I always just assumed that law school faculties hate law school rankings for the same reasons the rest of us do. It turns out, however, that they really hate them because rankings are the only form of discipline they’re ever subjected to.
Foucault is a staple of college feminism classes, but he also, apparently, drew up a fairly well known sociological model of discipline and punishment.
Sauder and Espeland argue that “Foucault’s insights about disciplinary power offer a compelling account of how cognitive, normative, and affective processes mediate members’ responses to environmental pressures, including multiple or coercive pressures from powerful outside organizations.”
Got it? Me neither, but it gets a little easier when you ignore Foucault. Sauder and Espeland essentially argue that rankings “discipline” law schools by acting as an external surveillance and normalization mechanism.
On the surveillance side, rankings offer a continuous and public accounting of administrative changes at law schools and force administrators to keep close tabs on various admissions and employment statistics. On the normalization side, rankings create a single norm for excellence in legal education, forcing schools to homogenize or be “punished” with lower rankings.
While many institutions are able to buffer themselves from external pressures, Sauder and Espeland argue that law schools aren’t able to. Instead, law schools internalize rankings pressures in a few ways.
First, they closely monitor and micro-manage statistics, spending large amounts of money to keep up with peer schools. They also try to resist rankings pressures by refusing to provide statistics or signing those infamous letters condemning the rankings. However, according to Foucault, resistance only “prolongs entanglements by evoking new forms of engagement.” Finally, and probably most importantly, law schools internalize rankings pressures by gaming statistics.
So, basically, the annual U.S. News rankings constitute a powerful disciplinary regime that scares law school faculties, forcing them to waste money, manipulate statistics, and push their schools towards an undesirable, homogenous norm. And resistance is futile. That sounds about right.