Monday, April 9, 2018
Pepperdine’s law school recently made an error when submitting enrollment data to U.S. News.com. Pepperdine contacted U.S. News promptly after uncovering the error and submitted corrected data in time for U.S. News to use the corrected data in its ranking. Although the erroneous data was more positive than the corrected data, no reasons have been given to believe that Pepperdine intentionally sought to deceive U.S. News.
I know and respect Paul Caron, the current Dean of Pepperdine. While we don’t always agree on technical or political issues, the notion that he would intentionally commit fraud—and then immediately correct his error—is outlandish. (In the interest of disclosure, Leiter Reports joined a network of legal education blogs that Paul organized, but Leiter Reports and Caron’s blog, TaxProf, often compete and advance different perspectives. I have vocally criticized some of the research covered on TaxProf blog.).
Nevertheless, U.S. News punished Pepperdine by making it an “unranked” law school this year. Those who are not familiar with the reasons for this move in the rankings might mistakenly believe that Pepperdine fell outside the top 100. According to analyses by Bill Henderson and Andy Morriss, if not for the penalty imposed by U.S. News, in all likelihood Pepperdine’s rank this year would have risen from 72 to between 64 and 62.
Unranked status could have an adverse impact on Pepperdine’s enrollments and finances. It is punitive, unnecessary, and perhaps even counter-productive in that it might discourage honest self-reporting of mistakes. A more reasonable and compassionate approach would be to let Pepperdine off with a warning, and report the incident without changing the rankings, for example by including a footnote in the ranking explaining the misreporting. U.S. News is a private business, but because of its virtual monopoly on rankings, enjoys quasi-regulatory authority.
Some of Pepperdine’s competitors might rejoice at Pepperdine’s misfortune, believing that admissions and enrollment are a zero-sum game. They are making a mistake.
The lesson of the last decade is that law schools rise and fall together far more than they benefit from each other’s hardship. What U.S. News does to Pepperdine this year, it could one day do to any law school that makes a mistake, even if it honestly and reasonably attempts to correct it.
Healthy competition between law schools can promote innovation and efficiency, and be good for students and research productivity. But we should be careful that competition does not erode our ability to act cooperatively in pursuit of shared beliefs and shared values of fairness and due process.