebraska was No. 78.)

Law school deans have long complained that the U.S. News metrics value students with high test scores at the expense of those with other worthy attributes. On the other hand, many deans say that even small bumps in the rankings can help them raise money and recruit stronger students and faculty.

Interviews with administrators and internal communications obtained by The Washington Post through public records requests provide new detail about how Yale’s announcement on Nov. 16, 2022 — and, on the same day, Harvard’s — reverberated across higher education. Behind the scenes, administrators debated whether taking a moral stand against U.S. News was worth the risk of either plummeting in the rankings or, as some initially believed might happen, not being ranked at all. Across the country, the moment created a pressing quandary for legal educators, who weighed their concerns about the rankings against the reality of U.S. News’s importance in shaping a school’s national reputation.

The day after Yale’s announcement, Andy Hessick, an associate dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school, said in an email to colleagues that the risks of withdrawing from cooperation outweighed the potential benefits. “Boycotting imperils the benefits we’ve gained through working on the rankings,” he wrote. “Harvard and Yale have left, but everyone just assumes they are at the top. We do not have that luxury.”

Chapel Hill continued to cooperate with U.S. News. But Nebraska-Lincoln and 61 other law schools — nearly a third of the 196 schools ranked — declined to provide U.S. News with data for its latest rankings, a review by The Post found. Many other schools continued to cooperate — either without comment or while saying that prospective students should decide for themselves whether rankings matter.

A year later, the full effect of the revolt remains tricky to parse. U.S. News defended its rankings but made changes in the wake of the boycott. The publication placed greater emphasis on student outcomes, including bar passage rates, rather than applicants’ grades and test scores. It now relies mostly on public data, lessening its dependence on law schools to provide information.

But a thorny relationship between U.S. News and the schools it ranks persists, fueling a broader debate about who gets to define quality in education.

U.S. News has been in the education rankings business since 1983. In addition to law schools, the publication produces lists of “best” colleges, countries, states and cruise ships. In higher education, the rankings are often criticized as blunt instruments incapable of capturing the distinctive qualities of a given college or program. Those arguments have been particularly sharp among some law school leaders, in part because law students and alumni tend to care a lot about how their school ranks.

Law school deans do not uniformly agree on what they say is wrong with U.S. News. But many have argued that the rankings’ past emphasis on how much schools spent per student incentivized schools to raise tuition and to spend more. Some deans blame U.S. News, in part, for the fact that a lot of law schools, in order to boost their rankings, focus more on giving financial aid to students with high test scores than they do on helping those from low-income backgrounds. Whatever the argument, many people in higher education say U.S. News forces schools to share its arbitrary values or suffer the reputational consequences.

There is some precedent for Yale’s withdrawal from the rankings. In 1995, Reed College stopped cooperating with U.S. News’s rankings of national liberal arts colleges, only to fall precipitously in the category. Nearly three decades later, Reed’s story still looms in higher education as a cautionary tale.

Colin Diver, a former president of Reed, was dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s law school in 1990, when U.S. News began its annual ranking of law schools. Within a couple of years, he said, Penn law’s admissions director told him that applicants showed an “almost slavish adherence to the rankings,” choosing where to apply and attend almost solely based on a school’s position.

“It just kind of drove people crazy,” Diver said.

U.S. News college rankings draw new complaints and competitors

Eric Gertler, executive chairman and chief executive of U.S. News, told The Post that the publication provides a valuable service to prospective law students who are weighing a major life decision. Gertler was “surprised,” he said, that the boycotting schools did not want to assist the publication in that effort.

“The media has portrayed this as pitting U.S. News against a law school,” Gertler said. “For us it’s always about our consumer focus and about the students.”

To law school leaders, though, U.S. News is far more than an innocuous consumer guide. Yale’s announcement seeded what some hoped would be a mass revolt — a show of force that would irreparably damage the publication’s credibility or make it more responsive to deans’ concerns.

On Nov. 17, 2022, the day after Yale and Harvard announced their withdrawals, the University of California at Berkeley’s law school followed suit. Erwin Chemerinsky, Berkeley’s law dean, emailed the college’s chancellor that day, saying he hoped that their decision would inspire “a cascade” of law schools to follow. “I sure hope so,” replied Carol Christ, Berkeley’s chancellor.

Then U.S. News’s No. 9 law school, Berkeley occupied a space among the top 14 schools, a rarefied group that seldom fluctuates much. In the end, only two of them — the University of Chicago and Cornell University — declined to throw their support behind the movement.

Soon after Berkeley’s announcement, Chemerinsky told his counterpart at the UC-Irvine campus that other deans needed to act quickly to maximize their leverage against U.S. News. “If it is going to happen, this is the moment,” Chemerinsky wrote.

