Law school rankings carry big clout
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Duquesne University cited its law school's fourth-tier finish in U.S. News & World Report in explaining Dean Don Guter's removal, but some of what figured prominently in that showing may have been partly beyond his control.
If nothing else, the fact the magazine entered into the discussion at all illustrates the influence of these rankings, which often are scorned by college administrators for problems including subjectivity, but nonetheless are closely followed by prospective students and others.
In a phone interview, Robert Morse, who directs research for the magazine rankings, cited half a dozen criteria that figured significantly in Duquesne's low rank in March.
Three of them -- spending per student, faculty-to-student ratio, and the number of volumes and titles in the law library -- involve law school funding decisions that at a university often rest partly or in whole with central campus administration, observers say.
Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare, who raised U.S. News in defending Mr. Guter's Dec. 10 removal, says it was neither the sole nor an overriding factor.
"He has been apprised of various expectations over three years," she said.
Duquesne officials say they ousted Mr. Guter for performance failings they can't specify for confidentiality reasons, but they also said the law school needs to improve its scholarship.
However, Mr. Guter and his supporters say Duquesne President Charles Dougherty harbored animus toward the dean, and that the two disagreed over matters including law school funding. In the nearly two weeks since Mr. Guter was told to resign in 24 hours or be removed, the president has faced a no-confidence vote by the undergraduate student government, criticism from the law alumni association and threats by some major donors to stop giving.
Neither Mr. Guter nor Ms. Fare dispute the U.S. News & World Report characterization of the law school, but both sides differ sharply on who is responsible.
Duquesne ranked second to last out of 184 law schools in per-student spending on instruction, library and support, Mr. Morse said. It spent 64 percent of what nearby Pitt spends.
Duquesne's law student-to-faculty ratio, at 18.2 to 1, ranked 160th, Mr. Morse said. Volumes and titles in Duquesne's law library, at 386,540, ranked 153rd.
Rounding out the six criteria were the school's 145th ranking in the median LSAT entrance exam scores; a 1.9 out of 5 possible points in a category allowing law schools to rate peers; and a 157th place in the share of the Class of 2006 employed full- or part-time nine months after graduation. It was 86.1 percent, Mr. Morse said.
Those 2006 graduates had at least one year of classes to finish when Mr. Guter arrived at Duquesne in August 2005.
With Duquesne declining to specify evaluation criteria or any promises the dean made upon his hiring, interpreting his removal is more difficult. "That's a significant unknown," Mr. Morse said.
Still, he said, concerning the school's budget, it would seem "there has to be some culpability" on the part of the central administration. Noting the relatively low per-student spending, he added, "It's hard to compete when you're spending that much less."
Ms. Fare said Duquesne actually has increased the law school's operating budget since 2005 by $3 million, or 31 percent, but that Mr. Guter during his tenure failed to spend down a surplus reaching $1.4 million, or award more than $1 million in financial aid money under his control.
"In the first class recruited by former Dean Guter, the school disregarded a planned enrollment reduction authorized by the provost," she said. "This action by the school resulted in a higher acceptance rate, lowered the overall LSAT [score] and resulted in lower expenditures per student."
Ms. Fare said a law school can raise its standing among peers, and thus its magazine ranking, through scholarly activity. But she provided an excerpt of an American Bar Association report from a 2007 law school visit, stating, "the faculty, with a few exceptions, is not publishing substantial quantities of work in the high visibility outlets that will draw national attention to the faculty's work." Duquesne did not make the entire report available.
Responding to Ms. Fare's criticisms, Mr. Guter said the provost authorized him to forgo the planned enrollment reduction in 2005-06 in order to meet budget and that the "unused" surplus is intended for a writing center. He said the unused financial aid was due to accounting practices before his arrival.
"It was broken, and I fixed it," he said. "Maybe it took me longer than they think it should have."
He said scholarship levels rose during his tenure, and that the ABA site report reflecting his tenure was more positive than earlier ones.
Former Pitt law dean David Herring said dollar allocation to law schools often is "largely university-determined," so Mr. Guter might have had limited say. It's tough for a dean to greatly affect job placement outcomes for a class graduating within a year of his arrival, or to quickly change stubbornly held opinions in the peer assessment category, Mr. Herring said.
Still, though he does not consider U.S. News rankings valid, Mr. Herring said they clearly can affect a leader's tenure. "They matter," he said.
Last week, interim law dean Ken Gormley formed an influential panel from the legal community to advise him, and in a letter to graduates he asked alumni "to continue to stand behind your law school during this difficult time."
First Published December 22, 2008 12:00 am