With news this week that the new UCI Law school placed at 30 in its initial US News law ranking, I thought I would offer some thoughts. But first two caveats: (1) I’m a member of the faculty of the law school, and so I obviously have my biases; and (2) I speak only for myself, not for the rest of the faculty or the law school’s administration. Still, people have been asking me what I think, so I offer these thoughts.
1. Overall, I am very pleased with the initial ranking of 30, and I have confidence (though no guarantee) that the ranking will rise higher in the next few years (more on that below). The timing for starting a new law school could not have been worse when UCI Law opened its doors. The law school market saw a precipitous decline in enrollments, and even extremely well respected schools (those outside the top 5 schools but within the top 25 schools) have struggled to maintain the same quality of students and enrollment numbers. We have witnessed some excellent schools resort to new tactics, such as offering extremely generous scholarship packages to draw students they might not have even taken in the past, as well as many top law schools hiring their own graduates as a way to keep their employment numbers up for U.S. News purposes, a practice that U.S. News has started taking into account and that the ABA may crack down on. Also, being a new and unranked school, every student that came to us took a chance on how we would ultimately be ranked and perceived. I think that’s actually led to a great student body full of risk takers and entrepreneurs, but it took tremendous efforts on the part of Admissions people for us to attract excellent students. Lowering the number of admits last year was no “Hail Mary pass” as Paul Caron uncharitably put it, but a rational strategy in this environment and for a school being ranked for the first time. Now that we are ranked, I expect it will be much easier for us to compete for students and slowly grow the class to its eventual (relatively small) size.
2. The dean of UCI Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, set expectations very high—aiming to create a top twenty school from the outset (an ambitious goal even if we did not face this unparalleled challenging legal education market). Setting expectations so high was necessary not only to attract top students but also to attract top faculty. But by setting expectations so high, there were bound to be articles this week that the school “missed its goal.” But the thing is, in my view Erwin and the administration did succeed in creating a top twenty law school from the outset, even if that is not yet reflected in the U.S. News ranking. If you look at the quality of the UCI Law faculty recruited, it is extraordinarily productive and well respected. The most recent survey of faculty reputation using Brian Leiter’s methodology ranked us 7th in the nation. We have leaders across fields. Our innovative clinical programs ranked us 11th in the initial U.S. News survey (and 23rd in intellectual property). The students are not only risk-takers and innovators; we have the 10th most diverse student body in law schools across the nation according to the U.S. News survey.
3. So if, in my view, we already are a top 20 school, why is that no reflected fully in the rankings? I think some was driven by early employment numbers, which have considerably picked up as both employers got to know us better and as the job market generally improved. Some is just growing pains and the costs of ramping up a new school. But a big part is the reputation numbers. We ranked 3.6 on a 5 point scale for reputation among lawyers and judges, which is quite a good number (relative to other schools), especially for a school right out of the box. Our faculty and programs are well known to judges and lawyers across the country. But on the faculty reputation score, we scored only a 3.0. This is quite odd, and I think it hurt us a lot. (To see why it is odd, look at this chart and see where we fall relative to other schools solely on the faculty reputation ranking and compare it to studies of faculty quality.) As I understand it (I have not verified this myself), there’s no other school in the top 100 schools with as large a gap (0.6) between the two reputation scores. What explains it? I see three possible explanations. One is that this is a fair assessment of our relative faculty quality. I don’t buy that, especially given our much strong reputation as judged under both the Leiter-type surveys as well as other objective indicia of faculty quality (such as how articles and books written by our faculty are placed and received in the academy). A second explanation is that we simply are not yet known enough among enough other faculty members as to our quality. If this is correct, the numbers should improve in time. A third possibility is some kind of strategic voting. (Here‘s a new call for strategic voting of U.S. News rankings in another context—schools that cook employment numbers.) There are some people who didn’t want the law school to succeed, perhaps out of fear of competition, and perhaps out of dislike of the audaciousness of a plan to create a top twenty school from the outset. What are you going to do? Haters gonna hate. But that too should dissipate over time and the numbers go more to the normal range. So I disagree with David Bernstein about how high we can climb.
4. Ultimately, rankings only matter to the extent they allow us to attract excellent students and excellent faculty, to place out students in great jobs where they can make a difference, achieve personal success, and improve the world. On that score, UCI law is already a huge success. UCI Law is a rare school that is committed both to first rate legal scholarship AND first rate teaching in the classroom. It is a school with an emphasis on public interest, social justice, and diversity. It is a school focused on interdisciplinary work at the highest levels at a world class university which has invested tremendous resources to insure that the law school will succeed. It is an environment full of very nice faculty, students and staff. It manages to capture what is best about a top academic institution without hiring jerks. That is surprisingly rare in academia. The future is bright.