Not everyone was as sure as Chemerinsky about the wisdom of the boycott. Some of U.S. News’s metrics, such as bar passage and job placement rates, are aligned with the goals of most law schools. At a place like UNC, which has made a concerted effort in recent years to improve its graduates’ employment rates, the uncertainties of joining the boycott loomed large. Chapel Hill at the time held the No. 23 slot, a respectable position administrators didn’t want to jeopardize, records show.

“The upside of leaving would be communicating a message that we dislike the rankings for various reasons,” Hessick, the associate dean, said in his email to colleagues on Nov. 17, 2022. “There is value to being the ones identified with that message. But I worry that all the credit will go to the first mover — Yale — and that this benefit in any event might be ephemeral. I say we wait to see what the rest do.”

Once U.S. News confirmed that it would continue to rank law schools regardless of their cooperation, the calculation became even more elementary for Hessick. In time, most people wouldn’t even know who pulled out, he wrote in another email to colleagues the next day. “More reason to keep playing the us news game,” he said.

Hessick declined to discuss the email records in detail. But he said he was glad to see that U.S. News had made some changes to its methodology, emphasizing bar passage and employment rates more than incoming students’ test scores. “It has moved away from inputs and toward outputs,” Hessick said, “and that matches up perfectly with a lot of the criticisms they were given.”

Like Chapel Hill, the University of Minnesota’s law school, which held the No. 21 slot at the time, continued to cooperate with U.S. News. But in an email to colleagues, then-Dean Garry Jenkins was fierce in his criticism of the publication, describing its methodology as “horrendous and affirmatively bad for legal education.”

“At this stage, we are watching closely,” Jenkins, who is now president of Bates College, wrote to a vice president on Nov. 17, 2022, copying Joan Gabel, then Minnesota’s president. “But I’d like to see if there’s more momentum among other top 10-20 law schools to withdraw. We may be faced with a decision/opportunity to help see US News dethroned, but we’re not quite there yet.”

As schools weighed their decisions, some questioned the purity of the boycotters’ motives. One theory: Some schools, correctly anticipating that the Supreme Court would soon strike down race-based affirmative action, could be planning admissions changes that would hurt them in the rankings but preserve diversity. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board surmised as much, saying, “The Yale and Harvard announcements look like attempts to adapt in advance.”

When the University of Michigan’s law dean heard this theory from an alumnus, he dismissed it, saying in an email shortly after Yale’s announcement that his school’s decision to withdraw was “100% not connected to any Supreme Court ruling.”

“There is no subterfuge here,” wrote Mark West, dean at Michigan, which ranked 10th at the time.

In the early days of the revolt, no one knew what to expect, including those at U.S. News. The publication went into damage control, soliciting feedback from law deans. At least one dean responded with words of encouragement for Robert Morse, the publication’s chief data strategist.

“Stay the course,” University of Georgia law Dean Peter “Bo” Rutledge wrote on Nov. 17, 2022. “Yale and Harvard look very sanctimonious here[.] Just [like] one of my board members said, ‘It sounds like they quit because they were losing.’”

Morse replied, “Do you think it will be mass exodus or just a few more or too early to tell.”

“Too early to tell,” Rutledge replied. “You’ll want to watch Stanford, Chicago and folks just outside the top 14. Everyone is a rational actor here.”

If the boycott forced U.S. News to rely on public data, rather than what schools reported, all the better, Rutledge told Morse. Doing so would “smoke out cheaters who fudge on things,” Rutledge wrote.

Over the years, Rutledge had exchanged several emails with Morse and met with him “off the record” — Morse’s stipulation — to discuss the rankings, records show. In a 2021 email, Rutledge urged Morse to retain a measure of student debt as part of the rankings, ignoring the “nonsense arguments” other deans were making that debt was “some immoral thing to monitor.” (Some deans said that the debt measure, which U.S. News dropped in its most recent rankings, discouraged law schools from admitting students who needed loans or had existing debt.)

“Lots of deans were communicating regularly with U.S. News,” Rutledge said in an interview.

Morse did not respond to interview requests.

Deans want an audience with Morse because he is seen as a “gatekeeper” of the rankings, said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the University of Utah’s law school. It’s been said that “Bob Morse is the most powerful person in legal education,” she told The Post.

In 2019, a group of concerned law deans met with Morse and other U.S. News officials in Washington to discuss various concerns about the metrics, several deans said. Those discussions led to the formation of an advisory board, which held periodic private meetings with the publication, according to members. Harvard noted the existence of the board in its statement about withdrawing, but details about the group have not been previously reported.

The board pushed back against two proposed rankings metrics that U.S. News ultimately decided not to include, members said. One was a scholarly impact measure derived from citation counts, which some law professors said undervalued scholarship in less topical research areas. The board, along with many other deans, also resisted a diversity metric that would not have tracked multiracial students.

The board met several times a year on Zoom, sometimes for three or four hours. Several members told The Post that they found the meetings frustrating, because U.S. News largely ignored their feedback.

“They would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, — that makes a lot of sense’ and then do whatever they wanted to,” said Kimberly Mutcherson, former co-dean at the Rutgers University law school in Camden.

Sean Scott, president and dean of California Western School of Law, said she quit the board in late 2022. She opposes ranking schools altogether, she said, which put her at an impasse with U.S. News. “Given that they are wedded to that model and not interested in the harm of that model, it was not worth spending my time,” Scott said.

U.S. News’s chief executive countered that the publication had been responsive to criticism, citing the changes in methodology made in recent months. “Not all the deans are on the same page,” Gertler said. “The deans all have their personal incentives of what they want out of the rankings. I think that we have been responsive over the years, but always with what’s in the best interests of the students.”

Risa Goluboff, dean of the University of Virginia’s law school, served as the advisory board’s inaugural chair. As the boycott unfolded, Goluboff advocated keeping the group’s existence and membership secret.

“My sense is that the existence of this advisory board has never been made public,” Goluboff wrote in an email to board members on Dec. 6. “We members have been concerned from the beginning that we avoid being used by USNWR to legitimize the rankings in any way.”

In a statement to The Post, Goluboff said the deans and U.S. News “wanted to create the conditions for productive dialogue. We thought such conditions would be more likely if our activities were not public.”

As Goluboff argued for the board’s continued secrecy, her lieutenants at U-Va. law — then the eighth-ranked school — were crafting a statement about their plans to cease cooperation with U.S. News. When she told U-Va. President James E. Ryan on Dec. 8 that she planned to withdraw, he replied with three words: “You. Go. Girl.”

In the months after the boycott, the deans’ advisory board fizzled out, said Kronk Warner, who was chair of the group at the time. She said she sent several messages to Morse about meeting but “got ghosted sometime in January ’23.” Last month, however, Kronk Warner said she heard from Morse — and the board has agreed again to meet with U.S. News.

U.S. News officials said they talked to more than 100 deans and law school officials in the aftermath of the revolt. It has been a bumpy ride since. In the spring, U.S. News released a preliminary list of law school rankings, only to postpone publication of the full list after schools flagged possible problems with the data.

The rankings released in May showed some fluctuations among the top 14 schools; but only Georgetown Law fell out of the esteemed tier, swapping spots with UCLA. (Both Georgetown and UCLA joined the boycott.)

The rankings saw significant changes elsewhere, though: 67 law schools shifted 10 or more spots, according to an analysis from Spivey Consulting.

“We assure you, the actual quality and reputability of all of these law schools did not swing so drastically,” the consulting firm wrote on its blog.

In all, more than two-thirds of law schools provided the publication with data for its most recent rankings, a Post review found. A smattering of medical schools joined the boycott, but universities didn’t withdraw en masse from the undergraduate rankings, as some critics had hoped.

Still, many law deans see the changes that U.S. News has made to its methodology as a sign that the pressure campaign worked. Applicants’ LSAT scores matter less, and bar passage rates matter more. Spending per student, a much-criticized metric that required data from schools, was dropped as a measure.

That said, money moves the rankings. In 2020, it helped the University of Florida’s law school meet its goal of becoming a top-10 public law school. During Laura Rosenbury’s eight-year tenure as dean, UF law rose in the rankings from a low point of No. 48 to a high of No. 21 among public and private programs. When progress stalled in 2018, UF made an initial investment of $5 million, Rosenbury said, and continued to pay in subsequent years for improvements including upgrades to facilities and classroom technology. (Tuition at the law school had been frozen earlier in the decade by the state.)

“The money was not provided just to manipulate the rankings,” said Rosenbury, now president of Barnard College. “We needed the money to better support our students. And we were able to do so.”

When the boycott happened, Rosenbury said, UF’s provost joked she probably wouldn’t be dean anymore if she took part in it. After all UF had done to climb in the rankings, it “would be jarring” to suggest they didn’t matter, she said. (In the most recent rankings, UF dropped one spot, to No. 22).

Some deans say they are frustrated that U.S. News made major changes only under enormous pressure. “They were not listening until this happened,” said Joshua Fershée, the dean of Creighton University law school, who served on the advisory board.

For Heather Gerken, Yale’s law dean, the ripple effects of the revolt are plain to see. “We left U.S. News because it had destroyed needs-based financial aid and focused law schools on the wrong priorities,” she said. “And it’s really been heartening to see what an impact our decision has had. People are paying a lot more attention to the flaws; they’re relying on the ranking much less; its credibility is diminished.”

In the most recent rankings, Yale Law retained the No. 1 slot, this time tied with Stanford University.

U.S. News didn’t act alone. Begrudgingly or not, law schools have “played their part,” said Scott, the president and dean at California Western, who quit the advisory board.

“We have to be accountable for the misuse of U.S. News,” Scott said. “We have misused it in letting it guide our decisions about the faculty that we hired. We have misused it in using it as a measure for the success of a dean. We have misused it as a way of leveraging money from our donors. That’s on us. That’s not a U.S. News problem. That’s a legal academy problem.”

Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.

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